Many scholars are examining the effects of the Internet on individuals, but I would like to take a moment to talk about how the increasingly ubiquitous smartphone offers unique affordances to its user. When psychologists speak about an individual’s belief in his ability to succeed, they refer to self-efficacy. Experience (doing it), modelling (seeing someone else do it), and social persuasion (responding to external comments) all impact self-efficacy. Positive outcomes yield improved self-efficacy and negative outcomes result in reduced self-efficacy. By affording their users inexhaustible opportunities to make low cost, low risk, but gratifying choices, smartphones enable their users to develop the confidence to overcome societal barriers to individual choice. Smartphones’ steadily growing utility makes them increasingly ubiquitous. The result is the broad but subtle global growth of self-efficacy and, perhaps, individuality.

Smart phones are an important activist tool. Capturing photos, sound and video and uploading depictions of violence is an important mobilization tool. As a tool, it has democratized journalism by enabling individuals to report on events as they happen, such as the downing of MH17 and the violence in the Middle East. In the process, traditional models of journalism have been disrupted as established news organizations struggle to keep up with the change wrought by swarms of users navigating a universe of information.

Smart phones are also entertainment devices. From Angry Birds to iTunes to Netflix, playing, listening, and viewing has never been so accessible to so many people in so many places. At the same time, content producers and distributors are struggling to monetize user choices. Increasingly tough protection and licensing regimes exist to protect profitability in wealthy western markets while piracy flourishes in less affluent markets. In a country like Qatar where a laborer’s monthly salary might be two hundred dollars, a ten dollar iTunes movie is an exorbitant luxury.

In many parts of the world, phone calls and text messages still dominate usage. Constant telepresence makes it easier than ever to be nomadic. The home or office phone number is far less important than the mobile number. One need only look at the rise of distracted driving laws to see how “basic” communication continues to be a significant use. Mobile telephony has been disrupting traditional telephone company business models for years, and one now finds that telephone companies have decided upon the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” method. Telephone companies provide bundled services including mobile and fixed.

Smartphone users are upending social, economic, and political models which are based on less user connectedness. Most people, however don’t want a computer in their pocket. They want to communicate, learn, and play, alone and with others. To do that with a smartphone, they exercise choice.

Smartphone users select mobile applications to satisfy their interests and do so easily by touch. The cost of a bad choice is as little as a series of taps to uninstall. As smartphones become ubiquitous, seeing someone else use a smartphone to get directions or downloading a music recommendation will be unremarkable. Smartphones afford their users the opportunity to exercise individual choice and improve their related self-efficacy. This effect has significant implications for most societies.

In many places, individuals are limited in their ability to exercise choice. These people belong to a particular race, religion, gender, class, or tribe against which the larger society discriminates. For them, making choices on a day-to-day basis has significant cost and risk, which makes it difficult to improve their self-efficacy. By the same token, they are less likely to see others succeed or receive encouragement from their similarly disadvantaged peers, negatively impacting self-efficacy.

This is a completely new phenomenon. People have never before had the opportunity to own such intimately personal technology that is so user-customizable and has such utility. The growing ubiquity of smartphones makes it possible for smartphone users to exercise choice safely in societies where their exercise of choice is dangerous, while enhancing their ability to develop self-efficacy. For people facing the burden of discrimination, smartphones offer an opportunity to nurture self-confidence and hope. Governments may find their smartphone using citizens to be unusually restive. Smartphones’ cognitive impact on the global social fabric is likely to be at least as disruptive as their impact on the global economy.

The functionality of smartphones is facilitated by their internet connectivity. How people use smartphones is a function of their design. The power of the internet is not just about the internet; it is also about the devices people use to access it. Policymakers would be well-advised to remember this.

This post first appeared on the World Bank’s People, Spaces, Deliberation Blog

Author: John Laprise, PhD, studies the history of cyberwarfare and US policy beginning with its Cold War origins in the 1970s. 

Image: Men are silhouetted against a video screen as they pose with smartphones in this photo illustration taken in the central Bosnian town of Zenica, May 17, 2013. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic.