What strikes you most about movies and TV shows from just a few years back? For me: the phones. Until about five years ago, most people had flip phones (mine was a T-Mobile special, very age-inappropriate, but it worked) and used them only occasionally, just for just talking and texting. Now more than half of Americans (56 percent) own a smartphone and one-third (34 percent) own a tablet. We use them all the time, everywhere, for everything. (My iPhone was my companion through brain surgery and an appendectomy this year, ensuring that I never felt alone, even in isolation.)
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Smartphones and tablets are already taking over from PCs and even from my trusty trendspotter’s crystal ball (just kidding; I’ve never had one). Give them another 12 to 18 months and they won’t just be the nation’s favorite technology, they’ll also be the dominant media platform for the majority of people. TV screens, paper media, PCs and feature phones will still be around, but just like wearing a collar and tie and flying business class, they will be strictly old school. Mobile devices will be the eye of the needle through which all media content has to pass. If your content doesn’t work on a mobile device, it won’t fly.
That’s less limiting than it sounds. Consumers from coast to coast and beyond are embracing mobile devices with wide-eyed intensity. Those people immersed in their mobile device as they’re sitting over a coffee, strolling through the mall or driving their car (you know who you are) might be doing any of a hundred different things: getting a sports update, tweeting, looking for the nearest artisanal food emporium (move over, Trader Joe’s, you ain’t quite artisanal enough; in my town, it’s Mrs. Green’s who has invaded your curated organic space), following a video link or even catching episode 50-something of a must-see long-form TV drama in HD. In fact, people watch 6 billion hours of video a month on YouTube (up 50 percent from last year), and 40 percent of that is on mobile devices.
Now and next, one of the hottest issues in life will be how we manage the yin-yang tensions of our relationship with technology in general and mobile devices in particular.
We can proactively use their power to create our own media programming and take charge of our media consumption experience, yet at the same time we can easily become addicted to the experience, powerless to take a break. We can develop uncanny digitally powered ambient awareness of what’s happening out there among our online contacts, yet we might be so absorbed by our screen that we fail to notice people just a few feet away. We can access vast amounts of information and know about all the interesting stuff out there such as the latest apps, economic news and celebrity gossip, yet lose interest in knowing how to do interesting stuff with our hands and bodies.
The bubbling disquiet about our tech tensions was captured in one of the viral sensations of 2013: “I Forgot My Phone.” Filmmaker Charlene deGuzman’s slice-of-life portrayal of everyday mobile addiction gets two sorts of reactions: Some people shrug and click on, looking for something faster-paced or more eye-catching, but more often, people look a little uncomfortable. They recognize something from their own life. DeGuzman’s short shows people becoming detached from real life as they film themselves, like the guy on the beach proposing to his girlfriend. The film has helped crystallize awareness of how we are using mobile devices and triggers the sort of questions that are going to nag at us more and more in the coming years.
The long-term trend of self-promotion and overdisclosure has made selfies 2013’s hottest trend (and the word of the year)—but it’s going to get a lot hotter still. With smartphone in hand, a massive audience is no more than a click or two away. If you’re a top global brand like Pope Francis or President Obama, the mere act of taking a selfie is news in itself. Celebrities have to try a little harder to get theirs noticed, provocatively flashing tattoos, butts and nipples in an escalating spiral of “well check this out.” And illustrating the law of YNKW (you never know what), Rihanna’s seemingly innocent selfie with a protected primate in Thailand whipped up more media coverage than some of her albums.
So what lengths will non-celebrities go to in their selfies to grab attention? The world was riveted by a Syrian rebel soldier filmed on a smartphone as he apparently cut out the heart of an enemy and bit into it. Mexican cartel members have started using selfies to boast of their violent exploits. If that sounds like a worrying new trend, take heart—as best-selling Harvard professor Steven Pinker has shown, things were a lot more gruesome in the past. What’s new is that we’ve become less tolerant of cruelty and more tolerant of sexuality.
And what’s next is that in 2014 we will see the rise of the crowd against all the self-promoting selfies style.