The singularity has been written about extensively in science fiction circles for at least the past decade, and for a lot longer in less well known, less public venues. The concept of the singularity is fairly simple. Here’s one of the definitions from Wikipedia:
A technological singularity is a hypothetical event occurring when technological progress becomes so rapid that it makes the future after the singularity qualitatively different and harder to predict.
Note that by this definition, the singularity can be caused by any kind of technology. The more common definitions of the singularity focus on a more specific definition — namely, that of superintelligent machines.
While I have certain issues with the whole concept of an AI singularity and its eventual likelihood, I’m not going to discuss them in this post. I’m going to use the more general definition of the singularity to discuss why I believe the rapid evolution of smartphones represents a true technological singularity. That is, a pace of change and progress so rapid that we can’t really tell how it will reshape the world or society. How it is already reshaping our world. To do that, I’m going to use the looser definition of a singularity rather than the more rigid one that is limited to artificial intelligence.
Mobile Phone Evolution
Before smartphones, we had “dumb” mobile phones. These first became available in 1983 with Motorola’s DynaTAC 8000X, but didn’t really hit any kind of mainstream penetration until the mid to late 1990s. The implications of mobile phones were a long time in arriving. Until the past few years, mobile phones were seen as accessory devices — they were in addition to your landline at home or your desk phone at work. People still primarily thought in terms of calling places. If you were at home, people called your landline even if you had your mobile phone with you. Mobile phones were to be used when you were away from your primary phone, which was a landline.
A few years ago, that thinking began to change. Kids who grew up with mobile phones questioned the need for landlines at all. They never wanted to call a place. They always wanted to call a person, and if that person had a mobile phone, that was the number they used. Landlines were seen as superfluous. When these youngsters began to graduate from college and go out on their own, they shocked many of their parents by eschewing landlines altogether. “If you want me, call my cell,” was practically the mantra of a generation.
So with more and more people carrying around these devices, manufacturers decided to add more and more functionality to (a) increase perceived value, so they could (b) charge more for the phones and ancillary services, and (c) maintain a regular upgrade cycle of product that would ensure continued cash flow.
And the smartphone was born.
The smartphone is about fifteen years old, beginning with the Nokia 9000 Communicator in 1996. The first “modern” smart phone is probably the BlackBerry 5810, released in 2002. I say “modern” because it was the first smartphone to really manage email on a mobile device.
The great untethering was beginning. Not only did you no longer need to be tied to a landline for your phone calls, you no longer had to be tied to your desktop (or laptop) computer to send and receive emails.
Untethered email was just the beginning. Mobile browsing arrived. It wasn’t very elegant at first, but today you can browse the web on a mobile device with as much ease as you can on a desktop. More and more websites have versions optimized for mobile browsing. Soon there will be a second Internet, a refracted mirror of the first, one designed for mobile devices.
You now have the Internet in your pocket.
Think about what that means. I’m carrying around instantaneous access to practically the totality of human knowledge. Websites, wikis, blogs, video. Mobile devices now have access to them all. That’s a heady, sobering thought. Near-field communications capabilities are being added to smartphones this year, which will allow them to be used as electronic wallets to process payments with a mere wave of your phone. More and more, smartphones aren’t being used as phones at all; texting, emailing, and other messaging capabilities (for instance, Facebook and Twitter) are superceding actual phone calls as the primary means of communicating between people.
Where does this go next?
Who can say? Smartphone adoption rates around the world are growing exponentially, but there’s still a massive amount of headroom before we reach anything approaching saturation. Imagine a decade or two from now, when feature-phones have largely disappeared and almost everyone is carrying a smartphone, connected instantaneously to each other around the world. What will that mean for governments? For banking? For telephony? How we get our entertainment? What will cable television look like twenty years for now? Will it still exist, or will everything be on demand, available anywhere, anytime, from the device you carry in your pocket?
That’s the exciting part. We’re in the midst of a singularity, and didn’t even know it.