Where Are the Smartphones?

In response to:

Pause! We Can Go Back! from the February 9, 2017 issue

To the Editors:

Bill McKibben in his review of David Sax’s The Revenge of Analog [NYR, February 9] rightly points out some of the emotional and intellectual limitations of the digital world many of us live in. But there is another set of limitations to this world—practical ones—that affect even more people. While we see smartphones everywhere, in most of the world this is not the case. There are three billion basic phone users on the planet versus about two billion smartphone users.

The two groups represent effectively two tribes, even different species—Homo smartfonicus and Homo SIMmobilis, I call them, after working on mobile consulting and research projects in fifty countries. The SIM species uses multiple SIMs, switching them in and out to benefit from the latest promotions of a particular operator or to call a friend using lower on-network rates….

The smart species guzzles data and video on the go as well as in their homes and offices. They don’t have to worry about not having enough electricity to recharge their phones every twenty-four hours or that they don’t speak one of the Internet’s main languages. (More than 50 percent of websites are in English, which more than 80 percent of the planet doesn’t read even as a third or fourth language.)

So income, access to chargers, and dominant alphabets—and digital literacy—are taken for granted by the smartfonicus crowd while their SIMmobilis cousins stay essentially analog, transliteration-texting their oral languages, beeping friends to call them back (when they’re out of minutes), and giving up beer and cigarettes (also analog goodies) to make a call or two each day.

My view on all this was transformed while interviewing the CEO of a mobile company in Tanzania years ago. He told me that the CEO of the largest local beer company accused him of being his biggest competitor. Also I noticed that despite statistics showing that everyone everywhere had a mobile, I rarely saw one in use in the low-income areas of Africa and Asia I was visiting. Originally, I thought the world would move to digital and to smartphones but I’m beginning to wonder if the two species, smartfonicus and SIMmobilis, will converge after all.

I wouldn’t call it the Revenge of Analog. Maybe just the limits of digital. Tim Cook of Apple says India is the China of ten years ago, and China has certainly gone digital, as has India’s middle class. But what about India’s, Bangladesh’s, Indonesia’s, Pakistan’s, and Africa’s huge rural populations, which don’t speak English (or any of the other top ten Internet languages), with many still without regular electricity and most with scarce disposable income shared across large households? Digital? Or tied to their SIMs with time to look at their neighbors’ faces?

Kas Kalba
President
Kalba International, Inc.
New Haven, Connecticut

Bill McKibben replies:

Thanks to Mr. Kalba for an interesting set of observations, though they have little to do with the subject of David Sax’s book. And in any event, it seems unlikely that the patterns he describes will hold for very much longer. Indeed, the latest data show that smartphone use in Africa has doubled over the last two years, driven in part by very cheap smartphones. In 2015, the last year for which I could find numbers, data traffic grew 50 percent in a single twelve-month stretch. Readers may be interested to know that one part of the equation is the similarly rapid growth in homes powered by (ever-cheaper) solar panels. Those panels allow one to power up more robust appliances, like smartphones; in turn, the widespread availability of phone services enables people to make payments on the new panels, which are often equipped with a chip that renders them inoperable until the bill is settled.