College and Smartphones

Photo from Newegg.
Image from Newegg.

Last December I obtained a Samsung Galaxy S3, my first ever smartphone. Yes, I’m only about 6 years late to the smartphone party. Before this, I had been using a Motorola Razr flip phone for years and didn’t really think a smartphone was necessary. But after just three months, it is already difficult to imagine not having one.

Smartphones in College Life

According to various reports I found, somewhere between 50-70% of college students have a smartphone. But statistically, at a school like Cornell, whose students come from families that more affluent than average, it would be reasonable to assume the percentage should be much higher. In fact, almost everyone I know here has a smartphone.

According to one source, the percentage of all college students who had a smartphone in 2009 was about 27%. Another source claims that the score in 2008 was 10%. Yet at Cornell, the figure was already 33% by 2008. I think it would not be unreasonable to estimate that Cornell’s smartphone usage is about a year (and a bit more) ahead of the average trend, and I would bet that currently between 80% and 95% of students at Cornell have a smartphone.

The social implications of having a smartphone here are significant. To have the Internet at your fingertips is to have all the knowledge you need on demand about activities, people, or just random information in a conversation. It is also to check email, respond to messages, or to share videos. Since the social norm is to have one, and the students expect other students to have them, most things are done with a smartphone in mind. At Cornell, to not have a smartphone is to be technologically behind. The Red Queen analogy comes to mind: “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

The “Superhuman” Extension

I resisted getting a smartphone for a long time because I thought (1) having a laptop was sufficient, and (2) not having a smartphone brought more peace of mind. However, the utility gained from having one far outweighs the silence of not having one. I can check my email at any time, look up anything I want, and a few weeks ago in NYC for an interview, I used it as a GPS.

There is an interesting article by John D. Sutter from CNN Tech last September, which is titled, “How Smartphones make us Superhuman.” It obviously makes the case supporting them. An excerpt:

In addition to enabling us to video events on a second’s notice, potentially altering the course of global politics, these high-tech human “appendages” increasingly have become tools for fighting corruption, buying stuff, bolstering memory, promoting politics, improving education and giving people around the world more access to health care.

While I don’t use the smartphone for any political reasons as Sutter might admire, I find it invaluable as a college student to be able to access information from anywhere. In classes, I still use my laptop as it is faster to type things, given that it is set up. But on the go, and for other occasions, using a laptop is impossible. It may sound strange, but without the Internet, I would feel disconnected from the world.

In fact, last May, my laptop broke down and would not even get to the boot menu. While it was being repaired (for about a month), I had no immediate Internet connection for the first time in years, and it felt that something was deeply missing. I had to go to the school libraries multiple times a day, and I would be there at odd hours. (Though, I did manage to write a 23-page math paper saved between various emails and flash drives.) Not having a computer was certainly survivable, but at a huge inconvenience.

Similarly, for a smartphone it is obvious that anyone can survive without having one. However, the productivity, convenience, time-efficiency, and omniscience are clearly worth it for any student living in 2013.

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