No Smartphone, No Party

There’s an Amazon Fresh store near my girlfriend’s house. The shopping experience is amazing. You scan your Amazon app to go in, grab what you want, and walk out. Billing happens automatically and, after some initial problems, now tracks what you took with stunning accuracy.

Yesterday, a traveler came to the store. He might have been homeless, and he had trouble talking to the staff. It took them a while, but eventually, they managed to explain to him: “You need the app to go in!” Since he didn’t have the app, nor a smartphone, it seemed, he left.

“What a crazy world we live in,” I thought, “where a store selling the basic necessities of life requires a $300 device to enter.” That’s how much a smartphone now costs on average. Many models cost a lot more. Of course, London is an affluent city in an affluent part of the world, but even here, not everyone has a smartphone.

Grocery shopping is only the latest in a long line of things that might one day be off limits to us if we refuse to play by the arguably expensive rules of tech.

If you don’t have a smartphone, you can’t use WhatsApp, which a quarter of the global population relies on to communicate every day. If you don’t have a smartphone, you can’t photograph, record, or otherwise document everyday experiences, nor share them on social media in real-time. If you don’t have a smartphone, you can’t plan or learn on the go. A 15-minute walk could turn into a one-hour detour. A question about a recipe will remain unanswered.

Clearly, smartphones have a lot of benefits. There are downsides too, and most of us are familiar with those as well. But what happens if smartphones lock us into those benefits without an alternative? For many people, their device is already an extension of their arm (and near-glued to it, too). Addiction is troubling but reversible. When you can no longer buy rice without a device, however, things get dicey.

For now, we’re a long way away from that reality — but the long way often seems longer than it is. No cash, no cards, no checkout. We readily accept convenience when it is offered to us, but if we live too close to comfort, whoever provides said comfort may one day force us to do something that’s not very convenient at all — like buying a $300 smartphone just to get some tomatoes.

Be careful what you wish for, and even more careful what you begin to rely on.