5. A digital Swiss army knife: The price of convenience

We use our phones as digital multi-tools. But is your phone always the best tool for the job?

Because they’re small, convenient and always close at hand, we effectively treat our phones as the digital equivalent of a Swiss army knife.

We reach for them without thinking, using them to help us stay in touch with people, find out what’s going on, carry out a bit of life admin, kill time, take pictures, buy things, search for a new job, look for a new home – the list goes on.

But a Swiss army knife is only a really good tool to use in situations where it’s the only tool available. If you were stuck on a desert island, a multi-tool would be a great thing to have grabbed from your sinking ship. But in almost any other situation, where there is a choice, there is a better, specialist tool for any particular job.

Smartphones are no different. And, since we’re not stuck on a desert island, there usually are better tools available – digital or otherwise.

A Swiss army knife is only a really good tool to use in situations where it’s the only tool available.

When we unthinkingly use our smartphones instead of a specialist tool, there are opportunity costs. We can only do a given activity as well as our phones allow – and they have their limitations.

Although we treat our phones like a digital Swiss army knife, we don’t tend to think of them dispassionately as a multi-tool. In fact, we frequently don’t think of them as a tool at all.

Some of this is just habit – we use our smartphones in the same ways every day and we don’t really stop to think about it. We often also have an emotional relationship with our phones, thinking of them as an extension of ourselves, rather than just a tool or a means to an end.

But beyond habit or attachment, the likelihood of us thinking of our phones as a tool, or being aware of the opportunity costs of using them when there are better tools available, varies considerably. It depends how much thought we’ve given it, our digital literacy, our understanding of what’s possible, our emotional control, our frames of reference.

There have been numerous reports recently of Silicon Valley executives – the very people responsible for designing smartphone technology – restricting their own children’s screen time and access to devices because they believe they will do them more harm than good.

The price of convenience can be high – and it doesn’t fall equally.

These stories catch our eye because they make us uneasy. These super-tech-literate parents know what technology can do, and what it can’t and they’ve concluded that it’s more important that their kids develop offline than online skills. Indeed, the implication is that the offline skills are an absolute necessity to make the most of an online world. Is there a new gap opening up between haves and have-nots where disadvantage sits not with those who don’t have access to technology, but those whose access is uncontrolled, unconsidered?

There’s no question that some people are likely to be better equipped than others to spot that their (or their children’s) smartphone is not always the best tool for the job and to be alive to the consequences.

We face a fresh digital divide

And even when people are aware there might be better tools for a particular job, they won’t necessarily have equal access to them.

So the price of convenience can be high – and it doesn’t fall equally. While almost everyone who wants one now has a smartphone, the ways we think about them, the activities we use them for and the opportunity costs of doing so are not the same for everybody.

We face a fresh digital divide. Smartphone use by default is likely to maintain – or even heighten – existing inequalities. And the most disadvantaged, the most vulnerable, are likely to lose out the most.

The people who are least able to make informed choices, or even to recognise that there are choices to be made, are most likely to waste their efforts, to miss out on fulfilling their potential. And at a national level, this has implications for productivity.