As hype for yet another Apple keynote bubbled up to its usual frothy state, some on social media took umbrage at images showing Syrian refugees carrying or charging smartphones, pictures often posted by the refugees themselves. Within the same few days internet commenters were salivating over Apple’s newest devices and condemning the refugees’ smartphones. Commentators stepped in, calmly explaining the category error: that a basic smartphone is actually not that expensive; that the refugees are fleeing war, not necessarily economic privation; and that a phone for a family in migration can be vital, and not an indulgent trinket. That the correction had to be made at all, however, revealed a divide in how we think about technology. Who—and what—is a smartphone for? Is it a luxury or a necessity? What exactly is the point of technology?
The emergence of a networked world, of which the smartphone is a key part, has changed the definition of basic necessity; moreover, the consumerist focus on high-end tech obscures the fact that access to technology is as vital a thing as housing or employment. Refugees in particular prove its necessity: What else do you take but indispensables when you’re escaping war? Though there are undoubtedly many reasons to be wary of Silicon Valley utopian hype, tech is very beneficial to the underprivileged. Instantaneous messaging enables community and connection between diasporas, making fleeing a turbulent area of the world less an absolute choice of severing connection to one’s past and one’s family. The arrival of peer-to-peer financial applications allows the global repatriation of capital more easily than before. There is also the simple but perhaps more fundamental difference: The mobile phone has become the omnipresent personal computer. Information can be accessed anywhere, making movement more possible and more flexible for everyone. As more of life has moved online, access to the internet has become overwhelmingly important—so much so that a 2011 UN report suggested making internet access a universal right, a belief that has been put into practice by France and Finland, among other countries.
From simple information such as how to open a bank account to the persistence of social media communication (as exemplified during the Arab Spring), it’s online networks that locate the smartphone as a device of paramount importance. As with literacy—and anywhere else where significant portions of knowledge and socio-political life live—access to the medium itself, the internet, has become vital.
Given how the smartphone can be a kind of key to the networked world, the almost exclusive public (and media) focus on high-end tech is unfortunate and perhaps even damaging. It places an emphasis on how wealthier individuals use technology, which is often about how tech simplifies privileged pursuits or habits—such as in the recent Apple announcement, which used a family needing new outfits for a wedding as a demonstration of apps on the company's new set-top box.
That said, the tens of millions of cheap Android phones bought each year in the developing world are a direct result of the economies of scale, supply chains, and markets established by Apple and Samsung’s high-end products. As tech gets cheaper, it filters down through price brackets. A $150 Android phone today does what a $600 iPhone did 3 or 4 years ago.
All the same, the market realities that concentrate profit, R&D, marketing, and media attention on more expensive devices speaks to the circular relation of money, demographics, and the leading edge of development. For all their benefits, free markets have a tendency to concentrate the privileges of wealth, concerns that are hardly universal. It is not the existence of high-end tech itself that is the problem, but rather, that the use cases modeled for all tech tend to cater to the consumerist pursuits of the comfortable classes. A new iPhone with a better camera is great, but is definitely not necessary.
Does that mean we need some sort of counterbalance, non-market initiatives meant to focus on making technology both more accessible but also more responsive to the needs of the less privileged? Housing, for example, predominantly functions as a free market, but its downsides are somewhat offset by state and non-state interventions—from reserved affordable housing and zoning laws, to charity organizations like Habitat for Humanity, to beds at homeless shelters. I think tech needs similar structures: non-profit organizations whose aim is to foster access to technology, whether through software or hardware. It’s not that, in the cases of housing or tech, one wishes to dismiss or unfairly disrupt the market—or to suggest that access alone is enough—but instead to acknowledge that, unchecked, the market will continue to treat the least privileged and powerful as afterthoughts. And that’s unacceptable.
Like all major human activity, technology is ambivalent. It is entirely ordinary, simply the specific vector of change for our time, neither inherently good nor bad. But that also means we should regard it as a complex part of society, with all the difficult socio-political choices that entails. And like so many other times in history—whether the advent of the library, or access to housing, or the existence of welfare—when we acknowledge that technology is a necessity for modern life, we must also demand that the market not be the only determinant of who does and does not get access to it. There must be room for the voices of those for whom tech is not just another luxury, but a vital connection to the world in all its possibility.