April 1, 2009
Our Phones, Ourselves
I recently had one of those moments where a few disparate thoughts click into place, and I was left with an insight that seems obvious in retrospect. (Trouble is, you never know when those moments actually are obvious, and have occurred to everybody except you ages ago. Forgive me if this is one of those.)
It starts with the mobile “phone,” or whatever you want to call it. First, as has been widely remarked, half the world has one. Adoption rates exceed 100 percent in countries from Romania to New Zealand. Here in the US, it’s not hard to imagine a near future where smartphones with touchscreens are as ubiquitous as the Nokia bricks of yesteryear.
Here’s what strikes me about mobile phones: they correlate pretty well with actual people. To a degree unmatched by a computer and certainly by a landline, a cell phone is a personal device. Every member of a family is likely to have one. Not all that many people carry more than one. Between phone number portability and Google Voice, you can almost imagine a person’s phone number becoming an identifier almost as reliable as a Social Security number, certainly more stable than, say, a driver’s license ID.
This got me thinking about biometrics. The notion of your mobile phone touchscreen reading your fingerprint isn’t exactly new, and these devices are almost made for voice recognition, right? The point is, verifying identity with a mobile device seems like it should be easier and more accurate than it has typically been throughout the digital transition, yes?
We’re already paying for things with our cell phones. You can see the vast upsides to voting via cell phone. I’m already jonesing for my cell phone to interface with all my other electronic devices: “Desktop and air conditioner, Matt’s on his way home. Work it.”
The upshot of all this is that we’re hurtling towards a moment when your mobile telecommunications device is entangled with your identity in all sorts of curious ways. What does this mean? What does it mean to be that closely enmeshed with a computer?
And how does that enmeshment implicate our relationships with the telecom industry? It’s already squicky enough that I rely on T-Mobile for phone service. I am not at this moment OK with signing on to T-Mobile’s Identity™ service.
Perhaps this epiphany occurred much earlier to those of you with iPhones, but it felt novel enough to me to remark upon it. At any rate, “mobile phone” is not cutting it any more. If this thing really is becoming the prime representative of our digital identity, it needs a more accurate rebranding. Nominations?