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The Miracle that Is the Smartphone

Blog Post | Science & Technology

The Miracle that Is the Smartphone

In 1984, a cellphone weighed two pounds, took 10 hours to charge, and cost $10,277 in 2018 US dollars.

People looking at smartphone

Some people are dumping their smartphones and returning to old-fashioned hand-held devices. Eddie Redmayne did so in 2016, stating, “It was a reaction against being glued permanently to my iPhone during waking hours. The deluge of emails was constant.”

“Flip phones… are back, with low prices, great battery life and some modern conveniences,” noted The Wall Street Journal back in April. Smartphones can be addictive and everyone has a right to switch to a cell phone or no phone at all. That said, let’s remind ourselves of the positive changes that smartphones have brought into our lives.

In the 1987 Oliver Stone movie Wall Street, Gordon Gekko, an immensely wealthy investor played by the actor Michael Douglas, walks on a beach, watching the sunrise, and talking on his Motorola DynaTac 8000X phone. “I wish you could see this,” he says to his young protégé Bud Fox back in New York, “Light’s coming up. I’ve never seen a painting that captures the beauty of the ocean at a moment like this.” When it was released in 1983, DynaTac was the world’s first handheld mobile phone. It weighed two pounds, took 10 hours to charge and offered 30 minutes of talk time. In 1984, the phone cost $3,995. That’s $10,277 in 2018 US dollars.

As late as 1990, mobile phones were so expensive that only 2 per cent of Americans could afford them. In 2017, there were 225 million smartphones in the United States alone. Globally, the number of smartphone users is forecast to grow from 2.1 billion in 2016 to around 2.5 billion in 2019. Over time, mobile phones became smaller and cheaper. They also became much more powerful and useful. Today, a Nigerian coal miner in South Africa can use a phone app to send money to his mother in Lagos. A Congolese fisherman can be warned about approaching inclement weather. A Maasai herdsman can find out the price of milk in Nairobi. All of humanity’s knowledge, which took millennia to accumulate, can be accessed easily and instantaneously — via a smartphone.

Consider also the impact of smartphones on politics. From the Arab Spring in 2010, to the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2014, cell phones, smartphones and a variety of social media apps enabled ordinary people to access censored content and share it. Cellular technology enables the citizenry in authoritarian countries to communicate in encrypted ways and to organise. As Redmayne found out, cell phones come with traps of their own, but, when used wisely, they can be a tool of liberation.

Finally, consider dematerialisation — the process of declining consumption of goods and energy per unit of gross domestic product. The smartphone combines functions that previously required a myriad of separate devices, including a telephone, camera, radio, television set, alarm clock, newspaper, photo album, voice recorder, maps, compass, etc. The emergence of the smartphone does not mean that all the other devices will disappear. But we are using them less and less.

The potential savings in terms of energy and materiel are immense. According to one study, smartphones can reduce material use by a factor of 300. They can reduce power use by a factor of 100 and standby energy use by a factor of 30. They can also reduce the embodied energy use, which denotes energy consumed by all of the processes associated with the production of a building, from the mining and processing of natural resources to manufacturing, transport and product delivery, by a factor of 20.

Dematerialisation, in other words, should be welcome news for those who worry about the perceived conflict between the growing world population on the one hand and availability of resources on the other. While opinions regarding availability of resources in the future differ, dematerialisation can help us go on enjoying material comforts and be good stewards of our planet at the same time. That is particularly important with regard to the people in poor countries, who ought to have a chance to experience material plenty in an age of rising environmental concerns.

All in all, smartphones have brought many benefits to humanity. Whether we use them judiciously or injudiciously is up to us. That, of course, is the case with all technologies.

This first appeared in CapX.

Blog Post | Cost of Technology

MacBooks Galore! Laptop Abundance since 1991

Since 1991, laptop abundance has increased by a factor of six up to a factor of infinity.

In 1991, Apple introduced the PowerBook 100 priced at $2,500. Blue-collar hourly compensation at the time was $14.93, so the time price was around 168 hours. Today you can pick up a 13.3-inch MacBook Air for $999. With blue-collar hourly compensation around $36.50 today, the time price is just over 27 hours. You can get six MacBook Airs today for the time price of one PowerBook 100 in 1991.

The PowerBook 100 weighed 5.1 pounds and featured a 640×480 monochrome LED screen, 2 megabytes of memory, and 20 megabytes of storage. The battery was good for three hours. The MacBook Air has 13.3 times more pixels (in millions of colors), 4,000 times more memory, and 12,800 times more storage than the PowerBook 100. It weighs 45 percent less, and the battery lasts six times longer. The MacBook Air has Wi-Fi, a 720-pixel camera, and stereo speakers and comes with 32 apps ranging from music programs to spreadsheets.

While it’s hard to make a direct comparison, a simple way to do an analysis is to ask MacBook Air users how many PowerBook 100s they would need to give up their one Air. Most users now think the PowerBook 100 has negative value due to the disposal costs. That would make the MacBook Air infinitely more valuable.

This article was published at Gale Winds on 11/7/2023.

Blog Post | Cost of Technology

Atari to Xbox

Get two Xbox Series X consoles for the time price of one Atari 2600.

The Atari 2600 was introduced in 1977 and was priced at $199. Unskilled wages at the time were $3.15 an hour, so the time price was around 63 hours. Today you can pick up an Xbox Series X for $499. With unskilled wages today being around $16.50 an hour, the time price is just over 30 hours. You can buy two Xbox Series X consoles today for the time price of one Atari 2600 in 1977.

Atari 2600 home video console system next to an Xbox series X

The Atari had a chip running at 1.19 megahertz (or 1,190,000 cycles per second) and had 128 bytes of random access memory. The maximum resolution was 160×192 with 128 colors.

Combat (video game) for the Atari system, and Gears 5 (video game) for the Xbox series x

The Xbox Series X graphics chip runs at 12 teraflops, or 12 trillion floating-point operations per second. It has 16 gigabits of memory and 1 terabyte of storage and can display billions of colors on an 8K display.

The Series X can display 1,080 times more pixels in millions of more colors 10 million times faster with 125 million times more memory. In the past 46 years, computer creativity has grown exponentially abundant—just as Gordon Moore and George Gilder predicted.

A version of this article was published at Gale Winds on 10/24/2023.

The Human Progress Podcast | Ep. 37

Stephen Barrows: The Economic Madness of Malthusianism

The economist Stephen Barrows joins Chelsea Follett to discuss the intellectual history of population economics, the benefits of population growth, and what we can expect from a future of falling fertility.

Blog Post | Cost of Technology

Portraits Were Just Expensive Selfies

This was originally published on Pessimists Archive.

In the process of exploring reactions to the advent and development of photography, we came across a fascinating article about ‘sun pictures, ’an early name for photography. One notable observation—something we don’t think about today—was that photography extended portraits to everyone. What was once only for kings, queens and titans of industry became available to everyone. This got us thinking, weren’t portraits just expensive selfies? And aren’t selfies just the portraits of modern times?

The full article can be read here and is well worth your time.