Q: If someone from the 1950s suddenly appeared today, what would be the most difficult thing to explain to them about life today?
A: I possess a device, in my pocket, that is capable of accessing the entirety of information known to man. I use it to look at pictures of cats and get in arguments with strangers.
This little joke has gone viral on social media. How do I know? Prolific and popular Facebook poster George Takei shared it. The former Star Trek actor has some 1.4 million fans on his Facebook page and regularly posts humorous musings that appeal to tech geeks.
The joke is funny because it's true: We've never had more knowledge power in the palms of our hands, in the form of smartphones and tablets, and yet we continue to use these mobile devices for pretty pictures, petty squabbles, snarky gossip, narcissism and quick entertainment.
But now it looks like another great American pastime is emerging: mobile shopping.
Last year, some $25 billion worth of purchases flowed through phones and tablets, a growth rate of more than 80 percent from the year prior, according to eMarketer. The research firm predicts this figure to jump to $87 billion by 2016, or a quarter of all e-commerce.
"People are more likely to use tablets while they are in a shopping mood, like lounging on the couch," writes Claire Cain Miller at the New York Times.
Or after checking Takei's latest Facebook posting. The iPhone and iPad have become the always-on engine for today's impulse buy.
It's odd that a "mobile" device is often most used on the couch or bed at home - not very mobile at all.
In fact, mobile devices are full of irony.
For instance, many people use smartphones and tablets to access news via apps such as AP Mobile, New York Times, NPR News and CNN Mobile. Mobile devices certainly have the potential to enable a more informed user.
However, mobile devices have also hurt the news industry's ability to make money and invest in the people and resources necessary for news making. Truth is, mobile advertising is a difficult sell. Pay walls have been met with consumer backlash.
News aside, most people don't use their iPhones and iPads to stay informed. Rather, these media devices have become a source of entertainment. It's amazing, although not surprising given their music roots of the iPod and, later, gaming.
Mobile devices don't necessarily make us smarter, just more distracted (and a little poorer).
Tom Kaneshige covers Apple and the Consumerization of IT for CIO.com.
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