The Washington Post

Smartphones are empowering our vices like never before

In the 21st century, vices are no longer seedy and illicit. They’re on your smartphone and available 24-7. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

Take just about any 20th-century vice and you can see how it’s been transformed by the new mobile era to make it easier than ever to access, and therefore, easier to abuse. In short, our smartphones are enabling behaviors that would have been thought impossible just a few years ago. And that applies equally well to the average smartphone user as it does to a tech rebel living large such as Kim Dotcom or John McAfee.

Consider the most popular vice that everybody knows about but everyone wants to ignore, and that’s pornography. The sheer amount of porn available out there is incredible to fathom. By some accounts, porn sites now receive more visitors than Netflix, Amazon and Twitter combined. Half of all adult smartphones now contain some kind of pornographic content and 1 in 7 adults has used their smartphone to film sexual content. And of even more concern, pornography viewing by teenagers under the age of 17 is becoming routine – and it only gets worse once the kids head off to college. (How else to explain the whole sordid affair of the Duke University adult film star?)

It’s not just that we’re consuming more porn than ever before, it’s also that we’re using our smartphones to invent completely new ways of indulging this vice. We’re inventing hook-up apps that use built-in GPS functionality to help us find interested parties located in our same geographic area. We now send racy or inappropriate selfies to complete strangers. And, most importantly, we’ve spawned an entirely new genre – sexting – to describe the casual conveyance of pornographic images between smartphone users. (Then to keep others from potentially sharing these images, we invented SnapChat.)

A close second to porn in any list of all-time 20th-century vices, of course, is gambling. Now that we can gamble on our smartphones in a growing number of states, online gambling could turn out to be one of the big scourges of the 21st century. Morgan Stanley predicts Internet gambling will be an $8 billion business by 2020. In New Jersey, one of the states that recently legalized online casino gambling, there are already accounts of sharp spikes in calls to Gamblers Anonymous and stories of people gambling on their phones for days at a time. With new geolocation technology that knows exactly where you are at any moment, it’s now possible for mobile innovators to erect “geo-fences” around state borders, enabling those states to capture the revenue from people playing casino games on their smartphones all day.

Inevitably, some vices that made it to the desktop are now headed to the smartphone sometime soon. How long is it before the next Dread Pirate Roberts creates a Silk Road marketplace, this time specifically for your smartphone? Before the feds shut Silk Road down in 2013, the amount of commerce the notorious online marketplace had managed to transact was staggering – $1.2 billion in sales and over 1.2 million transactions. That includes payments for illegal drugs as well as some pay-for-services it facilitated, like assassinations-for-hire and credit card hacking schemes. 

It’s not that smartphones themselves are either inherently good or evil. No one – except maybe someone like the Unabomber – would even dare to suggest something like that. We don’t need phone-free zones the way we now have smoke-free zones. But we need to be more aware than ever before of how smartphones are acting as enablers for vice, especially for the younger generation. In the 21st century, vice is smart, mobile and right at your fingertips.

Using our smartphones, we take the Internet with us everywhere we go, so it is easier to succumb to vices than ever before. The Internet delivers these vices to us in the interstitial moments throughout the day. It used to be that you needed to head to a place such as Las Vegas or Atlantic City to blow your rent money on a gambling binge. Now you can get in a few hands of Texas Hold ‘Em on the commute back home every night.  

All of this means that smartphone technology is changing the way we think about ethics and morality, whether we like it or not. And that’s especially true now that we consider smartphones to be an extension of our bodies. In many ways, we’re moving away from the centuries-old philosophic ideal – which sees technology as “value-neutral” — and towards something very different, in which our smartphones are imbued with meaning and values because they are now part of us. It’s time for the innovators of today to decide now what type of society we want to have at our fingertips tomorrow.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.

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