Just as remarkable as the power of mobility, over everything from love to learning to global development, is how fast it all happened. It is hard to think of any tool, any instrument, any object in history with which so many developed so close a relationship so quickly as we have with our phones. Not the knife or match, the pen or page. Only money comes close—always at hand, don’t leave home without it. But most of us don’t take a wallet to bed with us, don’t reach for it and check it every few minutes, and however useful money is in pursuit of fame, romance, revolution, it is inert compared with a smart phone—which can replace your wallet now anyway.
Whatever people thought the first time they held a portable phone the size of a shoe in their hands, it was nothing like where we are now, accustomed to having all knowledge at our fingertips. A typical smart phone has more computing power than Apollo 11 when it landed a man on the moon. In many parts of the world, more people have access to a mobile device than to a toilet or running water; for millions, this is the first phone they’ve ever had. In the U.S., close to 9 in 10 adults carry a mobile, leaving its marks on body, mind, spirit. There’s a smart-phone gait: the slow sidewalk weave that comes from being lost in conversation rather than looking where you’re going. Thumbs are stronger, attention shorter, temptation everywhere: we can always be, mentally, digitally, someplace other than where we are.
So how do we feel about this? To better understand attitudes about mass mobility, Time, in cooperation with Qualcomm, launched the Time Mobility Poll, a survey of close to 5,000 people of all age groups and income levels in eight countries: the U.S., the U.K., China, India, South Korea, South Africa, Indonesia and Brazil. Even the best survey can be only a snapshot in time, but this is a crisp and textured one—revealing a lot about both where we are now and where the mobile wave is taking us next.
A tool our parents could not have imagined has become a lifeline we can’t do without. Not for a day—in most cases not even for an hour. In Time’s poll, 1 in 4 people check it every 30 minutes, 1 in 5 every 10 minutes. A third of respondents admitted that being without their mobile for even short periods leaves them feeling anxious. It is a form of sustenance, that constant feed of news and notes and nonsense, to the point that twice as many people would pick their phone over their lunch if forced to choose. Three-quarters of 25-to-29-year-olds sleep with their phones.
If Americans have developed surprisingly intimate relationships with their gadgets, they are still modest compared with people in other countries. The Time Mobility Poll found that 1 in 5 Americans has asked someone on a date by text, compared with three times as many Brazilians and four times as many Chinese. Fewer than 1 in 10 married U.S. respondents admitted to using texting to coordinate adultery, vs. one-third of Indians and a majority of Chinese. It may be shocking that nearly a quarter of all U.S. respondents—including a majority of 18-to-35-year-old men—have sent a sexually provocative picture to a partner or loved one. But that trails South Africans’ 45% and Indians’ 54%. Brazilians are especially exuberant, with 64% baring and sharing all.
In most respects, overseas mobile users value their devices the same way Americans do but with a few revealing exceptions. Americans are grateful for the connection and convenience their phones provide, helping them search for a lower price, navigate a strange city, expand a customer base or track their health and finances, their family and friends. But in some ways Americans are still ambivalent; more than 9 in 10 Brazilians and Indians agreed that being constantly connected is mostly a good thing. America’s 76% was actually the lowest score.
Carve up the U.S. population into the general public vs. high-income, highly educated elites and some contrasts come into focus. Elites are more likely to say that they work longer hours and have less time to think but also that mobile has made them more efficient and productive, able to manage more, be away from the office, stay informed about the news and be a better parent. Four in 10 Americans think mobility has helped them achieve a better work-life balance, vs. three-quarters or more of Indians, Indonesians, Chinese and South Africans.
Like any romance moving from infatuation to commitment, the connection between people and their mobile devices reflects what they brought into the relationship in the first place. In countries where connection and convenience were difficult, these mobiles offer a kind of time travel, delivering in the push of a button or touch of a screen the kind of progress other countries built over decades. Which makes you wonder: Just how much smaller and smarter and faster and better might our devices be a decade from now? And how much about our lives and work and relationships is left to be completely transformed as a result?