Stratton research talk examines smartphone control, environmental issues

Kara Williams • Oct. 23, 2018

Although the vast majority of Americans use a smartphone every day, not many users think critically about what a smartphone actually is, doctoral student Cole Stratton said during Friday’s research colloquium.

Doctoral student Cole Stratton (Ty Vinson | The Media School)

His talk, “The Smartphone Ecology: Or, How to Think about your Smartphone,” analyzed what smartphones actually are and how users interact with and view them.

In the United States, 77 percent of adults own a smartphone, according to the Pew Research Center. Stratton said that despite the prevalence of this technology, not many everyday smartphone users think critically about what their phone is and what it does.

“I would say I study the world through the smartphone,” Stratton said. “I’ve tried to see it as something bigger than the technology itself.”

He said one of the main words he associates with the smartphone is control.

When Apple released the first iPhone, advertisements marketed it as a device to help control and manage everyday life. While this idea of personal control is innocuous enough, Stratton said there is also a darker side to this on the commercial level.

Stratton expanded his theme of smartphone technology as a mechanism for control to companies. He said large corporations have realized they can use phones to both conduct market research and to advertise products to consumers all through the same device.

“I started to think about smartphones differently,” he said. “I started asking, ‘Is it for me or for someone else?’”

Another aspect of this technology that everyday users don’t typically think about is the environmental impact of smartphones, he said.

“Once we stop thinking about what the smartphone does and start thinking about what it is, we’re really led away from the everyday use and toward the ecological impact,” he said.

These environmental effects come both from the smartphones’ creation and from discarding the devices for newer models.

Stratton illustrated this concept with a timeline for an iPhone’s life cycle, starting with creation of the individual internal parts to eventual abandonment by the user. He said consumers typically don’t think about anything that happens before or after they buy the phone, which is just one moment along that life cycle.

“Smartphones hide their materialism extremely well,” he said. “The physical phone doesn’t lend itself to this discussion, but we need to look at this ecology as a whole.”

Smartphones’ effects on the environment change and potentially worsen with sociocultural trends as well, he said. For example, when users demand longer battery life or smaller devices, the environmental costs can increase.

Overall, Stratton said one of the main goals of his research is to make users more aware and to encourage them to think critically about this everyday technology. 

“It’s this grand process that we’re kind of changing the planet, and the smartphone is a big part of that.”