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SALMAGUNDI: A modern touch to an aging home

Scott T. Holland is a former associate editor of The Times who continues to contribute his column plus help with editing and writing. He can be reached at scotth@mywebtimes.com, facebook.com/salmagundi or twitter.com/sth749.
Scott T. Holland is a former associate editor of The Times who continues to contribute his column plus help with editing and writing. He can be reached at scotth@mywebtimes.com, facebook.com/salmagundi or twitter.com/sth749.

We live in a house built in 1925 with a garage that isn’t much younger. On Friday we had an automatic opener installed on one of the garage doors, a LiftMaster unit equipped with WiFi.

It’s eminently practical and utterly ridiculous. Sure, when we’re halfway to grandma’s house and can’t remember if we shut the door, it’ll be handy to check the app on someone’s phone and close the darn thing if needed. But we could use the very same phone to call our next door neighbors and ask them to look out the window and check … except we don’t know their phone numbers. Just because we can see into each other’s kitchens doesn’t mean we’re close like that.

Fortunately we’re Facebook friends with the back yard neighbors, so we could use the phone to send them a message. (Don’t have their numbers either, although we’ve got an email address.) But no, we now have a permanent connection to the status of one of our garage doors, and just like that life got a little bit simpler, right?

We didn’t request the WiFi function. When we bought a new refrigerator and oven in February, we explicitly asked to be shown appliances that didn’t know when we ran out of milk or couldn’t begin roasting a turkey with a few taps of a phone screen. But the presence of this new gizmo got me thinking about how much life has changed even in the past five years as smartphone technology accelerated and the devices became nearly ubiquitous.

I’m a little behind the curve, having gotten my first iPhone not quite four years ago. According to a chart on statista.com, 20.2 percent of Americans had smartphones in 2010, and just five years later it was nearly 60 percent. The chart states 68.9 percent of us have one in 2017 and we’re on target to break 80 percent in five years. But smartphones already account for 81 percent of all mobile phones sold in America, according to ComScore.com. It’s quite an explosion from 2007, the year the iPhone launched, when only 6 percent of Americans owned any smartphone.

The GSM Association, an international mobile network operator trade group, recently reported mobile technologies and services generated 3.9 percent of gross domestic product in North America, a figure that works out to $790 billion of economic value. By the end of 2019 we’re supposed to clear $1 trillion, nearly 5 percent of GDP.

GSMA also said “the mobile ecosystem supported 2.5 million jobs in 2016,” and generated $110 billion in sales, corporate and employment taxes. Again, that’s just in North America, and it’s all happening at a breakneck speed considering how recently we all went about our daily lives without the internet in our pockets.

I kicked this around with some Twitter friends (on my phone, of course) who brought up extra impact like the ability to tap into detailed product information and consumer reviews, shaping buying decisions in retail outlets or helping us choose where to grab lunch. Targeted advertising is everywhere, with many businesses trying to be predictive, such as emails guessing we’re low on toilet paper. Tag a location in a Facebook post and before long you’ll get new restaurant suggestions.

Businesses like Uber can only exist because of smartphone technology — and that’s a company worth between $25 billion and $70 billion, depending on the analyst.

This kind of rapid saturation isn’t unprecedented. In 1950 only 9 percent of American homes had a television. In 1954 it was 55.7 percent, and by 1962 it was an even 90. The New York Times said 2011 was the first time the number of American homes with a TV dropped in two decades, which correlates with the expansion of high-speed internet service enabling people to replace TVs with laptops, tablets and smartphones.

Screens remain the focal point of daily life, but smartphones take everything to the extreme by delivering a tailored, individual experience and being the means by which we can buy and sell from anywhere with a decent signal.

Life itself hasn’t changed. We eat, we sleep, we all end up dead. But the way most of us interact with each other and the world around has changed rapidly, and now our economy is built on something we barely understood not a decade earlier.

That’s probably one of the reasons I like living in a 92-year-old house. These walls have seen plenty of change already, and there’s no telling what the future holds.

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