What is the Best Analogy for a Smartphone?

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Fundamental to the privacy dispute about cell phones—including the current dispute between Apple and the FBI—is what analogy best describes smartphones. The search for a good analogy is almost always at the heart of questions about technology and privacy and the law. We try to figure out new things with reference to old things.

This is inherently problematic, of course. Analogies are almost always imperfect where technology is concerned. Email has some things in common with letters, but it also has some things in common with file sharing. But when there is a legal issue in question, the choice of analogy can be dispositive.

For example, the government wants us to think of a phone like a container it can look into, like a house or backpack or file cabinet. Some people share that view, and the fact that most of the contents of our phones are called files might weigh in their favor.

However, others think of their phones more like extensions of their brains. Phones may contain files, but those files contain information about our thoughts and communications and intentions. We store things on our phones that we wouldn't have let out of our heads 20 years ago. Viewed this way, the government is basically demanding to read our minds.

So is a phone more like a container or your mind? Does it contain documents or thoughts and memories? Neither analogy is perfect, obviously, but whichever analogy resonates with you probably determines whether you side with Apple or the FBI.

So what do you think is the best analogy for a smartphone? I'm interested in your thoughts.

Featured image: “Lateral left of human brain” from Shutterstock.

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  • “information about our thoughts and communications and intentions.”

    How might you distinguish a smartphone from a traditional diary?

    • Good question. Part of the problem is that your phone can even *be* a diary—and a lot of other things.

      Consider this, though. When our phones are just chips in our heads, will that make a difference? It doesn’t seem that far off, and I think what we decide about phones will probably apply to augmentations, as well.