One of my preoccupations this year was the changing role of electronics in our lives. It was supposed to be the year of the wearable, where electronics would move onto our wrists and other parts of our bodies, with the Apple Watch being the big story. Wearables were overhyped, as was the watch, and in fact the smartphone, and how it changes lives, became the real story of the year.

People are outraged to see refugees with smartphones. They shouldn't be.

It was by far, my most popular post of the year. I suspect that it's a good thing that MNN doesn't have comments because there probably would have been a lot of them. But as one refugee noted, "Our phones are more important for our journey than anything, even more important than food." I wrote:

The smartphone is their only computer; that's why phablets and giant phones started in Asia while iPhones had to play catch-up in screen size. It's their only means of communication, their only tie to family, their only source of news. (More: People are outraged to see refugees with smartphones. They shouldn't be.)

We use smartphones differently in North America, and have a different attitude toward them, but they have changed our lives as well.

Is the smartphone driving us apart?

sign in cafeYes, call your mom! (Photo: Anita Hart/flickr)

A lot of people, one being Professor Sherry Turkle of MIT, are concerned that smartphones are changing the way we relate to one another.She blames them for a decline in empathy, a trait which "seems to enable people to relate to others in a way that promotes cooperation and unity rather than conflict and isolation."

I think she is wrong, and that our smartphones and digital tech have brought people together in ways that could never have happened otherwise. "One could make the case that the phone has increased connectivity and understanding in other ways, broadened our horizons, and significantly decreased loneliness. I think the cup is half full, not empty." (More: Is the smartphone driving us apart?)

Should laptops and phones be banned in lecture halls?

students at rysersonMy students, looking at their Macs instead of me. Sigh. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

Really, everyone seems to be having trouble with technology these days. In the universities, many professors are banning laptops from the classroom. I teach at a university, and I take the position that if my students are distracted during the class, then I had better rethink my lectures. And furthermore, they are adults, not children. And finally, the technology is changing so fast, where do you stop? (More: Should laptops and phones be banned in lecture halls)

Universities are banning watches at exams

French examNow let's check all your watches and your phones and... (Photo: Keystone/Getty Images)

And indeed I was right, they are not stopping with laptops. Because it is hard to tell a smartwatch from a dumb one, some schools are banning all watches from exams. It is a losing battle; soon we will have smart clothing with computers built into their very fabric; will students now have to take exams naked? It's like the previous post — change the pedagogy because you can't outsmart kids with electronics. (More: Universities are banning watches at exams)

Is the sharing economy just about cool apps or is it 'the breakdown of societal order?'

drawing of uber app, airbnbThe sharing economy and a pot of gold (Photo: Susie Cagle)

One of the key ideas that developed because of the Internet and the smartphone is the so-called sharing economy. Except that it really isn't about sharing at all. In the summer, French taxi drivers took to the streets and I noted that "French drivers are questioning how Uber works. We all should." Then critic (and cartoonist) Susie Cagle came out much more strongly against it:

The sharing economy’s success is inextricably tied to the economic recession, making new American poverty palatable. It’s disaster capitalism. “Sharing” companies are not embarrassed by this  —  it appears to be a point of pride.

(More: Is the sharing economy just about cool apps or is it 'the breakdown of societal order?')

I also got to see how Uber operates close-up, in their battles with the city of Toronto. It was one thing to take on the taxi industry, but now they are taking on the transit system.

This is the ultimate brilliance and chutzpah of it all: Uber moves in where there's clearly a need and a desire, and where the laws are seen not as something protecting the public, but instead serving the entrenched interests. No wonder they're turning everything upside-down.

(More: Uber gets into the transit business with UberHop)

Is the sharing economy dead?

Electric drillExcuse me, may I borrow your drill? (Photo: Scott Vincent/flickr)

It's pretty clear that AirBnB and Uber are not sharing at all, but a different form rental business. But there were lots that tried to promote collaborative consumption, the real sharing economy:

There have been so many attempts at this. Matt (Hickman) has covered a few of them, from Peerby for tools to AirPnP for toilets to Parkatmyhouse for driveways. Most never got off the ground, have been challenged as illegal, folded quickly or died slowly, but the track record is terrible. Every one wanted to be the Uber of this or the AirBnB of that. So what really happened?

(More: Is the sharing economy dead?)

Apple Watch reconsidered: Old habits die hard

apple watchWith watchOS2, your watch is now a bedside clock. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

When I first got the Apple Watch, I was quite negative about it, and wrote The Apple Watch does a good job telling the time. (Unfortunately, that's about it.) That was premature; unlike every other Apple product I have owned, it took time to figure out what it could do. I didn't go out to buy one, but was using it to test out a fancy new pair of hearables, or hearing aids.

You can dismiss this as a fancy remote control on your wrist; I did. Then you can use it for three months, particularly when it's connected to something as personal as your hearables, and you find it has become part of your life. We are creatures of habit, and it takes time to lose the old ones and learn new ones. I did not give the watch enough time when I wrote my first review, and I was wrong to do it so soon.

(More: Apple Watch reconsidered: Old habits die hard)

New hearables sound better than headphones

Starkey hearing aides Starkey Hearables connect to my watch and phone. (Photo: Starkey)

These are the revolutionary hearables that connect to my phone and the Apple Watch. They are wonderful things: "The hearables are a direct pipeline to a wider world. They have changed my life. They might change yours." (More: New hearables sound better than headphones)

Is it safe to put on wearable tech in a smart home?

hat A cute hat that protects you from those EMF rays (Photo: Shield Ware)

Finally, something we are going to have to consider with all of this technology on our wrists and in our ears. Just before the Apple Watch came out, Nick Bilton worried about the EMF from the watch and his other electronics in a New York Times article that caused outrage across the Internet. I thought it was pretty silly too, and said so in my post, Is it safe to put on wearable tech in a smart home? However I do have some trepidation.

As I write about smart homes and wearable tech while surrounded by connected lightbulbs and Bluetooth hearables, I think this is an issue of serious consideration and concern, and should be monitored closely.

And in fact, my audiologist recently expressed reservations about me sticking little Bluetooth radios in my ears with my hearables. Perhaps if I am going to bathe in this ocean of electromagnetic radiation, I should order up one of these good-looking tinfoil hats.

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.

Why the year of wearables was really all about the smartphone
It was supposed to be the year of wearables, but in fact the smartphone proved to be the indispensable tool.