Mobile technology, the so-called "fifth wave of computing," is revolutionizing how we communicate.

Editor’s Note: This story kicks off an in-depth CNN series, “Our Mobile Society,” about how smartphones and tablets have changed the way we live.

Story highlights

Mobile phones have become human "appendages" or "phantom limbs"

They connect us to each other in ways previously unimaginable

Survey finds 68% of people sleep with their phones at bedside

Modern phones pack "more computing power than Apollo 11," essayist says

CNN  — 

Both men lit themselves on fire in protest. But only one of them is credited with starting a revolution.

The difference between the two? Mobile phones recorded Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian fruit vendor, as he set himself ablaze in despair over his economic plight. Those videos kicked off the wave of 2011 Arab Spring demonstrations.

Abdesslem Trimech, the other man, fell into relative obscurity.

The example, cited in the book “The Mobile Wave,” highlights just one of the many superpowers that mobile phones – and to a lesser extent, tablets – have bestowed upon humanity. In addition to enabling us to video events on a second’s notice, potentially altering the course of global politics, these high-tech human “appendages” increasingly have become tools for fighting corruption, buying stuff, bolstering memory, promoting politics, improving education and giving people around the world more access to health care.

They’ve shaken up our social lives, too. Forget letters and phone calls. Texts are the currency of modern conversation – and mobile Internet searches are the way to solve disputes of fact or trivia. Dating apps search suitors by location, and mobile maps ensure we app-enabled superhumans can’t get lost, as long as there’s a wireless signal.

Superman could fly. Phones, it seems, help us do everything but.

At a time when new smartphones seem to hit the market every couple of days and our faces increasingly are glued to digital screens, CNN is taking a special look at the myriad ways mobile technology is affecting our lives. The monthlong series is called “Our Mobile Society.”

“This is the first time in the entire history of humanity that we’ve connected in this way,” Amber Case, a “cyborg anthropologist,” said in a 2010 lecture at TEDWomen. “And it’s not that machines are taking over. It’s that they’re helping us to be more human. They’re helping us to connect to each other. The most successful technology gets out of the way and helps us live our lives.”

‘Like a phantom limb’

Phones are so cherished – or so depended upon – that 68% of us sleep with them at our bedside, according to a 5,000-person global survey conducted by Qualcomm and Time, which shares a parent company with CNN. Three-quarters of Americans surveyed said being “constantly connected by technology” is helpful.

Some take that idea to extremes.

Michael Saylor, author of “The Mobile Wave” and CEO of MicroStrategy, said he checks his phone for updates at least once a minute – “I must look at it 500 times a day, or 1,000 times a day,” he said. Almost nothing would make him put his phone down. “If I was with the queen of England and she was addressing me directly and it was a one-on-one conversation, then I would probably discipline myself to not look at my phone, so