November 14, 2013

RECTO: Behind These Smartphone Times

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When I pull out my phone, people sometimes stare and get teleported back to 2005. Not literally, of course. It’s a red slide phone that can make calls, send text messages and send instant messages via AIM — you know, that messaging app you spent hours and hours on in middle school. And it’s even got a physical keyboard! (Mmm, tactile feedback.)

Clearly, I’m a little behind these smartphone times. Occasionally a friend will show me some cool new app that lets him send messages to hot singles in the area or send silly pictures of his face to other friends. I quietly remind him that my phone has about as much RAM as a breadstick. “Oh, yeah,” they’ll say, as if they just remembered some unfortunate fact about my existence. No silly pictures for me, I guess.

I like to think I’m tech savvy. I can program; I work at a startup. Part of my job is to stay on top of cool new technologies so that I can take advantage of them when they apply to making websites, and so that I can contribute to daily office conversations about articles that come up on Hacker News. I’ve got my finger on the technological zeitgeist. But if I’m so hip and with it, you might ask, then why do I have a brick for a phone?

In truth, it is a burden sometimes. For example, my sense of direction is not as infallible as I like to pretend it to be, and carrying around a GPS unit would just not be as smooth as pulling out a smartphone from my coat pocket. And I do miss out on all those silly pictures.

Even then, I’m glad to be a little out of the loop once in a while. It’s refreshing. The speed at which technology progresses is astonishing when you consider the frontier, but it’s often just as astonishing — yet much, much more understated — when you consider daily life. It used to be that only executives needed to check their email multiple times an hour. Now everyone with a smartphone is notified immediately, at all times of the day, of the status of their inbox.

I see my brick of a phone as a sort of last refuge in a simpler time. When I slide it open to read a text message from a friend, I am not reminded of the hundreds of messages sitting unread in my inbox that I’ve yet to tend to, or notifications on some social network that I’ve yet to clear. I enjoy a passive disconnect from owning a phone that does not have push notifications. It’s much easier to forget the invisible social world when one is not constantly reminded of its existence. This sort of forgetting makes the visible social world much more immediate.

Maybe I’m a little nostalgic for the days when the default action for filling a momentarily empty block of time didn’t involve twiddling fingers up and down on a multi-touch screen. Or when people got together and didn’t have the constant refrain of checking Facebook or Twitter or Instagram. Or maybe I’m just a curmudgeon.

There are other tangential benefits to owning a non-smart (dumb? application-challenged?) phone, too. I tend to be clumsy, and dropping my phone is a relatively stress-free occurrence. Security isn’t really a problem either. If I got mugged and pulled out a slide phone, I would probably just frustrate the mugger.

Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one left on this campus who doesn’t have a smartphone, but I know that isn’t the case. You all are out there somewhere, not using Snapchat or whatever it is that these young’uns are using as their ephemeral messaging app of choice nowadays. I know it’s easy to fall into phone envy when your phone can’t take 1080p video of the band you’re seeing at a concert, but who needs 1080p video capture when you’re actually paying attention and seeing the band with your own two crystal clear eyes?