My younger readers are laughing their heads off, while my older ones are nodding sagely, or perhaps ruefully. Smart phones are no longer cutting edge; they are the norm. But let’s be clear: a smart phone is not a phone. It is a mobile computer with a small screen that also serves as a phone.
Every generation seems to adopt one technology as its own, and eventually tries to avoid adopting any newer technology. In my lifetime, the VCR was the first notable technology that everyone quickly adopted, but some older people could never seem to master. The standing joke was the VCR with the flashing “12:00 AM” because the owner couldn’t figure out how to reset the clock. That was enough to baffle my father. It took the Internet, which I was using before it formally existed, to confound my mother.
Me, I was technologically savvy, but I took my time getting around to acquiring a mobile phone. The reason was simple: I was a grad student, pinching my pennies. But pay phones became scarcer and scarcer. Eventually, my lack of a mobile phone led to a fiasco when trying to meet up with family members along an Interstate. My mother, who was one of the victims of that mess, bought me a mobile phone not long after.
Your old-fashioned flip phone was a nice, simple device. It made phone calls and saved phone numbers. Oh, it also could take pictures and be used as a alarm clock, but those were minor features. And by the time I received one, they were cheap. Which was just as well, because I destroyed mine about every two years. Phone #1 slipped out of my shirt pocket into a snow bank, and wasn’t found for four months. It was ruined. I left phone #2 in my pants pocket when I put it in the washing machine. When I opened the washing machine, I was greeted by a loud buzzing noise. That phone was ruined. Phone #3 met a similar fate, although it still worked afterwards, except for the sound . . . which meant it was no longer useful as a phone. Phone #4, in contrast, died on its own, possibly due to a failure in the “on” button. They were all “stupid” phone, because stupid phones were cheap, although phone #4 qualified as “semi-smart,” as it could handle simple sites on the Web.
Well, phone #4 failed Friday. I went onto my carrier’s web site to find a replacement phone. Lo and behold, 9 out of 13 phones were Android phones, several of them no more expensive than the first stupid phone I had bought years ago. Now, I had avoided smart phones because they were expensive, but also because I didn’t want a lot of crucial information on a device I might easily lose. Intelligent, eh? Except for the fact that many of the phone numbers on #4 were only on that phone, and I’ve probably lost them. I was already storing critical information on my mobile phone; I just hadn’t thought of it that way. Once I accepted that, it made sense to get a smart phone.
My new phone arrived today. It comes from the same manufacturer as phone #4, and doesn’t look all that much bigger or different. Smart phones are no longer bricks. But it is a computer, even before it is a phone, and it did its best to force me to recognize this. It wanted my e-mail addresses, my Google accounts, my phone number (which it obviously has), and anything else it needs to make my phone an even more portable version of my laptop. Setting it up as a phone took 10 minutes once the carrier switched over the number. Setting it up as a computer has taken a few hours, since I’ve had to look up a bunch of rarely used passwords and have generated a whole slew of PINs for various apps.
In that time, I’ve already begun to appreciate how convenient a smart phone really can be. (Yes, I’ve gone over to the Dark Side. Not entirely, though.) I could run a fair amount of my life off that thing, between using it as a phone and a very portable Web access tool, let alone the other standard functions such as the camera. I’m sure the annoyances will come in their time, too.
But there’s one big difference between the way I’ll use my smart phone and the way many younger people do. I won’t actually live on it. I won’t be checking it constantly during dinner, or constantly playing games or listening to music on it when I’m idle. Part of that is generational: I grew up when such things weren’t possible, so I don’t think in such terms. But part of that is genuinely who I am. I like to focus on the people in front of me when I’m with them. I don’t have a job that’s so important that I have to stay in touch around the clock, nor friends that expect me to, either. And I like to use my spare time reading, thinking, or writing.
Who knows? With the smart phone handy, my habits may change. My first mobile phone was supposed to be “for emergencies only.” Fah! That didn’t last long. It’s just too convenient to be able to phone from almost any location, or get phone calls the same way. So maybe I’ll be the next person you see on the subway, earphones on, phone in lap or pocket, oblivious to my surroundings. Feel free to stare — I won’t notice you at all!