Why to get a smart phone — August 10, 2010

Why to get a smart phone

My friend Carl a while ago expressed some confusion about why he’d ever want to get a smart phone. It’s a reasonable question: carrying a computer on your person at all times is remarkably distracting. If you don’t send text messages, it may seem pointless.

This morning, as I edited the details on a calendar entry on my phone, it struck me that that’s the main thing I couldn’t do without. I enjoy when my phone rings to tell me that I have some event coming in an hour. I enjoy editing events on the phone and knowing that they’ll be synced up with the Google Mind, so that I’ll see the same information right away if I visit the Google Calendar website.

You might justify getting a smart phone by the sheer efficiency of the thing: if you’re carrying an iPod and a phone, why not combine them into one device (manufactured by Apple or otherwise)? Nowadays that efficiency argument seems weaker to me: if it helps me avoid spending endless time online, I’d prefer to have an iPod separate from a dumb phone. But then, iPod+camera+telephone+texting device? I wouldn’t want to carry four separate devices. And it’s really great to have a camera on me at all times. Taking photos and then uploading them immediately to some public service is something I don’t need; people can wait an hour or two to take a look at the food I just ate in a nice restaurant. So it’s not the instant nature of the photos that makes camera phones valuable; it’s being able to take photos at all.

The aggregate effects of omnipresent technology are interesting. For instance, some guy exposed himself on the T the other day, and Twitter helped catch him. That wouldn’t have been possible without omnipresent camera phones and (to a lesser degree) omnipresent social networking on mobile phones. We’re all carrying cameras nowadays; that has to have a marked effect on lots of things (think “police brutality”).

Texting is an interesting phenomenon: as has gotten a lot of notice recently, people are using their phones for voice calls a lot less nowadays, and replace those calls with quick texts. I certainly use my phone that way: for most anyone other than my girlfriend, I make initial arrangements for outings via email, then send little texts as the time approaches: “I’ll be 20 mins late”; “I’m there”; etc. These don’t take away from real in-person socializing at all; I certainly feel like my social life is better than it was 10 years ago when cell phones and texting weren’t so omnipresent.

When I hang out with my girlfriend’s 13-year-old son, I realize that this sort of *what does it all mean* conversation will be completely gone in 15 years, and that the 13-year-old would look at me as though I were the world’s dumbest man if I tried to have it with him now. Kids text much more than they speak on the phone. Period. We can try to shake our fists at the sea on this issue, but it would be incredibly pointless to do so. (Likewise, arguing against MP3s and in favor of physical media, or inveighing against casual file sharing between friends, has long since become the most wasteful use of your time. People share MP3s. Period. We may be unhappy about this because it denies artists some money, but it is a fact.)

One thing I definitely don’t miss from the dumb-phone era is that silly thing where you lose your phone and then email all your friends, “Hi, I lost my phone. Please send me your contact information.” That is totally played out. I sync all my contacts to Google now; if I lose my phone or get a new one or wipe and reinstall the OS, I take 30 seconds to create a new Google account on the phone, then start it syncing. Within a couple minutes I have all my contacts and all my calendar entries on the device. I enjoy that very much.

“Contacts” here also includes a lot of businesses; for some of those businesses I only have a physical address. It’s awfully handy, for someone with a sense of direction as bad as mine is, living in a non-Euclidean city like Boston, to be able to use a map, compass, GPS, and Google Maps to find my way from wherever I am to a favorite café.

The rest of what’s on my phone count as nice-to-haves. It’s nice to be able to write email from my phone, but I can certainly wait until I get in front of a full computer for that. It’s nice to have a web browser, so that I can settle some point of curiosity in the middle of a conversation; but as I think we’re all discovering, it would be a lot better for society in general if we put the phones away during any outing. So I’d actually contend that a mobile browser turns out to be a slightly net negative. Having Facebook and Twitter apps on the phone is probably a net negative: they’re little distracting games.

I’d say, then, that the main reasons to get a smart phone are

* never again needing to bother your friends with requests for contact information
* your calendar and contacts, available at all times and synced with an external service
* not needing to carry a separate camera, iPod, and phone

Everything else is nice to have, or actively harmful to your attention span.

I’ve certainly found that having a mobile computer has reduced my attention span. When I’m reading a book, I typically pull out my iPhone every few minutes: email, Facebook, Twitter, repeat. Sometimes I put my iPhone and laptop in another room while I’m reading. When I go on vacations, I leave all technology behind and bring a stack of books with me. (My lovely girlfriend, bless her heart, realizes that all I want to do on vacation is read books and spend time with her, and she’s more than willing to accommodate me on both.)

These reactions to my own distraction are possible because I remember when it was otherwise. I’m very curious how life will be for Stephanie’s sons, who didn’t exist before the Web and who became conscious entities during the era of the cell phone. They may not realize that a world with longer periods of focus is even possible or desirable.

Lest you think that I’m going to predict doom and gloom, I’m not going to. When I read John Ruskin, I saw an earlier generation of this descent-into-darkness brand of pessimism. Ruskin saw his beloved pastoral England destroyed by mass production and the dark satanic mills, and assumed that cities would always be destructive to the human soul. It’s possible that he was right: maybe, if you transplanted me back into late-18th-century England, I’d be brought to tears by the beauty of that lost world. Granted, though, that macro changes often bear no resemblance to the desires of any individual actor, I think people tend to adapt the world around them to what they want. The city I live in now serves my needs pretty well.

In 150 years or so, I suspect the techno-pessimists of today (like George Packer) will look a lot like Ruskin: correct in some points, maybe tragic in their correctness, but shortsighted and naïve and futile.