Keeping in touch with my smartphone
It has been about a month since we parted; for the past week I have been with the Punkt. MP01. I have introduced it to colleagues and students and their reactions have been disappointing. Yeah, there were little laughs and giggles, and there were a few students who weighed the MP01 in one hand while comparing it to the weight of their Samsung or iPhone. The reactions have been universally vapid.
Only a few of my students were able to bring themselves to admit they had a problem. One decided that “addicted” was too strong of a word, I proposed the word “distracted” and he felt that that was a much better description of the problem. Someone said that they were upset by their partner’s addictive tendencies and one student said that her boyfriend had accused her of being addicted.
This denial is always surprising. Remember: I spend hours a day teaching. My students, thinking they are masters of subterfuge, spend hours a day on their phones. They are unable to keep them in their pockets. Their phones are stronger than they are. Occasionally, I will see students using Facebook on their computer and their phone at the same time. They look down to check a notification (or in hope of seeing a notification) and they fall down a deep dark hole. They fit the descriptions of “addicted” and “distracted.”
I blogged1 a little about my first month without you. Upon receiving my Punkt. phone for this challenge I related that I felt as though this would be a different relationship altogether. I was right to think that.
This phone, this object, this medium of communication, has already had an emotional impact on my life. You see, I want to use this thing. I want to send people messages and call and converse, but I seem to have forgotten how to do this. It feels awkward now to take out my phone and text, “How are you?” to a friend. I even felt a momentary, terrible, wave of emotion when I thought to myself, “what if I have no friends?”
This is not true, of course, but it will be something to work on in the coming weeks.
I have been with the Punkt. MP01 for two weeks now. We are getting along very well. You did not answer my last letter. I hope there are no hard feelings?
Remember how I like to read science fiction? The Punkt. MP01 got me thinking this week.
I thought about how Huxley imagined a world where corporations ruled, each invention had to be more complicated and more expensive, and our happiness was controlled and monitored (Brave New World). Vernor Vinge envisioned cyberspace, imagined social networks and identity theft (True Names). Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, probably my favourite book to date, expands on the previously mentioned ideas (I cannot say anything more about this book without going off on a rant, so I will stop there). But the thing that resonated the most with me this past week was an exchange from Daniel Suarez’s Daemon:
...Khan held up his other hand to block the sun. ‘What’s it feel like? A hundred degrees out here?’
McCruder checked his watch. ‘A hundred and six.’
‘You have a thermometer on your watch?’
‘Yeah. So what?’
Khan looked through the van windows to Voelker on the other side. ‘Kurt. Rob has a thermometer on his watch.’
‘Well, at some point, the thing you add to the watch is more significant that the watch. I’d argue he’s wearing a thermometer with a clock on it.’
I’d argue that we are walking around with data-harvesting distraction-machines in our pockets. How did we go from being worried about our kids playing Game Boy to giving kids €1000 pocket-sized supercomputers with endless sources of distraction and content, in the name of safety and status quo? How did the App Store become the most important thing about a device meant for communicating? When did we start letting companies decide what makes us happy? And, how did we let the “infinite scroll” replace socialising as a pastime?
I know, Smartphone, that you cannot answer those questions.
I hope you do not mind, but I need to tell you about the Punkt. phone. It does what it is designed to do; it is a device that serves a single purpose. One of the problems I had with feature phones was that they offer features that were useless or did not work as advertised. None of the features of the MP01 are wasted. They all work and are useful.
At first, I was put off by the fact that I could not set several alarms. Then I discovered how easy it is to set an alarm without going through the menus. It is also easy to switch between languages for the predictive text, which is very good because I communicate regularly in two languages. I have yet to charge the phone since I took it out of the box. I am not playing with it all the time and I nearly forgot it at home one day, and, surprisingly, I managed to fit in a “deep reading” session on a Friday night: nearly six hours of solid reading without interruption (All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai)
Three weeks, no answer. Are you ghosting me? I do not care. You know me so well that I cannot keep myself from sharing with you. I began the week by reading a blog post on “Confirmation Bias” by Nir Eyal2 and immediately began asking myself if confirmation bias affected my view of mobile phones. Have I been actively seeking out the bad just to support my beliefs? Probably. Have I ever actively tried to find positive arguments for using a mobile phone? Not really. First stop: Wikipedia.
The Wikipedia article for “Mobile phone” contains a section on “Use”3. It contains mostly negative examples. There is a separate article on “Mobile phone use in schools,” which I thought might be interesting, being a professor and all. Alas, it contains mostly negative examples and can be summarised as: students without access to phones have better marks. (Links below to two2,5 recent studies on this.)
Wikipedia only confirms my belief that mobile phones have a negative impact, and not just in school. Contrary to all the negative articles, the World Wide Web’s collection of blogs and non-scholarly articles provide some positive arguments in defense of mobiles:
- Better communication (obviously);
- Helpful in emergencies (cannot argue with that);
- Helps companies grow through mobile commerce (good for the company);
- Helps with scheduling.
Some of these arguments date back to 2012, but are from an article published by the Pew Research Center6 which is, at least, a non-profit.
Despite all the horrible things that have happened and are happening in our world, we currently have a great standard of living (at least in the western world). Communication improvements are part of this. If we want to, we can communicate with family and friends around the world (my mobile phone plan lets me call Canada from France for nothing, for example). We can remain in touch during emergencies, big and small. We can get out of tight situations using different applications, like Google Maps, and we can let people know we are safe after major disasters or if we will be late for an appointment. These are all positive things and none of them require a smartphone (except if you want maps, of course).
People love apps, but I don’t have to tell you that, do I? A two-year-old AskReddit thread asks “What mobile app has actually had a legitimate positive impact on your life?7” does mention some positive uses for our smartphones such as “quantified life” apps and others that help us form good habits, public transit apps, and apps for sleeping and sport. But this list comes with a caveat: the social media apps. They are addictive. They come with all the hallmarks of oft-cited toxic apps like Facebook and Snapchat: notifications, access to GPS and information-harvesting features, prompts to share over social networks, and so on. Even using map apps can have negative effects, according to a paper in Nature Communications8.
But here I am confirming a bias instead of asking myself what the negative side effects of not having a smartphone are. I can state the following negative side effects of using the Punkt. MP01:
- It is a reminder of money spent on phones and apps in the past: I feel a type of guilt because in nearly all instances I did not need a new phone, I just wanted a new phone.
- There is a faint itch that cannot be scratched: nothing serious, but I really want to look things up sometimes or check when one of my favourite shows will return from hiatus.
- I spend more time on my computer.
- I am more critical of those using smartphones.
After four weeks, it is time to get two things straight.
First of all, I really love this phone: the design, the experience, the sounds, everything. Secondly, I am a poor candidate for this Challenge because I think I somehow fit very nicely within this niche or market.
I am a geek. I am a digital resident. I am an early-adopter (when the price is right). Growing up in the 90s, going to a paperless university, dealing with dial-up Internet when at home. All of this readied me for time sans smartphone because I am used to adapting. Additionally, I am one of those who had Facebook before it became a public thing (2004/2005) so I watched it mature into something new and, honestly, less interesting. I have also been a Linux user for over 10 years now: if I can do all of my work without MS Office, Skype, etc., I can switch to a dumbphone, right? Finally, I give lessons on technology and what it is doing to us, and I am fully aware that no matter how long I go without a smartphone, I will still be hooked.
I am a poor choice for this challenge because I can switch from smartphone to dumbphone without a problem. No problem does not mean “no change,” though. The positives certainly outweigh the negatives mentioned in my letter last week:
- Less Amazon (I just realised this the other day).
- Less Googling (well, DuckDuckGoing in my case) during films.
- Less searching for health problems.
- Less time spent in the “head forward” position.
- No phone in the bathroom.
- No phone in the bedroom (I still need to find a nice alarm clock… Perhaps Amazon?).
- No phone in the kitchen (yes, I am the guy who burns pasta).
- No phone in my hands while holding my son.
- Less worrying about running out of battery, losing my phone, having my phone stolen or broken.
Despite all the good, I did not have many social experiences during these weeks. I did not travel or leave my city. I went to work. That is all. I did not get in any situation where I said to myself, “damn, I wish I had you.” I stayed in my bubble.
Our “bubble,” because it is yours too, even if we are apart, is the city of Rouen. There is a cathedral and churches and cobbled streets. There are things to see and things to do. My family and I went to an art show and walked the same streets we have walked many (many) times. We noticed that there were new stores. Some shops and cafés have expanded. After 12 years in this city I would say that I know it “like the back of my hand” but it is not true because for more than half of those years the “back of my hand” was facing away from me while I caressed and coddled you.
Many Canadians remember Heritage Minutes9. You do not remember them, you are too young. One of the most confusing was one about Marshall McLuhan and his famous quote, “the medium is the message10.” Did I understand what this meant? Nope. Not one bit. Not until I read the Wikipedia article on McLuhan. Even then, I did not fully grasp what it meant. During four years of university I did not watch TV. When I moved to France, I did not have a TV. Then, I found one in the trash. As soon as I had that TV in my apartment my lifestyle changed and I figured it out.
A parallel to this is my fridge. You probably remember the fridge, we took pictures of it when it arrived. I find my fridge particularly cool-looking (no pun intended). When we bought this fridge we changed the way we ate and the way we cooked. We started buying different products because a nice looking appliance should be filled with nice-looking food, right?
The MP01 is a nice-looking phone and it makes me want to send nice, meaningful messages. That is the point of having beautiful things, isn’t it? Why have something that doesn’t have meaning or isn’t a pleasure to use? That sounds harsh, but I am not talking about you, and my new phone isn’t without its shortcomings: I could gripe about its the lack of 3G or 4G. I have 2G service where I live, but future-proofing is the kind of idea that I can get behind.
Anyway. I hope you have been reading these letters. Maybe you will get back to me someday. I am not saying “goodbye forever,” but rather “so long for now.” I am content with merely being a visitor in your Brave New World, in which I resided for so long…
Until we meet again,
- Bobby's blog on Medium
- Nir Eyal's article on confirmation bias
- Wikipedia article on mobile phone
- Derounian, ‘Mobiles in class?’
- Lee et al, ‘The Effects of Cell Phone Use and Emotion-regulation Style on College Students' Learning’
- Smith, 'The Impact of Mobile Phones on People’s Lives'
- 'What mobile app has actually had a legitimate positive impact on your life?
- Javadi et al, 'Hippocampal and prefrontal processing of network topology to simulate the future'
- Heritage Minutes
- 60-second film on Marshall McLuhan