May 22, 2013

Avoiding the Smartphone Trap

The Loop > Magazine > Issue 2

By Peter Cohen

There’s a television ad from Verizon for the BlackBerry Z10 smartphone entitled “Midnight Update.” If you haven’t already seen it, check it out on YouTube. I’ll wait.

As the ad unfolds, we see an eager-beaver young executive working late into the night, excitedly video conferencing her boss with some changes to an architectural plan.

“Ally, I think it’s great,” says her boss, who’s lying in bed wearing an eye mask. “But I’m on vacation for another week, remember?”

“Oh, right, I’ll call you tomorrow,” says Ally, embarrassed.

“OK. But don’t,” says her boss.

The ad ostensibly extols the virtue of the BlackBerry Messenger Screen Share feature running on the new BlackBerry Z10 smartphone. Screen Share enables users to share the contents of their own phone’s screen with the user with whom they’re video conferencing.

But what it says to me is that the Z10 is the perfect phone for intrusive asses with no sense of personal boundaries.

Maybe I’m reading too much into it.

Either way, it’s a pretty succinct summary of modern life for a lot of people these days — constantly tethered by their smartphones and other devices, so a vacation never really becomes a vacation. You’re expected to stay attached, connected somehow. For many of us, there’s no such thing as time away from the office anymore.

With the economy as unsteady as it has been, there have been good reasons for people to want to stay connected — like basic job security. But the intrusion of devices into our personal lives isn’t unique just to economic pressures — it’s been developing for a long time.

I’m a veteran telecommuter — I’ve been working from home since the late 1990s. For the first decade, most of what I did involved writing and posting breaking tech news as quickly as I could. It seemed that whenever I stepped away from my computer — went to the store to run errands, meet a friend for lunch, or take my wife out for dinner — something would happen. There would be some sort of important news that I’d miss. Jim Dalrymple and I would joke about it: Typically, the farther away we were from our computers, the bigger the story. With the growth of blogging and increased competition in the tech news space, being offline became a liability.

So I got a smartphone to stay in touch. I switched to the iPhone at the first opportunity, and never looked back.

Last year I got rid of my iPhone in favor of a simple phone that could only make phone calls and text. I wrote about it for The Loop. The post generated a lot of discussion. Some people applauded the decision, others were aghast. Some readers said they felt burdened with their devices, while others thought it was ridiculous of me to get rid of a device that made life so much easier for them.

My rational explanation for my decision was to throw off the yoke of an expensive data plan that I could ill afford. And that was the number one reason, quite legitimately.

But as much as that was true, I realized I’d become one of Those People, too. One of those people who had his face in his phone almost all the time. Every spare moment. With friends. On dates with my wife. The phone would get whipped out. Any time it buzzed in my pocket, I had to see what it was about. I’d developed some very bad social habits around cell phones, and the easiest way for me to break them was to go cold turkey.

I recognize fully well that there are some people who legitimately need to stay tethered to the Internet and every phone call because they’re in jobs that require it. But those people are in the minority. Most of us don’t need to look at the phone all the time.

The essential problem is that technology constantly outstrips society’s ability to adapt to it. We’re just kind of making it up as we go. We invent e-mail and newsgroups, and within a few years spam is the inevitable result. We develop online communities like Facebook and they flourish, and we realize only after the fact that in order to stay in touch with one another, we’ve given up a huge amount of privacy and anonymity. Cell phones become ubiquitous, and now we’re considerably less likely to interact with the people within close physical proximity to us, favoring friends we can reach online instead.

A postscript to my “dumb phone” experiment: I went back to an iPhone last month. It’s an occupational hazard; I took a new job and the hardware was a work requirement.

I’m doing it differently this time, though. I’m not using the phone nearly as much as I did before. I’m trying to leave it in my pocket more, making sure notifications are turned off except for emergencies. I don’t need to walk around with my nose in my phone anymore.

I’m not anxious to become one of Those People again.