22TET18 // 4 mins
When I was growing up, it was a novelty to have a cell phone with a camera on it. As a kid, a phone was a device that did one thing: make calls. Then, you could send text messages, but it was difficult to do so. And who was I going to “text” anyways? I remember my parents getting a cell phone with a color display, which I thought was cutting edge at the time. Who could forget when cellphones became such a sought after commodity, with the first popular phones like the Motorola Razr or T-Mobile’s Sidekick?
Of course now phones are all but essential in modern society, and becoming more-so, as cash falls out of favor and everything goes contactless, or gets an app. According to Pew Research (2015, 2018), 77% of American adults own a smartphone and 95% own a cellphone, from 35% in 2011. 46% of those owners say they couldn’t live without it, and it’s hard to disagree. For many, the cellphone is the primary point of access to the internet. It’s how people take photos and share them, how they communicate with their friends and family, how they get directions and access their bank, how they consume media and gather news. Every year, it seems we rely on smartphones to do more.
It’s not just phones, though. To date this piece, the past week Mark Zuckerbot has been testifying before Congress about Facebook’s role in the presidential election of 2016. Even though Facebook has had a “rough” year, he’s seemed to come out of this relatively unscathed, as the softball questions from the Senators ranged from ignorant to incompetent. However, as my internet friends pointed out, this may truly be representative of Facebook’s aging user base.
Commonly known due to The Social Network film, Facebook was born from the experiments of Zuckerborg’s collegiate mind, in which he made a website for rating which of his female Harvard peers was “hottest”. Now what is Facebook? No longer “just” a social network, Facebook’s scope has dramatically broadened from it’s upstart days. Facebook is Instagram. Facebook is WhatsApp. Facebook is internet drones. Facebook is VR. And for many, Facebook is the internet.
Part of this is just from capitalism, where anything beyond exponential growth is seen as a failure. Nowhere in America is this more true than Silicon Valley. The metric they’re judged by is not necessarily revenue, as a lot of these tech startups that occupy so much of our time have “never made a profit”, but they continue to expand and grow unchecked, gaining users and data and sales.
Much of the advancements of technologically developments in the past few years has been toward making things do more. We all want everything we own to do everything, or so we’re told. We need microwaves that can Tweet, and websites that are their own platform.
In some ways, this is an interesting, minimalist approach. If I can do everything I need in a day from the black rectangle in my pocket, doesn’t that mean my life is more centralized, and thus, more manageable? Why have a bunch of items when a single phone will do most of it, about as good as I need it to?
I think the culture we inhabit now, full of push notifications and targeted advertising should be clear enough to tell you this isn’t how it’s turned out. Most of these endless services exist only to occupy as much of your time, attention, and thought as possible. And largely, it’s working; if it wasn’t they’d change tactics. Nearly a third of people say their smartphone is the first and last thing they look at each day. If it’s also your alarm clock, I’m not sure how it couldn’t be.
Now, I’m not a technophobe by any means. You can find me on any major social network, and my computer and cellphone use is higher than most. I have been doing a lot of thinking about how it’s changing me, though. Is this something that’s enriching my life, making it better? Or just a waste of time?
I’ve been interested in dumb phones for a while, like the Punkt or Lightphone. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as “smartphones bad, dumb phones good”. It’s all about how you’re using it, or how you’re letting it use you.
I think about my trip to Copenhagen, in which I left my phone dead and gone for a few days while exploring the city with my girlfriend. After all, with no service, how would it help?
For a while, I’ve been moving toward more single-use items, splitting my time between gadgets. For me, I love the simplicity of having an ebook reader to read on, a camera to take photos, a Switch to play games, and a good old fashioned notebook to take notes on. I put my phone in my bag too, but this way, I’m well aware of what use it has to me, and where it’s usefulness ends.
I even split my thoughts between different notebooks, depending on what I’m writing. Loose ideas go in one. Long-form stories go in another. My daily journal is its own book, as is a regular planner.
Beyond the cognitive clarity this provides me in my work, I think it’s clear just glancing at Facebook or Twitter today that whatever they’re doing isn’t working. These apps just smash as many “killer” features as they can into them, haphazardly bolted on rather than properly integrated and designed with. This way, everyone can find something they value here, all while enjoying the gamified dopamine hits that are standard across the board. They’ve decided to have something for everyone, rather than naming one killer feature for some users.
My point isn’t that this is an objectively better way to live your life than you are right now. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with what you’re doing. It was clear for me it wasn’t working. There are limitations to everything, and this trend can only go so far. Perhaps instead of thinking about ways we can make things do more, we can think about doing less.