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“Do you have a smartphone yet?”
It’s a question my friends ask often, and it’s a reasonable one to ask. I make my entire living writing about technology, explaining how to use software and interviewing people who create high-tech toys. I should be an early adopter – and sometimes I am.
But when it comes to smartphones I can’t bring myself to join the 21st century. Sure, I admire these phones from a technical standpoint – all that computing power in such a small space is made usable by elegant design. It’s amazing. Smartphones are way cooler than anything anyone in Star Trek ever owned, and that’s saying something.
But every time someone I know looks down to react to a ping during a face-to-face conversation I can’t help but think to myself that I don’t want one of those distraction machines in my life. I like having the ability to focus on one thing and only one thing. I have trouble doing that while working on my computer, and the last thing I want is to introduce that problem to the rest of my life.
It seems like smartphones are reprogramming people, making them respond to bells in a manner that would embarrass Pavlov’s dog. If you love that, great, but it’s not for me.
I love people, and want to focus on them when I’m with them. I love the mountains, and want to focus on them while I’m hiking with them. I love my wife, and want to focus on her when I’m with her.
I want to clearly define the line between the Internet and the rest of my life; smart phones seem designed to blur it.
Do I think everyone should think like me? No. Everyone should figure these things out on their own. Personally, however, I think that owning a smartphone would make me even less capable of focusing – a possibility that frightens me. It’s certainly not a possibility I’m willing to pay for.
I own a moderately intelligent phone. I can make calls, send SMS messages, and even (sort of) browse the web. I can’t run modern apps, but I don’t feel like I’m missing out on much – I’ve got my tablet for that if I want it.
When I explain this to people they often bring up push notifications, and man: I am not interested.
I Don’t Need To Know Now
Notifications are evil. They’re the 21st century version of Clippy, interrupting you when you’re trying to do something.
They interrupt you while you’re working, talking with a friend or otherwise trying to focus on something more important than whatever it is you’re being notified of. There are exceptions, sure, but I’m not a doctor so none of them matter. If someone has something time-sensitive to say to me I’m sure they’ll call, or at the very least text.
If they don’t, I don’t need to know now – it can wait until I get home or otherwise check my computer.
I had the privilege of interviewing author and activist Clay Johnson for a feature article about the information diet last year, and one comment stood out:
“There is never anything you’re going to miss out on on Facebook,” he told me. “It’s just never going to happen. Nothing requires your immediate attention on Facebook.”
Replace “Facebook” with whatever you want – it’s basically true. Facebook can wait, Twitter can wait, even email can wait. My interaction with these services is better if I use them on my own schedule, giving myself time to be unplugged.
Notifications are the enemy – they interrupt my focus, diverting my attention to something I probably don’t need to look at yet. I understand why Facebook wants me to look at their app 20 times a day, but I don’t understand how doing so benefits me. So I schedule time for email, time for social networks and time for other online interactions. Life is a lot better when I stick to that.
Please don’t get me wrong: I love the Internet. Twitter, Reddit, I even tolerate Facebook. I’d hate to not have access to it.
But I also love being offline. Being bored. Having time to think about what it is I want to accomplish in life, how much I love the people around me and otherwise reflect on the things that matter in life. So while I could fill in moments spent sitting on the bus or waiting in line with social networks and blogs, I’d rather have a little space for my thoughts. A pause.
I’m plugged into the web while working; I don’t need to be the rest of the time. I fear getting a smart phone would make me less likely to reflect by filling in holes I currently use to reflect.
Maybe I’m already a grumpy old curmudgeon, at 27. Maybe I’m out of touch with the way things are now. Maybe just saying this makes me the new Andy Rooney.
But come on: if you’re talking to someone, and your phone goes “bzzz”, don’t stop mid-sentence to look at it unless you’re expecting a message from the Nobel Prize Committee. Because when you do that you are immediately communicating that I don’t matter to you, that you’d rather be talking to someone else – anyone else – than me.
You might not mind being that guy. Good for you. But I don’t want to be that guy, and am afraid if I owned a smartphone I might become him. Quickly.
Data Plans Cost Money
A lot of what I’m saying boils down to discipline. I value being unplugged, and fear that if I had a smart phone I’d become so fascinated with it that I’d never be unplugged again. You could argue that I’m letting my lack of discipline prevent me from owning something nice.
And I’d agree with you, if these distractions machines didn’t also cost a lot of money. I’m not sure what data plans cost where you live, but here in the USA it’s hard to find one under $50 a month – and that’s on the low end of things. I don’t want to pay $600 a year for a device I’m convinced will distract me constantly.
Besides: I live in a town where WiFi access is plentiful and free. If I need web access I can get it.
I Can Make My Dumb Phone Smart
And it’s not as though I’m completely cut off from the world with my current phone. I’ve learned a few tricks to make my dumb phone more intelligent, and using them I get many of the advantages of a smart phone without the potential problem of information over consumption. I can make my dumb phone smarter with ifftt, allowing me see actually important email immediately and post messages to Facebook or Twitter.
I can search Google by sending an SMS, which is perfect for quickly looking up any business’ phone number. I can even run Google Maps and Opera thanks to J2ME apps.
It’s not as complete as a smartphone, sure, but for me it’s more than enough web access for when I’m on the go. I can’t think of a situation when I’ve wanted more.
Just to be clear: I am not trying to persuade you to think like me. I’m sure there are many valid reasons to own a smart phone, it’s just that none of them have convinced me yet. Am I absolutely insane? Probably, but feel free to tell me so in the comments below, or to engage with me in conversation about what you get from your smartphone and how it’s changed your habits.
Image Credit: Money picture by Ryabitskaya Elena via Shutterstock