Have we become overly attached to our smartphones? Is it time to set them aside and revert to a simple dumb phone? This question has been on my mind quite a bit lately. Most recently I was reminded of it while at the beach with my family during spring break. I was doing well trying to disconnect for the week, but I noticed so many others who were constantly looking at their phones instead of enjoying the present moment of their vacations.
My first sobering glimpse of the constantly connected future came shortly after our business procured our first cellphone back in the ’90s. My wife and I had traveled for an out-of-town deposition with video. The proceeding was short, so we had a beautiful afternoon to spend away from the office. We rented a boat and went out to enjoy a nearby lake. The pager beeped (remember those?) and we now had the ability to return the call immediately. This was back in the days when you only shared your cellphone number with your closest friends for fear of using up your precious and limited cellphone minutes. So, here we were in the middle of a scenic, relaxing lake, but stressing about the latest office crisis!
The next prescient incident that stuck in my mind came a few years later at IUPUI. I was there for a training course in forensic digital imaging. During a break, I sat out in the commons and watched the students walking by. None of them were talking to one another. Why? Because they all had their phones in hand and were busy texting other people. This was in the era when texting was the new thing, and everyone had a phone with a slide-out keyboard. No one was in the present moment and engaged with the other real people right next to them.
Today, thanks to the smartphone, we never have to be physically engaged at all. Thanks to texting, email, Facebook and all the other social media platforms, it seems like we are the most connected, yet the least engaged with the real people in front of us. And if we are not communicating with others via smartphone apps, we can still become totally absorbed by whatever corner of the internet we choose to point our browser toward. Our smartphones have become an obsession. I have seen statistics that reveal the staggering number of times we look at them daily. And of course, the averages are higher for younger users. The constant stimulation that is offered by our always-in-hand smartphone is negatively affecting our ability to simply be bored. Yes, boredom, I have read, is an important component to developing the mind. It is from boredom and quiet contemplation that many brilliant ideas spring.
What ever happened to the phone part of our smartphones? It is my perception that the phone portion is the feature that is used least of all, especially by younger people. Think of all the times you are confused by the meaning, or the hidden meaning of a text message. Emojis are one method people use to try to reduce this ambiguity. But, most misunderstandings could easily be cleared up with a simple phone call. Another problem with texting, and other instant messaging platforms, is the growing perception that an instantaneous response is required. People feel like they simply must be constantly connected and continuously responding!
My brother, a 50-something Scoutmaster, has only very recently adopted a smartphone. He got along quite well with a simple phone for a long time, but now everyone tries to text him concerning Scouting activities. He is not yet addicted to his smartphone, and his saying is, “Just because you sent Mr. Bour a text message does not mean you communicated with Mr. Bour.” His rule is simple. If it is something important, pick up the phone and call him. Pushing “send” simply means a message has been cast to the ether. He will see it eventually, but he will not respond immediately.
I like the idea of having two devices. A simple phone, maybe with some limited texting, for important communications, and a separate smartphone for all other activities. Because frankly, I have been annoyed when I receive a phone call while I am right in the middle of, for example, an important navigational instruction from my Maps app, or less importantly, when I am enjoying a full-volume Led Zeppelin tune from my Music app. A priest I know was the first person I met who had bifurcated his phone use several years ago. He had a separate flip phone specifically for emergency calls for things such as bedside hospital prayers. For me, my phone chirps so regularly for unimportant texts and Tweets that I often ignore it. This means I sometimes do miss an urgent communication.
Ideally, I think a small tablet or iPad would be a good companion device to a simple phone. For as much screen time as I put in squinting at my miniscule smartphone display, I would be better served with a larger display to do my web surfing, emailing, navigating, etc. Plus, I could leave that device behind when I choose to be un-connected, yet always have my very small dumb phone handy in my pocket for important communications. Because the smartphone is such a do-everything device, we are forced to carry them (and be distracted by them) everywhere we go. Splitting the smartphone functionality off to a separate small tablet could be the first step toward weaning oneself away from it, and thus reconnecting with the present moment and with real life.
Stephen Bour (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an engineer and legal technology consultant in Indianapolis. His company, the Alliance for Litigation Support Inc., includes Bour Technical Services and Alliance Court Reporting. Areas of service include legal videography, tape analysis, document scanning to CD and courtroom presentation support. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author.