For all my tech-geekery, I’ve never had a smartphone. There hasn’t been a really good reason for this, aside from a vague attempt at fiscal responsibility and the reality that I spend my life essentially in one of two wifi zones (home, work). I figured I didn’t really need a truly mobile device that connected to the internet. Couldn’t I have my (short) commute time away from it? It just never seemed that important. I’ve been following the developments, and while never anti-smartphone, I’ve just never been a good phone person. (At least: not since I was 16 and on the phone constantly.) There are so many other interesting ways to communicate: talking on on the phone just seemed like the least imaginative. I don’t have a home phone, and my work voicemail is something I have to remind myself to check.
The internet is, largely, my passion in life: communication, productivity, creative thinking with internet tech, that’s what I do for a living. It’s also something I enjoy in my off-time; I’m genuinely interested in web innovation, and my explorations and thinking don’t stop when I leave the office. I understand the app revolution, and while I’m on the side that believes the apps are probably only temporarily in power and the mobile web will probably take over, I’m intrigued by the apps and the interesting things developers and users are doing with them. So you’d think I’d have been on this smartphone thing ages ago, but no.
In spite of my obvious interest in all things online, it wouldn’t be fair to classify my web experiences as addictive or compulsive. I’m absolutely okay with pulling the plug at pretty much any time. I can take a long road trip without the internet, and I don’t miss it. I love to read, I love to talk to people, I love to sit and think and muse. Contrary to the “information overload” debate (which I think is code for “I procrastinate and the internet makes it too easy”), I don’t find my connection to the internet either overwhelming or demanding. It’s a give and take. If I don’t want to pay attention, I don’t. When I want it to entertain me, or confuse me, or engage me and make me think in new ways, it does. So while I thought the smartphone thing was pretty cool and clearly an intriguing and useful development, I didn’t actually have one of my own.
Until last week, that is. I finally got on the bandwagon. And I’ve been diving in head first. No holds barred, no panic about the 3G useage. Not in the first week, at least. I gave myself permission to be gluttonous with it, to roll around in it and see how it felt.
The only times prior to now that I thought I’d like to have a smartphone is when I’m out to dinner. Not because my dining companions have been sub par, but because I have an ongoing fascination with food history. I like to know how the composition on my plate came to be, and what historical events I can credit for it. This is easy with things like potatoes and tomatoes (“New World”, obviously), but garlic, carrots (did you know medieval Europeans ate not the orange root, but only the green tops of carrots?), bean sprouts, onions, cows, pigs, chickens, saffron, pepper, etc. It’s really the only time I’ve felt the lack of the internet. I want to look up some historical details at very odd times. I figured a smartphone would be helpful for that. (I can’t really carry around a comprehensive food history book everywhere I go, can I.) Filling specific information needs: in spite of my own certainty that search is basically dead, in the back of my head I figured this is how I would use a smartphone. I was not right.
But it’s been different than I expected. First, and most obvious, I suddenly always know when I have email. I bet people hate that. Email is my second least favourite means of communication, so putting it at the front of the line has mixed results. As I said, I’m reasonably good at not feeling pressure to look at anything when I don’t want to, but the thing pings when I get new email, and it makes me curious. But even in the first week, I don’t look every time. I didn’t stop my conversation with my mother when I heard it ping. I did, however, answer a question from an instructor while on the Go train back home on Saturday. If you want to be distracted, access to the internet via smartphone will certainly act as a decent distraction.
My best experience with it so far as been a trip to my home town, Guelph. It’s early October, and suddenly this week autumn appeared in full colour. If you’ve never experienced a southern Ontario fall, you’re missing something great. The cool temperatures at night mixed with the remaining warm days turns out a crazy quilt of colour across the landscape. It’s only when there’s enough cold that you get the firey reds and deep oranges. We’re in a banner year here, and on the bus on the way to Guelph I saw this awe-inspiring riot of colour out the window. Purple brush along the side of the road, a scintillating blue sky, red, orange, yellow and green leaves on the trees; this is the kind of thing that makes me happy to be living. The kind of thing I want to share, just out of the sheer unbelievability of it. It’s incredibly ephemeral, these fall colours, so capturing them and sharing them has additional appeal.
So this phone I had in my hand, it has a camera. This was actually my first experience using it. And I discovered quite by accident that I could snap a picture and then post it to twitter with a matter of a few swipes of a finger. So there I was, first on the bus, then walking down Gordon St. in Guelph, 22 degree weather, the sun warm on my skin, and while I was away from home, away from my computer, I was sharing my delight in the beauty around me, capturing it and sharing it effortlessly. It was one of those days when I felt like I could hardly believe the intensity of what I was seeing, but I was able to share it, record it, all as part of the experience. I’m not a great photographer: mostly I leave the camera alone and just experience my life without documenting it. But sometimes, documenting it is part of the experience, adds to it. So, in my 30 minute walk from the University of Guelph and my sister’s house, I shared the colours around me and saw the responses from my friends and colleagues far and wide. I was no less on the street, no less engaged. But I was also interacting with the world via the internet. I loved it. I was in two places at once. I had voices in my head. I was connected in two places. It reminded me of Snow Crash.
I’m sure this is no revelation for anyone who’s already had a smartphone all this time, so mea culpa. I was aware of the sort of ambient/ubiquitous computing, I just hadn’t had the chance to experiment with it myself yet, to see what it really feels like. I think the interface is still a bit clunky, too limiting, but the touch screen is getting closer to effortless. What’s wonderful about it is its seamlessness; picture to twitter, responses, all so easy to see and engage with. And engaging online isn’t even really drawing me away from my real life experience. It’s just a part of it. I’m not thinking about cables or connections or keyboards. Technology is getting to be close to invisible, just present and available.
As I sat on the train, reading fiction online, leaving comments, checking out links on Twitter, reading educause research, answering work email, I realized that I would never be bored again.
I read someone’s response to the iPad a few months ago where he returned his iPad for this very reason: the threat of never feeling bored again. Boredom as critical experience, necessary experience. I can understand that, but of course it’s all in the decisions that you opt to make. We are invariably drawn to the shininess of instant gratification via the internet, of course. But even that can get boring, eventually. You do reach a point where you’ve read it all for the moment, and you’ll have to wait for more to appear in the little niche of reading that you do. Does that force you to branch out, find more and more interesting things? That’s not necessarily a terrible thing. Does it allow you to avoid reflecting, being with yourself in a place?
One of the very early criticisms directed at the iPad was that it was a device for consumers, on which information is merely consumed, not created. That jarred me, as it felt untrue and frankly a bit elitist. Creation doesn’t just mean writing software or hacks. Creation can be writing, or drawing, or singing, or sharing reactions and thoughts. but I see now with both the iPhone and the iPad, that this criticism is both true and false. It’s true that these devices make it very easy to consume content created by others; it’s easier to browse and read than it is to write, for instance. The keyboard is pretty great, but it’s not as easy to use as the one attached to my laptop. But what I choose to browse/read/consume is still my choice; just because it’s on an iPad doesn’t mean that it’s all commercial content, not while the web is as relatively free and easy to access as it is. Most of my reading on these devices is not sponsored and not created by mainstream media. I’m not just reading the New York Times. I’m reading blogs and archives, primarily. And why are we so anti “consumer”? We need to consume the creations of others as part of a healthy dialogue, after all; there is a level of pop consumption that’s a good thing. Neither of these devices is as simple as a TV or a radio where there is a clear creator and a clear consumer. I am also a creator on these devices, a sharer of experiences, of thoughts and ideas. My experience walking down the street in Guelph on a beautiful day was a case in point; I was clearly a creator, sharing what I saw, engaging with others. That’s not a passive experience. Sitting on the train reading someone’s review of a movie, or a fictional take an on old idea; I’m consuming as well. In places where I couldn’t do so before.
It feels like there are fewer spaces in my life. The level of connection I’m currently experiencing seems to make my days blend together into one long back-and-forth with any number of people. Is this less downtime? Downtime transformed into time spent in this otherworld of communication and information? Am I reflecting less?
I started with a bang, so I guess it remains to be seen how much I keep at it. Will it get old? Will I return to my former habits, with less time testing the limits of my devices? It remains to be seen.