Smartphone Angst

People have been abandoning their smartphones recently and have been obnoxiously public about it. Off the top of my head (meaning: my Instapaper notes folder), a few offenders have been Stephen Hackett, David Zax and Peter Cohen.

The reason why I’m so annoyed with people ‘taking a break’ (and telling me about it) is that I think it’s the wrong way of dealing with a problem. It’s short-sighted and it doesn’t get us anywhere.

If humanity instantly abandoned an innovation every time a problem with it arose, we would still be sitting in caves and communicating via drawings and obscure grunts. Without fire. Because, you could, you know, burn yourself.

That being said, I definitely get the problem with smartphones. We may use them too much once in a while, or way too much all the time, and that’s bad. But as human beings, we learn. We adapt, we establish new rules. And don’t you forget: with great power… How can you bear silently standing by when people are desperately asking for directions? Can you carry the burden of letting this happen, just because you weren’t able to master this nasty compelling temptation that the Internet at your fingertips is?

Also: Inconsiderate bastards will be inconsiderate bastards anyway. (Them) taking away their smartphones won’t help. Don’t hate the game - hate the player, so to speak. Even if the player is you. What you do when you abandon your smartphone is basically giving up on your ability to master that technology. If that’s your kind of thing, go ahead.

Let me stretch this out a little, since what I’m getting at applies to absolutely everything, be it technology, politics, human behaviour, coffee, getting out of bed, and relationships: I think everybody agrees that we need to do something about cars. There are too many, and it’s a problem. So, do we forbid the use of cars in cities? This would be the artificial, self-imposed restriction here. And it would suck balls. (Do we introduce a permanent speed limit in Germany? That would suck almost as bad.) And it still wouldn’t solve the problem of cars being most inefficient in city traffic. Should we try to solve the problem by research that makes cars cleaner and better? Hell yeah. Should we combine that with making public transportation as good as possible? Yes please.

Artificial restrictions are just so… artificial. They don’t make any sense. They make the refining of some new technology or tool impossible, and therefore hinder innovation. So we constantly have to look for restrictions we can remove as soon as progress in a specific sector allows us to. Technology helps with this, of course. Once restrictions become unnecessary in one context, their artificiality becomes obvious. As is the case with Netflix’ own, new show House of Cards: no commercial breaks, no weekly schedule, no fixed episode lengths, and no pilot pandering to be picked up, but the promise of a full season (or even two, rumors differ). This changes everything with regard to producing a series.

A recent, and very good GQ article cites Reed Hastings, Netflix CEO on this:

He is convinced that once we give up the artificiality of managed dissatisfaction, we will never miss it.

I bet he’s right. Another quote regarding House of Cards episode lengths, from a Wired blogpost:

It’s not something that is immediately perceptible, but as time goes on you start to notice it; nothing feels rushed, or stretched out of natural shape, and the story flows more naturally.

Now, people who don’t use their smartphones anymore because they ‘take over their lives’ would be the same people who argue that they need commercial breaks because without them, they wouldn’t know when to take a piss and get a beer.

‘My phone can make calls, that’s enough!’

But it’s even more than that. If we shy away from a new tool or new way of doing something, then we miss out on much more than just a slightly better way of doing something we’ve already been able to do. The iPhone, for example, is not a better way of making calls. It is that, too, but it also is a frakkin’ computer in your pocket. Although I replaced my N6300 with a 3GS back in 2009, I did not and do not just use my iPhone for calls. In fact, making regular calls is an activity I almost never perform, as other people under 25 also don’t, I would guess.

There’s a quote stuck in my head that’s very fitting here. I can’t remember the exact words and who said them, but it was something along the lines of:

A faster horse carriage wouldn’t have made the automobile obsolete.

So there’s definitely something to be said for going with technology and trying new things, even though you may break something along the way. And even if everything goes to shit at some point in the process, so be it. I’ll try and make another connection to how I think disruption works, despite not having read Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma yet:
Without the pressure of everyone using Napster to get music for free, nothing would have happened. Apple (Steve Jobs) wouldn’t have been able to convince the music labels to get on board with the iTunes Store and establish a legal alternative that is actually more comfortable than obtaining music for free on the Internet.

What do we learn from that? If the prosecution had beaten down Napster (or done it more quickly), similar services and its users, we’d still have to get up and leave the house in order to buy music. Imagine that. And yes, I am serious. You may wonder if I’m deducing a moral justification for what people call ‘piracy’ here? May be. For the sake of disruption? Hell yes.

All that being said, I get the appeal of sitting by the fire and reading a book without technology. Even ‘taking a break’, if you will. But after that, I’d like to turn on some nice music without leaving my humongous, comfortable armchair: via AirPlay, of course. So, if you can’t manage your smartphone behaviour, that’s fine, go back to your dumbphone, I’ll evolve without you. But don’t you dare confuse your dumbphone with a moral high ground card.

Thanks a million to Veronica, who helped me edit this article. And to Iven, who came up with the title.

Update: John Siracusa wrote a piece about Technological Conservatism that fits in here really well.