Tuesday, May 25, 2010

iCant, Part I: What's Wrong With the Smartphone

This article originally appeared as an op-ed in the May 2010 issue of The Four Marks.  For more information on The Four Marks, please click here.

You are in a lobby. By an airport gate. In a coffee shop. At a bus stop. At the office. In class. In any of these situations you will find someone, head inclined slightly downward, who is staring at the small screen of a smartphone. They might be texting, playing a game, or be looking through a universe of (mostly) useless – though amusing – applications for those phones. They are mesmerized by what appears to be magic to them. But, more importantly, they are unable (and perhaps afraid) to be alone. Who or what has robbed them of this ability? The long answer? Pong.

Pong was the first video game played on a console. It came on the original Atari system and could be played against the computer or with another player. It was essentially ping-pong, with a very rudimentary wheeled controller allowing you to move your paddle back and forth to catch and deflect a ball.

Pong was only slightly before my time. My youth is peppered with memories of the original 8-bit Nintendo, the Sega Genesis, the never-took-off Turbografx 16, the Super Nintendo; video games reached their apotheosis just as I entered high school with the (then) mind-blowing Nintendo 64. All of these consoles accomplished their dual purposes each and every single time I played games on them: 1) the user is kept in front of the console as long as possible, and 2) the user is removed from reality.

The most often-used retort I hear whenever I denigrate video games is also the most irrelevant: “Everything in moderation.” That’s something you can say about cornflakes, or chocolate, or alcohol, or tobacco, or firearms. These are inanimate objects. Video games are, strangely, animated. They keep stimulating, keep pushing, keep asking you to play. Surely, there is an element of addiction in anything pleasurable, but video games have managed to harness the multi-sensed power of television and have created the hook to keep you playing.

Anyone who doubts this power has forgotten his childhood; I have numerous memories of my mother having to yell just to get my attention when I was in the midst of video game bliss. If you don’t have childhood memories of video games, simply observe the Twitter generation at play on these devices. They are in another world.

This other world (call it Pandora, if you want) features hours of amusement that leave your eyes tired, your fingers cramped, and your life utterly wasted. What is sacrificed? Playing outside. Games with friends and family. Reading. Painting. Shooting baskets. Making baskets. Making anything. Disassembling anything. Hiking. Cooking. Writing. We are robbing our youth of their imagination: one of the most precious gifts they have.

These video games beat as waves upon the unthinking shore. One day the tide and beat of the waves form one sandy pattern. Another day, another. But nothing is left that lasts…and time marches on.

These video games, which married amusement to the magic of television, have now metastasized. Add a telephone. Add a camera. And email. And an endless procession of (mostly) useless applications (apps). A sprinkle of fairy dust. Poof: you have the indispensible device – the smartphone, most pervasive in our pop culture in the example of the iPhone.

iPhone users represent a quirky group of people. They are people who love their phones like one might love a pet or a child, they think they are cooler and better than you, and cannot comprehend their lives without this device. It is always on, never further than 3 feet from them, except perhaps when they are bathing (though I suspect there will soon be an app to eliminate that drudgery), and interacted with during every waking moment of every waking day.

As we contemplate this reality, and I pose the “what if” question – not just to myself, as the owner of a smartphone – a Blackberry Storm – but to my friends and acquaintances, I am constantly met with howls: “What if you stopped using a smartphone?” I ask. They reply, “What? How??” (insert howling noises and guffaws)

Ironic, isn’t it? Technology that is supposed to free us actually enslaving us. How have millions of humans been happy throughout the centuries without smartphones? How?? Will anyone argue that his smartphone makes him happier as a person? More fulfilled as a human? It is a pet, a distraction, a lie. It robs you of your ability to be alone, your ability to grip reality, and, as you sit awash in the imagination of thousands of unique apps, you find yourself fundamentally un-imaginative, and un-original.

But the iPhone is almost already passé. Its new cousin, the iPad, reminds us that we never have to live without big screen, high definition, always-on access to the internet. The Internet used to be a “place” one “went” when he was by a computer. It is now ubiquitous and pitched to us as indispensible.

I have made the “indispensible” arguments on behalf of smartphones numerous times myself: “How would I find directions, send email, google necessary facts or numbers?”

I have come to believe that the answers to these questions, and thousands of less necessary reasons to have a smartphone, lie in the simple acceptance of the fact that every gift comes with a price. Is the instant gratification that I get for those things worth the trade-off? Put another way, are the tangible benefits of your smartphone: always-on access to the internet, email, google, and other toys, worth what it takes from you: your time, your imagination, and your inner peace?

I have come to believe, even while recognizing the fact that I have created several businesses around the sine qua non of having a smartphone, that the answer to that question is a firm No. I have come to reject the notion that I have to be held hostage to a device. I designed my lifestyle around a smartphone. I can un-design it too.

How will I escape? I’m plotting. I’m scheming. I’ll let you know when I escape the asylum, and return to the real world of books, people, and sunlight. I’ll be free in an app-less world. And then I’ll tell you how I did it.

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