I bought my iPhone in the early summer of 2009. It was a standard 3G machine that was already pseudo-obsolete before I walked out the door, thanks to the brand new 3GS model that I had left behind on the shelf, just outside my price range. Along with the costly additional AppleCare coverage that I would end up never using, I exited the AT&T store stage right, and decidedly poorer.
As I drove home, I imagined the myriad things I could do with my fancy new future-brick: the games I would play, the apps I would use to improve every facet of my life, the exponential increase of efficiency I would enjoy. Perhaps my iPhone would help me learn guitar. Perhaps it could help me solve all those differential calculus problems I’d been putting off. Perhaps it could raise my children. These were the things that the advertising and enthusiastic associate had promised to me, and by “promised” I mean “implied.”
Over the coming months I mostly enjoyed my iPhone, but with constantly diminishing returns on the investment. The little things bothered me more and more by the day. The limited space and unexpandable memory. The dropped calls. The diminishing battery life. The constant upgrade of iPhone products that made my machine more and more antiquated. The simple sense that the day before I bought my 3G, people had basically stopped making apps and games that worked well on it. By the beginning of this year, I could have been convinced that my phone had been nicked from a history museum as an emblem of antiquated technology. I was using a phone designed perhaps by da Vinci—artistically sound but wholly impractical. I imagined wall paintings of cavemen glaring sternly under protruding, Cro-Magnon brows at their 3G iPhone, trying to reconnect a dropped call.
So, when it came time to finally upgrade my phone, I have to be honest. I never for a second considered buying an iPhone again. In fact, I seriously considered abandoning the smartphone revolution altogether.
I dimly recall my very first cell phone. It was relatively small, a dense piece of technology with plastic, squishy number buttons and all the functionality of your basic, modern, cordless phone. It basically did two things: send and receive phone calls. This was the best cell phone I have ever owned.
I was a grudging adopter of cellular technology. I barely answer my home phone as it is, perennial call screener that I am, so why on Earth would I want to make myself more available? To this day I don’t believe I’ve ever used anywhere near the minutes allotted me on a cell plan. If there was some kind of buyback policy for a phone provider, where they would refund a certain part of your bill if you didn’t use up their precious network, I would immediately sign up with that carrier and save up my savings to buy a boat or a small moon.
My biggest issue though, is that these devices seem to consistently encourage their owners to make terrible decisions. Setting aside the fact that I could have financed a used car with the money I’ve spent on the phones and subscriptions over the years, the more sophisticated the devices become the more I am encouraged to inconvenience or even openly endanger others to attend to its needy alerts. Worse yet, in the dazzling light of technological advancement, I was tricked—tricked, I tell you!—into believing that these annoying little machines had suddenly become an absolute necessity.
This is a lie!
First of all, at this point I’d like to thank you for sticking with my anecdotes as I toured a leisurely Sunday drive to the point, but I’m happy to report that we’ve finally arrived. I realize that I am positing a theory that’s probably more appropriate in Grizzled Grandparents Weekly between a review of the lunch buffet at Kountry Kitchen and an expose on the 14 Things Kids Want To Do on Your Lawn, and if I’m alone on the point that’s fine, but overall I have to say that my cell phones have almost universally been a negative impact on my life, and the more they do the more I think we’ve taking a horrible left at Albuquerque when we clearly should have taken a right.
But, before I lose you entirely, let me go ahead and say that I think the coming tablet revolution is where we should have been going this whole time. For all the negatives I can think of to say about my iPhone and other smart phones, on the flip side I completely get the value of the iPad, because all of that media consumption, all of that game playing and all of that browsing makes so much more sense in the context of where those machines can be used and what they can actually do.
I had the first niggling hint of this theory on the night I first owned my iPhone, called up a YouTube video and wondered when the hell I would ever try to watch a YouTube video on my phone again. Hey, that’s great that I can watch Iron Man 2 in line at the bank, but why the hell would I want to? I can’t even see it.
When it comes right down to it, I don’t need to check my Twitter feed while waiting for the red light to change, and damn you Steve Jobs, et al. for giving me the opportunity to do so. My smart phones have consistently given me the horrible and tempting freedom to make terrible life decisions. I have, on numerous occasions and completely without irony, driven past roadside accidents likely caused in whole or in part by irresponsible phone use, while irresponsibly using a phone myself. And, I don’t just mean moments where I’m asking my wife what she wants from the store, but times where I am trying for what may be minutes at a time to find the podcast I want to listen to from a list of a billion.
The reality as far as I can tell, is that almost any time where it would have been appropriate for me to have the full benefit of my smart phone is a time I might have had a tablet with me anyway. An airplane, a trip, relaxing on the couch while my kids watch something offensively terrible on Nick Jr., these are all times I’d have been as likely to have a tablet as a phone. And, the fact is, the experience would probably be better as a whole.
All that said, I did still end up getting a new smart phone—a Motorolla Atrix—but that is because I am a weak minded consumerist. What I have tried to do, however, is change the way I am approaching the machine. It’s not a game machine, nor a visual media player, nor my alternative for getting online. It isn’t a book reader. It isn’t a toy. It isn’t a medium for entertainment.
It is, it turns out, a really fancy phone that can check my work e-mails and occasionally play a song. As long as I can hold the line on that front, I think my new phone and I are at the start of a beautiful friendship.