The Smartphone Cometh

I couldn’t remember the last time I was so eager, having long ago forgotten that feeling of genuine anticipation normally reserved for kids. As the sealed cube sat on my table, it all came back to me: a memory of seeing the trailer for Independence Day. Back then, a younger, nerdier, and easily excitable me had gone to the movies just to watch that trailer. I counted the days until its release after being enthralled by seeing mere seconds of the sci-fi dogfights. In my teenage imagination it was going to be the Star Wars of my generation.

But, life has funny ways of teaching a person expectation management (thanks Bill Pullman) and layers of early-onset cynicism slowly formed an imperturbable crust around my potential for glee. But that day, December 28, 2013, was different. The cardboard package, which lay on the table before me like the Box of Pandora, would guarantee my life would never be the same.

Sitting there, taking in a moment that was a long time coming, I felt a little silly for contriving such a build-up. “It’s only a phone,” I thought. But, for someone who had felt the double edge of technology before, I also knew it was more than a phone. You cannot adapt to something without it changing you. I was unsealing a way of life.

As recovering video game addict, the idea of carrying a digital enabler in my pocket seemed risky. My Xbox 360 lurked in a locked suitcase in my parents’ closet—that’s how little self-control I possessed around entertaining distractions. I had forestalled getting a smartphone for years and suffered countless inconveniences to make my way without one. How long had I been using analog-age fixes (Google text, road maps, and hand-hailed taxis) in a digital world? It had been six years and counting since the release of the iPhone in 2007—the year marked as the one the smartphone really blew up.

But, it felt like I had been dodging questions about my antique phone forever. How many women had subconsciously dismissed me, not because of my cheap shoes, but because of the smacking sound of an flip phone being self-consciously whipped open? It wasn't just the wince-worthy first impressions;  I had been late for countless dates (job interviews, weddings, and funerals) because hand-written directions only help if you are already on the right path. Tourists had given me directions in my own city because they could look something up on their phone.

This was a portentous moment. The phone in that sealed cardboard shell was like a radioactive spider bite, a canister of green ooze, and a full moon contained in a thin plastic rectangle. It might sound melodramatic, but there had been so many things I couldn't do because I didn't have a smartphone that I had been feeling sub-average before breaking down and buying a Moto X; as though the blame for tepid career prospects and a hum-drum love life could be laid at the feet of the digital gods.

Everyone else had a second brain, perhaps superior, to my one. In the unregulated sport of life, a smartphone was a performance-enhancing drug and I was the only idiot not doping. I continued to stare at the Moto-X box, sliding it closer in a bizarre makeshift ritual invented on the fly—if only to draw out the giddy feeling I was not accustomed to.

I was finally ready to hack my life. Like a post-War housewife ordering her first durable good, I would get a windfall of free time, for I was now liberated from anachronistic tasks such as writing things down or laboring to understand the woman who took my Chinese take-out order. In my pocket would reside an equivalent to the washing machine, the refrigerator, and indoor plumbing.

When it was over, the rapid unwrapping of the object that was to change my life was as unceremonious as a dysfunctional family’s Christmas morning. In less than a minute, a neat pile of little plastic bags and neglected instruction booklets lay before me. I turned to the “quick install” guide for people who were born before 1990 and don’t already have an instinctual understanding of how to goad little machines with screens into doing their bidding.
Within seconds of turning it on, I sat and wondered how exactly a pocket-sized computer (my new Android phone was more powerful than the computers in NASA's Mars rover) was going to fit into my already crowded life? One minute I am thumbing away on T9 with plenty of time to let my thoughts wander, the next I am up at 3:00 a.m. dicing digital fruit and affectionately cyber-bullying my friends with doctored photos of cock-doodles superimposed on their foreheads.

Accepting a smart phone into my life could not be considered adjusting, it had to be regarded as defeat. I had preached the disadvantages of smartphones to anyone at a cocktail party who was drunk enough to tolerate my insufferability. They are the bane of modern man, I said. They made you dumb, I said. They played on our innate self-centeredness, I said; and would lead to the death of conversation and the human intellect. Like a Cold War showdown, my rhetoric made gradual de-escalation impossible. For someone who had staked an ideological position as extreme as mine, the phone was more than a phone; it was a physical manifestation of my boundless hypocrisy.

I railed against the inevitable, but it had become necessary to make peace with that which represented everything I despised about the age into which I was born, but which became necessary for my survival in that age. Did medieval Protestant princes sit staring at their newly invented printing presses and wonder what using one meant for their kingdom? For their souls? Did the princes know that people would now have less time for God and less stomach for serfdom?

Contemporaries of the printing press formed critical opinions about how the new technology would impact their lives and their societies. This is quite unlike modern man, who unquestioningly accepts new gadgets as incontrovertible boons. What we cannot realize, because of the rush of new technologies and modes of living that we must acclimate to (unlike the men of the press, who had to adapt to new conceptualizations of the world with far less frequency), is that technology cannot solve our problems. There is a Faustian bargain implicit in adopting innovations: you cannot improve upon something without sacrificing something else. Every new technology has an opportunity cost; some of these we can work around, and the others work us over.

Mass production killed craftsmanship. Radio killed silence. The alphabet killed the epic poem, and caused the ancients to worry about the end of memory. Television killed bowling leagues and civic engagement. Automated stock trading put a bullet through human agency. We continue to do more and do it faster, but in the process we tend to do it worse on a case-by-case basis. Our societies unofficial moto has become “more is more.”

Tentatively taking my first swipes, your humble narrator paused to contemplate the aforementioned cautionary tales. In the face of what I knew—deep down—to be true, had I rushed to capitulate? Did I not have the stamina to be among the last noble holdouts, a digital hermit indifferent to the demands of the modern world and happily so? Several of my friends still had their old flip-phones, did I have a real reason to get one other than my insecurity?

As a freelancer, I was tired of meeting potential clients and having my phone ring only to see the look of amusement on their faces. “Is that your phone?” they would each identically inquire. “No, I’m just holding it for someone,” I’d say with a forced laugh. “My other phone is in the shop,” was my back-up feint, but when I would see that person months later with the same phone in my hand, I couldn’t hide my neo-luddite tendencies any longer. Taking a stand had become bad for business.

“That’s okay,” I thought, as I took my first selfie: middle fingers up in flattering imitation of the ubiquitous Eminem poster. “I live in a society that values the rapid and the novel over the deliberate and the consistent.” If it’s new and it’s fast, it must be good. To hell with opportunity costs; I would be too distracted to notice them.

The phone rang and I took my inaugural call. “Let me put you on speaker so I can mess around with this thing.” While my girlfriend vented about a taxing day at work, one that pushed her to the point of tears, I fiddled with apps and repeatedly muttered “uh-huh.” All my questions about how I would introduce a smart phone into my routine were answered: it would introduce itself.