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Phones

10 March 201410:12AMintrospection

So in September of last year I bought a smartphone. Specifically, a Nokia Lumia 520, but to be honest the specifics aren't really important. Up until last year I'd been pretty resistant to the idea of getting a smartphone, and ironically, up until I got one I wasn't really sure why.

Before that, I'd been using a very durable Nokia "feature phone" - which is a polite way of saying dumbphone. It had a tricked out predictive text library, a sweet lanyard loop thingy for putting dangly things on, and was just barely capable of browsing the web. In a weird kind of way, I liked it. It had the same kind of slightly retro appeal that a Gameboy has, only less fun.

Here's the strange part though. Despite my repeated insistence that I didn't need a smartphone, and that the Nokia and my laptop between them managed to do all my stuff, I still tried to use this thing like a smartphone. It had all my music on it. It had Google Maps on it. I even had an _SSH client_ crammed on there somehow - which is ridiculous, because a phone keypad is easily the worst possible way to interact with a command line. Of course, rather than making me realise that I clearly wanted more from my phone than this thing could properly handle, the fact that it could handle it at all seemed to make me even more insistent that it did everything I needed, and that a proper smartphone would be an unnecessary distraction.

And then it lost its ability to read from the SD card. As much as I'd like to claim this made me realise how much I'd been abusing this poor thing, it didn't. It really just made me want to get a new phone.

If there's one thing they teach you in communication studies, it's that technology has consequences on people. Or possibly is the consequences of people. I never really did sort that out to my satisfaction.

Anyway, here are some of the consequences I noticed when I joined the ranks of the ensmartphoned.

Firstly, everything I had been trying to force out of my dumbphone became immediately easier. It was like stretching after a very long flight in during which you were confined to a 12-button keypad and all the flight attendants were helpfully trying to finish your sentences. Or something. It was glorious. Even such a mundane task, seemingly mastered decades ago by everyone else in the world, like texting, showed instant improvement. Which is to say, I actually started reading and answering my messages.

As an inevitable result of this, I immediately lost all ability to self moderate, and for the period of about three weeks, became one of those hollow texting phone zombies.

Many pixels have been spilled arguing about this, which seems a bit pointless. Maybe it's just because I'm new, and don't have bad habits or a nigh- compulsive need to check all the things, but self moderation was not really difficult to learn.

The next thing I noticed was the lure of photography. Even though the smartphone has the same megapixels as the dumbphone, I've started generating a lot more photos than I did before. Which, actually, is nice. A browseable, timestamped, geotagged collection of just... stuff... is a really nice thing to be able to flick back through.

Don't even get me started on Snapchat. I'll just say this: it turns out that conversational, ephemeral, enforced low-effort, annotated photographs are a really fun way to talk to people, and I'm going to stop writing like this now because I sound like an absolute wanker.

The phone has taken over a bunch of functionality which I used to do on the computer. Stuff like late light video streaming, late night webpage reading, late night Reddit browsing (actually, it's the reason I got reddit. I find the app way nicer than the website.)

Pretty much anything that's not a complex task - which, I guess, means it doesn't involve multiple steps, or multiple programs, or multiple tabs, or basically anything that requires programs talking nicely to each other. Because for a lot of that functionality it's actually much faster and easier. Then again, I'd never try composing long-form anything on it. Or coding. Or image editing, beyond like, cropping. Or browsing in the sense of opening a kajillion tabs, like researching.

So what?

So, it's a screen. I'd argue that the computer is still defined by the keyboard, and the smartphone is defined by the screen. Computers, mainly, invite you to smash keys like a maddened author or a badass hacker. Whereas a flat, featureless bit of glass is really inviting to be poked with a finger. I guess while computers are hand-sized, smartphones are thumb-sized. You really do just use your thumbs. It's a much smaller amount of content to work with at a time.

The traditional split is 'screens for consuming, keyboards for making'. Which has an element of truth to it, but it's also about the size - you can only usefully do one thing at a time, really, but that size also gives it portability. The overall effect, between the size and the data connection, is that you have omnipresent and rapid, but shallow, access to... stuff. I think the word I'm looking for is 'ambient'. There's this great article about twitter being a social sixth sense, and that's a good analogy. Smartphones are another sense. They're not a window into something deep and incredible, like a computer. They're a layer, of something shallow (almost ephemeral) but omnipresent. They aren't a window into the internet, they're an element of reality with amazing utility. They ensconce you more firmly in here and now rather than zoning you out of it. They supplement conversation and interaction, rather than suppressing it like computers tend to.

Essentially, they're augmented reality.

Having been thrown into this pretty much head first, I can say this with certainty - stuff like google glass will catch on. The people who reckon it's stupid don't realise that they're already living in an augmented universe because they're just too used to it.

This stuff is only going to get more and more pervasive. Will it have disastrous consequences on the nature of human society? Well, maybe. I'm better now though. I reply to texts. I have a calendar. I think despite what people feel, an augmented existence will probably be pretty great. Not that it doesn't create problems, like the fact that a significant proportion of the world can't get in on it, or the fact that I can't remember my keys without it. And not that unplugging* isn't awesome. But, on the whole, I think the future is gonna be pretty rad.

*it's ironic, because wireless is a thing.

< Take a deep breath. The coolest four seconds I will never see. >