In With the Good, Out With the Bad

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Every once in a while, I run into a post I wish I'd written, and I recently ran into a couple fitting this description that complement each other. The first of these is "Dumb Phones and the New Luddites," a complaint about a genre of articles in which the authors blame (or seem to blame) smart phones for their own lack of self-control:

If you think Twitter is too distracting, GET THE HELL OFF OF TWITTER. If you lack the will power to stop checking it, delete your account. Same with Facebook and all the rest of it. But please, I beg you, stop trying to drag the rest of us into your problems. Most of us are very happy with our phones and wouldn't consider dumping them. I'm not on Twitter or Facebook but I use my iPhone all the time and it's almost never to call someone. Don Knuth famously gave up email but he didn't walk away from computers; he just stopped using email.
Amen, and I say the same regarding another post, by psychologist Michael Hurd, who elaborates on an important aspect of the problem:
[Y]ou have to look at what would tempt someone to spend so much time on, say, social media rather than with one's own company. And what's the alternative to social media? Think of some examples. Taking a walk. Being in the present, being self-reflective. Being mindful, self-aware and living consciously. Experiencing every moment fully. Thinking about the problems of the day and attempting to find solutions by having little conversations with yourself. Reading a good book and losing yourself in the drama or thoughtfulness of it all. These are some of the things you miss by spending hours of time looking at what everyone else is doing every last minute of every day.
I understand the exasperation of seeing people slamming smart-phones (or email, or Twitter) left and right, when they could become more disciplined about their use. But that might not always be simple. In particular, I think the problem becomes a vicious circle at some point, in the (apparent) absence of positive alternatives.

Quitting something cold turkey is one solution, and maybe the only one for some people, but such a drastic step may not be necessary -- or even desirable, as the first post notes regarding smart phones. An alternative solution to dropping your smart phone or your Twitter account altogether comes when Hurd explicitly mentions alternative ways of spending time. They're all long, and one might have to schedule them. To do this necessarily implies doing the same for social media and smart phones. I scheduled email and other social media for different reasons some time ago and found more time to concentrate on what was important to me, and to try other things. I found that I didn't just end an annoyance: I started an adventure with the "new" time I really had all along.

In sum, if you find yourself pondering the merits of chucking your phone off a bridge, don't. Don't beat up your phone or yourself. Take charge of both, and look for positive reasons to do so. Is there a book you've wanted to read for some time or an activity you've been wanting to try? Pick something and make time for it. And even if something fails to live up to expectations, just doing it will feel new and interesting, and you'll find yourself being more deliberate about your old vices. Or, more precisely, you'll keep the the technology and activities that actually help you lead the kind of life you want, and stop or at least curtail the rest, all for positive, selfish reasons.

-- CAV


Dismuke said...

I think what you write about is a challenge of modern life that extends beyond social media. For the first time in human history people have at their fingertips instantaneous access (and very often for free or at minimal cost)to more compelling content than they will ever have time in their lives to get to.

There's social media - but there's also YouTube, countless blogs and online publications, ebooks (including projects that scan and make available for free older books that have fallen into the public domain), audio books, online movies, television shows, all sorts of music services, courses and lectures and even the ability to virtually take at no cost the curriculum of major universities.

That is a stark contrast to the world many of us grew up in where there was far less content to choose from in terms of both quantity and quality and access to it usually required leaving one's house and forking over an amount of money that was, for anyone on a budget, at least worth pausing over. And, of course, that world was a land of plenty compared to what our grandparents and great grandparents grew up with.

It is like transporting people from a country where food was limited and expensive and placing them into a new world where food is unlimited and free and for every meal they simply walk up to an all-you-can-eat buffet of unlimited and delicious options. Most likely such people are going to put on a lot of weight and possibly end up with a diet that is actually less healthy than the one they had when food was scarce. People don't come automatically equipped with the skills to make such choices in a context that is completely new to them. Over time they they will eventually discover the need for selectivity and discipline.

Same with media consumption. The only solution to virtually unlimited content at one's disposal is to prioritize and become highly selective about the content that one does consume. But that is a skill that has to be acquired - especially given that a good content producer is expert and coming up with a "hook" that will draw you in. And content producers are increasingly relentless in terms of spamming us in various ways (for example, annoying app notifications that one has to turn off to stop one's phone from constantly buzzing) to bring their content to our attention.

I follow a handful of blogs through a news feed service - which is a tool I use to make my content choices more manageable. But sometimes I will follow a link in a blog posting and suddenly look up and realize that a significant amount of time has gone by as a result of my becoming absorbed in the article at the end of the link. It is very easy to get drawn in.

It is one of the bigger challenges unique to modern life. But as someone who remembers what, by today standards, was the content desert of the world I grew up in, it is a nice problem to have.

Gus Van Horn said...


Excellent points, and you help me put a finger on WHY some better options don't occur to people (besides maybe inexperience or falling into a rut): Too many choices. It's a little like a problem I wrestle with in a different form with my kids every Christmas, when, buried under all new the toys from relatives, the kids complain that they have nothing to do/play with a box. Or, after moving, I can't find any of the four hammers I know I own. Too much of something poorly organized can be like having nothing at all, and the problem is magnified when the alternatives to finding what one needs are too attractive.

But that is, ultimately a good problem to have.


Dinwar said...

I'm one of the luddites. I have a flip phone, and see no reason to get rid of it.

Here's the thing, though: My choices don't impact your ability to buy a smart phone. There is no way that even large numbers of people purchasing flip phones is going to eliminate smart phones from the market--such devices are too deeply entrenched in the culture, and with this large of a market for them someone will almost inevitably produce them. Plus, our market share isn't that large.

Blaming those of us who opt to continue using older technology for trying to "drag the rest of us into [our] problems" is no more logical than people blaming Twitter and Facebook for their lack of self-control. Us luddites are making our own choices, based on our own evaluation of our personal situations--and while some are discussing the advantages of older technology, it IN NO WAY attempts to force anyone to live the lifestyle some of us prefer. All of these articles I've seen have merely pointed out that there are advantages to older devices, something that's completely lost in these conversations.

What many smart phone advocates forget is that going to a smart phone is a change, and one that someone like me needs to consider carefully. Sure, it has some benefits. Most of these are negated when I'm near a computer and most aren't useful when I'm not near one. (To forestall a response I once heard to this argument: Yes, I get lost. I have maps for that reason--and the places I get lost in are places where smart phones wouldn't help anyway because they wouldn't get reception.) Smart phones have some costs as well. Price is one--my flip phone costs MUCH less than an iPhone. Durability is another--my flip phone has survived environments that would destroy a smart phone, by virtue of the screen being better protected. There's also a learning curve--smart phones are increasingly intuitive, but every time my wife asks me to use her smart phone to make a call I'm reminded that the function I want (calling someone) is increasingly hidden. On my phone, it's simple: you press the buttons and make the call. (Yes, I could learn--but I need to decide whether doing so is worth the effort, in the full context of my life and the way I use my phone.)

My point isn't "Therefore everyone should get rid of their smart phones." You using a smart phone neither breaks my bones nor picks my pocket. What I am saying, though, is that those of us who opt to forego the latest and greatest in technology aren't picking YOUR pockets or breaking YOUR bones either, and we often have our reasons for the choices we make.

I will of course admit that most writing about the benefits of flip phones should change how they're presenting this information. They should drop any nonsense about large numbers of people lacking the willpower to stay off social media sites, and should present older technology as one option available to those of us fortunate enough to be alive at this time.

Gus Van Horn said...


As a slow adopter of technology myself, let me welcome you to a club I was in for some time. I didn't get a smart phone myself until 2011.

The first post certainly wasn't directed at people like you, but at those who adopt the technology, then blame IT for problems that are really under their control, and then drop it and expect some sort of admiration from the rest of us.

I myself was ambivalent about smart phones, citing many of the same reasons you have for not wanting one (e.g., being able to use a computer for much of the extra functionality), and finally bought one, somewhat reluctantly for personal marketing reasons, when it was time to replace my old flip-phone. I was trying to break into a new tech-related field at the time, and figured it would be worth the added expense not to have people wonder at networking events why I'm not using a smart phone. (It didn't hurt that good alternatives to the iPhone were available.)

Of course, one's choice of phones is their own business and there can be many good reasons to quit (or never adopt) smart phones. But, like the first poster, I object to bad reasons for doing so held up as good ones.


Dinwar said...

"The first post certainly wasn't directed at people like you, but at those who adopt the technology, then blame IT for problems that are really under their control, and then drop it and expect some sort of admiration from the rest of us."

A fair point. I will say, though, that I don't think anyone's expecting admiration or necessarily blaming the technology. My experience is that people are actively hostile to those of us who choose to utilize older technology, and articles trumpeting the benefits of that older tech (even if the "benefits" amount to preventing you from doing something you don't have the willpower to stop yourself) serve as a way to show we're not alone, that we need not be ashamed of our choices. Willpower is like emergency preparedness: the best way to use it is to put yourself in a position where you don't need it. Saying that in a society where having a phone that's three years old is a faux pas sounds a lot like blaming the tech, when in reality you're merely applying a well-known psychological principle.

Your final statement is still true--people should present good reasons, not bad, for this choice. I think the different perspectives lead to different conclusions about whether they're blaming the technology or not, though.

"I was trying to break into a new tech-related field at the time, and figured it would be worth the added expense not to have people wonder at networking events why I'm not using a smart phone..."

Different professions, different norms. :) While I have had a few conversations about why I'm not using a smart phone, it's never harmed my networking capacity and has on more than one occasion made a positive impression. As a millennial, it helps set me apart and demonstrates that many fears people have about hiring folks of my generation won't materialize with me.

I only had trouble with it once. A project manager called about changes he'd made to my task. He'd made the changes at 10 pm, and I had to be on-site at 5 am (meaning I had to be on the road at 4 am). But despite the manager being upset with me, the whole thing was (according to a third party who investigated the situation) due to poor planning on his part--he figured he could make changes at the eleventh hour, rather than properly planning the work. To be clear, I'm not blaming technology here; it was entirely this manager's fault.

Dismuke said...

I actually predict that flip phones will make a comeback and that many people who now carry smartphones will again carry flip phones or some other type of handset phone.

Here's why: I think with the direction that miniaturization and the upcoming deployment of 5g bandwidth (and eventually 6g,etc.) smartphones and personal PCs will both become unnecessary. What will take their place is a small box that one will be able to wear on one's belt or wrist that will contain memory, processing power and function as one's bandwidth hub.

Want to do something productive that you would currently use a PC for? Just link your device to a conveniently sized screen and keyboard and get to work. Want to watch a movie? Again, find a screen that is convenient for your circumstances and stream away. Want to listen to music? Connect to speakers - in your car, in your home, or wherever - and stream away.

Want to talk to somebody somewhere else? Just connect your device to a convenient handset or headset. And that is where flip phones will make a comeback. There are certain circumstances where a handset will remain the most convenient way to make a phone call. Maybe you won't want to use one when you are by yourself in your home or car - there will be speakers and microphones all around you that will enable you to talk as if the person was in the room with you. But if you are out taking a walk you might need a handset or headset. And if you are in a room with other people you might not want others to hear both sides of the conversation.

Smartphones are most frequently used for purposes that really have little to do with making or receiving phone calls. The reason it made sense to combine all of those other things with a phone was because people were already carrying phones - plus it was the cellular networks through which portable bandwidth was being provided. So it makes sense for it to all be a single device. But if everywhere you go there are screens of context appropriate sizes that you can connect to as well as speakers, microphones and context appropriate input devices, there will no longer be a need to lug around a device as large or as clunky as today's smartphones. Handsets for placing and receiving voice calls will be but one of an array of interactive devices that one will be able to plug into. And, if you stop and think about it, the flip phone was a rather convenient format for a telephone handset

The way things are going, it is not going to be very many years before all of this will be commonplace. In some respects we are already starting to see it taking shape.

Gus Van Horn said...


I'm no millennial, so what might set you apart would pigeon-hole me as out-of-touch, and maybe even a Luddite!


I see what you describe as a possibility, although maybe with some kind of equilibrium between flip-phones and smart-phones, driven by who needs a "big-enough" screen around all the time vs. who doesn't.

Open source guru Eric Raymond predicted the kind of convergence you describe some years ago, and not long after, Canonical released smart phone software that made it easy to plug a phone in to a screen and keyboard to use it as a computer.