Do You Really Need a Smart Phone?

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Over at Study Hacks: Decoding Patterns of Success, Cal Newport considers an idea raised by a piece in The Verge:

Vlad Savov ... asks if it's time to bring back the dumb phone. If we return to thinking of these gadgets in a more purely instrumental sense -- that is, asking what important problems they solve -- then, perhaps to our surprise, we might find ourselves wondering why the appropriate answer is not just a simple "yes."
Image via Unsplash.
Even considering Newport's very good points about the much-improved utility and portability of computing devices sized between the smart phone and the laptop, I find myself answering something like, "It depends, but probably, you do."

Granted, Newport is speaking mainly from a productivity standpoint, but a recent road trip I made showed me that there are at least two things a smart phone can be quite valuable for (on top of improving our enjoyment of our lives, if used with discipline): memory insurance and remote connectivity. Yes, phones can do many of the things a Chromebook or a tablet can do (but not as well). But during the trip, a contact I'd been trying to reach called me to set up an appointment. I was nowhere near another device at the time, so I put her on speaker and glanced at my calendar, using my phone. Later, at a gas station in the boondocks -- whose proprietor may not have even known what wi-fi even is -- I was able to quickly confirm another appointment right after sending my wife a brief text on my progress home.

Yes, I could have done either of these things later or on another device, but... In neither case was I trying to concentrate or otherwise deeply involved with something else, and in both cases, it was a fine time to do a short, one-off task. Indeed, had I not done the first of these, I might have missed a chance to batch the appointment with others -- and I would have had to expend an amount of effort to remind myself to return the call later (an amount equal to or greater than ... just setting the appointment). All this I could do just by reaching into my pocket or using the device I was already using.

Was this necessary? Maybe so, maybe not. But sometimes, small wins can pay off in unexpected ways. Unless you have great difficulty controlling the urge to check your phone every few seconds, I'd say that these are great for collecting small wins. I vastly prefer using a real computer for scheduling and other productivity tasks, but as annoying as it can be to do them on a phone, it's a great ability to have.

-- CAV


Dinwar said...

I think you hit the nail on the head with "I prefer".

Need isn't the standard--we don't NEED cars, or air travel, or space travel. I'd estimate that 90% of science is or started out as trivia (we learned to understand electromagnetism, for example, because a guy wanted to satisfy his curiosity). If we held need as the standard, we'd cull products until we're back in the stone age.

The whole issue here is choice. Smart phones give you more options for how to accomplish certain tasks. Whether you use them effectively or not is up to you. For that matter, whether you use them at all or not is up to you. I do not have a smart phone, and do not want one; I have chosen, deliberately, to accomplish these tasks some other way.

I think smart phones are taking the blame for deeper issues. Most people do NOT choose deliberately. And they get trapped in things like social media. That's not a fault of the phone, however.

Gus Van Horn said...


I agree that it is wrong to blame the tool or even the tech companies for the time wasted on smart phones and the like. I am not so sure about need, which is an interesting point for a couple of reasons.

1. Regarding cars, it is possible, especially somewhere like Boston, to get by without personally owning a car. (We ditched both of ours before we moved to Back Bay Boston for my wife's residency back in '08.) But on a society-wide level, we need them indirectly because widespread adoption makes us dependent on the improved efficiencies that mode of transportation offers. You might be able to make a similar case for smart phones, which are increasingly the main or only computer many people use.

2. You mention that you choose to accomplish the same tasks in a different way, which is, I think what Newport is saying most people should consider doing. For example, if I kept a paper planner with me everywhere I go, I could have at least set the appointment I used as an example just as easily. And I'm usually pretty good at remembering things like that. But having the phone AND calendar as one object to remember greatly increases the odds I'll enjoy the advantages of having both of them around. And, because the calendar is on the cloud, even losing the phone would be easier to recover from than the loss of a paper calendar would be (unless I'm backing it up regularly in some way). Some people might indeed need (and not just strongly prefer) the flexibility and backup that arrangement offers.

Regarding (2), perhaps there are degrees or kinds of need, as in must-have-to-get-by versus gives-a-nice-advantage, but my thoughts go back to the game I wrote about yesterday: You never know when you might need a small advantage. Perhaps Newport should argue for more self-control, rather than widespread reversion to smartphones.