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May You Be Smarter Than Your Phone This Year

Hermits Don’t Have Any Peer Pressure” – Steven Wright

I finally gave into peer pressure this fall and got a smart phone. Kicking and screaming all the way to the discount store, I might add. Up until then I’d been the last kid on the block to still have a state-of-the-art – state of the 2003 art that is – celphone generally referred to as a “flip phone” although my particular model didn’t flip… it just looked like a very small, very basic “Blackberry” with fewer keys. It made phone calls. It received phone calls, from within this country at least, and with my choice of four ringtones. It sent and got texts. That is all. Which worked for me.

Until it didn’t. I would have likely kept going with that little device were it not for two things which happened more or less simultaneously. First, the actual phone worked less and less. The battery, which once was an endurance athlete of the power world, often lasting a week without charging, was holding its charge less and less until it had become a 50-yard dasher, sometimes running out of power during relatively short car trips.

Secondly, we moved in October. And even though we are still located in a large subdivision in a metropolitan area of a quarter million people or more, the move of about 8 miles across a city limit somehow befuddled the discount carrier I had. The phone got no reception at home anymore… I had to go about half way back to our previous address before it picked up. I’d know where reception began because I’d suddenly hear the chiming as I drove along and the phone suddenly pulled in a day or two’s worth of messages all at once. Obviously, having a celphone for a “home phone” didn’t work for me if it didn’t work at home!

So I had to go out into the big, bad confusing world of phones and get a new one, and a new carrier with reception to the outer limits of the large city at least, if not the outer limits of the continent. Quickly I came to realize that there really weren’t many “old school” phones out there to choose from and I’d need to make the leap to the “dark side”. The big clunky, messy touch-screen side of the phone world… otherwise known as “my precious baby” to most of the rest of the world.

I had resisted them for a number of reasons. That seems funny when you consider that I was actually an early adopter of celphones in the ’90s, when they were big,clunky and expensive. A combination of a car that was less than consistently reliable, a brief relationship with a girlfriend who lived in a really bad neighborhood and my love of nature – hence frequently going to some remote park areas – made it seem like having a way to call for help 24/7 no matter where I might be would be a smart splurge. So why didn’t I like the newest, best yet versions of them? There were reasons aplenty. Some of them to do with the phones themselves and some to do with the users.

When it comes to the phones themselves, I simply didn’t see a lot of personal advantage in spending extra money to get a bunch of features I wouldn’t make use of. Enthusiasts speak glowingly of the streaming video capability and audio, but I personally generally don’t want to see a movie on a two inch screen and am not so unimaginative or impatient that I can’t stand in a line at the grocery store without watching 10 minutes of the latest Robert Downey offering.

Likewise, the car I drive has a stereo and a CD player; there’s a little stereo in our house (only a pale imitation of the sound system I had when fresh out of college, but that’s a topic for another day) so I don’t need my phone to be my music delivery system. That they have web browsers isn’t a bad deal, but for the most part I like working on my laptop, going back and forth between office software and the ‘net, focusing on what I’m doing, so times when I’d want to be surfing while away from my computer seemed like they’d be few and far between. And they’re big. My old one could fit easily in almost any pants pocket. I-phones, Galaxys, current LGs, not so much. Especially when encased in Army-grade armored cases which of course becomes necessary when one looks at the cost vs fragility matrixes of the multi-purpose devices which make eggs seem sturdy by comparison.

Similarly, I don’t like how the phones seem to take over people’s lives. Jennifer Aniston said not long ago that Friends couldn’t be made in this day and age because it would just be six people sitting around a table in a coffee shop staring at little screens, ignoring each other. She’s all too correct. Look around almost any restaurant, cafe or club these days and you might well get the idea that the art of conversation is more obsolete than cave painting as a means of communication. People texting each other across a table was the thing of comedy sketches a decade back; a normal interaction today. And don’t even get me started on what they’ve done to our roads.

Just as we finally get people to buy into the simple fact that driving drunk is dumb and dangerous, we have a whole new generation who figure that they need to be sober when they’re behind the wheel – or else they might mistype “LOL” or “YKWIM” while texting their friends as they whip along at 65 MPH. According to the federal government, by 2015, distracted driving accidents caused over 3400 deaths and 300 000 injuries in the U.S. alone. And one guess as to what the major cause of distraction is.

I don’t like how people feel like they have to be accessible all day, all night and interrupt whatever they may be doing to respond to a text from someone they’d probably not actually talk to if they were across the table at a Starbucks. Nor how reliant on them some people have become. I was in the car with a millennial recently when the radio DJs were talking about why teaching your kids “life skills” like budgeting and cooking was still important. Millennial male simply scoffed and responded all any young person needed to know these days was what apps were best on the phone; they could do everything they’d ever need to know. It’s all fun and games if you’re a 20-something until you misplace your charger.

So despite all that, there I was with a budget-priced entry level smart phone that would have seemed the stuff of a James Bond movie only 15 years back. The learning curve was steep… the first thing I found was that there was no user guide in the box. Using old school technology – the computer – I found an owner’s manual online, which apparently wasn’t updated frequently by the manufacturer. After searching the edge of the six-by-four inch little miracle of silicon chips for minutes on end to locate the “On” button, I found a youtube video that showed me where it actually was – in a totally different location than the owner’s manual showed. Soon I figured out how to swipe, to enlarge text when it was too small and run a cleaning app to prevent my phone from announcing to me in a loud voice it had run out of memory.

About three months in, have my opinions changed? Yes, and no. I don’t like having to constantly be touching and smudging the screen and I’ve missed calls because even when I “swipe” the green icon, sometimes my phone doesn’t answer. I miss the days when you pick up the reciever and say “Hallo!” The phone’s camera seems to have a bit of trouble focusing at times and while my sweetie’s higher-end phone has a sharper lens and all sorts of bells and whistles like exposure compensation, mine only delivers half decent shots in bright light. But it is nice to have a camera with me pretty much all the time. It’s no replacement for the Canon SLR, external flash, polarizer and so on which I adore but I wouldn’t be able to get that out and snap a pic of a cool car going by when I’m at a red light, even if I had it with me…which I likely wouldn’t.

I still detest how people eschew human contact in public places to stare at their phone and figure that viral videos that show people walking into manholes because they’re texting sadly illustrate reverse Darwinism on a number of different levels. I still like surfing the net on my computer, but there are times when it can be handy having the internet in my pocket when picking up my sweetie from work or going shopping. I’m a weather nerd, and so it’s cool to me to be able to check the weather radar in a parking lot. I’m also a baseball junkie so I imagine I’ll much like being able to check my Blue Jays scores while visiting friends watching America’s Got Limited Talent or whatever the current reality competition craze is. Oddly, I’ve found that Twitter seems to work better and more smoothly on my phone than the computer browser.

Takeaway from it all – a couple of things. First, technology isn’t a friend or an enemy. It’s a tool. You’re better when you use it to your advantage but better not let it use you. Second, I’m a Gen X-er, and all of a sudden we’re no longer the new kids on the block even though we still won’t listen to New Kids on the Block without gagging. I’m getting up there in years but I learned a brand new skill (using that phone) in a matter of a few days. You can adapt and learn too, no matter your age.

May your new year be happy- and full of new challenges you can best, new things to learn and ways to make your life better. And of course, may 2019 be full of things with instruction manuals in the boxes!

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