Strange Addictions (or: On Smartphones and Sanders)

20 03 2016

To my friends’ chagrin and, secretly, to my own slight amusement, I have always been something of a tech ignoramus. I was late getting a cell phone. I was late getting an iPhone. And nowadays, a little dream of mine is to have my next phone be a dumbphone.

I get that willfully going dumbphone is an absurdly drastic step. The world has changed since I could force my high school friends to call my house and ask my parents if I was home. It almost feels kind of… suicidal. But that’s exactly why I realized I had to do it.

You can be addicted to technology. About three years after getting my iPhone 4, I am (was?) addicted to it. I felt its weight as I carried it around the house, knowing I daren’t miss a text; and I forgot what my hand felt like without it. I would try to squeeze checks of this and that app in every tiny mote of between-time: at red lights; while my computer was loading; during movies that weren’t quite grabbing me.

Call it this Jew’s little Lent-speriment. I am now the owner of a Pantech keyboard phone, and have been for about two weeks. And in this blog post, it’s time for me to address the myths surrounding the sepia-toned yesteryear of the dumbphone. Let’s see if they stand or flop.

1) A dumbphone is so simple that you can do what you want – type texts and make calls – without constant worrying about troubleshooting.

Nope, nope and nope. I remember now that once upon a time, a phone worth its salt was worth its weight in gold. It seems that in my recent Craigslist purchase I neither got screwed nor got lucky, which makes my purple Pantech the perfect subject for this experiment. The touchscreen doesn’t always lock when you want it to, meaning that I’ve sent countless blank texts or ones filled with ertyhunmmmm%^&&%$6566%%%%%. Most annoyingly, since I’ve changed the clock for daylight savings my phone insists on not translating the data it receives from other texts. As a result, all of my text conversations appear in one-hour blocks, since all of my messages were sent an hour forward.

Classic dumbphone crap, right? But I think I sort of expected this. So…

2) Ok, fine. But the bar is so much lower because you’re not immersed in a gorgeous digital world, and so you have a higher tolerance for just saying “oh well” and getting on with your life.

Actually, the real answer is even more critical of Apple: common iPhone problems like freezing, touchscreen malfunctions, and battery life actually stop you from using the damn device. With my dumbphone, it’s just not the end of the world, and so I keep using it. And so we can add a honeyed grain of truth back to myth #1. In a way, even a janky dumbphone is somehow more durable than a smartphone.

3) The battery life of a dumbphone is way better than that of a smartphone, so you don’t have to constantly worry about plugging it in.

Yes and no. Again, I’m sure this is phone-specific, but my phone now lasts for 2 days or so without a charge. It’s infinitely better than my old iPhone, which would last a matter of hours; and having that classic 3 blinking bars in the little battery, instead of a percentage notice, makes it much less stressful to play helicopter-parent. But still. I admit it: without a doubt, the romance of the tale has grown in the telling.

4) Without a dumbphone, I can simplify my life of apps.

Again, yes and no. The thing is, since it isn’t unlocked, I thought that as soon as my iPhone lost the patronage of a bona fide AT&T chip, it would become a useless brick. Not the case. I still have all the same apps, but they now only work with the WiFi in my house – surprisingly, even ones like WhatsApp that are linked to a telephone number. For me, honestly, this is actually an ideal solution. I’ve been able to continue using them when necessary; but without them waiting in my pocket all the time, I check them 1000% less often. (We’re talking a switch from every 20 minutes to every 2 days). The bad news, of course, is that the availability of the apps sort of taints my experiment.

My life with my phone, meanwhile, feels simplified in a way beyond the lack of apps. Without the ability to send emojis, GIFs, or quickly-snapped photos, I find myself narrowing my contact with my friends to slightly more pragmatic reasons. And though I wish the design for checking texts was a little quicker, and the display for things like group texts a little savvier – in those departments, it’s true, the iPhone has narrowed it down to perfection – I’m perfectly happy to text less, and think less about sending a picture of every little moment to the person with whom it’s an inside joke. That is one part that I’m actually enjoying a lot.

5) It’ll be hard to navigate the world without the Internet all the time, but it’ll force me to engage and think more.

This is true, but I think I romanticized the value of this engagement and thinking. The most obvious manifestation of this (now is when you get to say “I told you so”) is maps. Since going dumbphone, I have been spectacularly late to meet a friend; and have spent some tense moments in the car running errands which definitely could have been quicker. I’ve enjoyed strengthening my knowledge of unfamiliar neighborhoods in my city. But outside of my hometown, this story would be vastly different.

And then there’s your ability with a smartphone to look up a number and immediately call it – one of their greatest powers, if you ask me. Because I lacked it, finding a medical office I’d never been to involved traipsing through the halls of a large public health building, where most of the offices were closed and no one knew where anything was, finally to be helped by a nice lady who was on her lunch break. “I just started working in administration here,” she said, “so it’s actually good for me to know if you didn’t find what you’re looking for.” Was it nice to make a tiny connection with that lady? Well, sure. And I guess it helped her with her job, in some tiny way. But sweet blue Jesus, it took almost a half hour to do what could have taken seconds. That’s impossible to ignore.

My dumbphone life also involves a lot of quick Google Maps searches on a PC before I leave, which really just requires me to allot my time a fraction differently. And leads to another epiphany, one that I don’t think an analysis of tech addiction in 2010, or in 2013, could quite have reached: the way you use technology is an amalgam of ALL the devices you have, and how they interact.

6) I’ll be happier and I won’t want another iPhone.

Since the iPhone has fared much better than I thought in this experiment, I am as shocked by the answer as I type this as you probably will be when you read it: yes, I am happier. I literally don’t know why, except for this vague sense that my days are more interesting and less… sort of… masturbatory.

But here’s the really weird part: the answer to the other part of this myth is no. No, I will eventually want another iPhone. I realized early on in the experiment that this was the inevitable conclusion. The future goes forward, not backwards; and above all else I aspire to go with it. I admit how clutch it is to have a camera with you on the run. I’m intrigued by apps like Strava that could be really useful and awesome. And the idea of tackling a Backroads trip without a mapping system is just absurd. Besides, with its supreme lack of space for more than a few apps, my iPhone 4 hadn’t really been an iPhone for a while.

So what on earth to make of this? I guess technology addiction is just one of those ones you learn to live with, like coffee addiction. I’ll have to take a moderate stance: this detox is great fun so far; but it’ll just have to be a learning experience to look back on when I have my next smartphone. Until I forget what life is like without one. Then it’s time for the next detox.

While writing this post I saw, more and more clearly, a link to politics. Allow me to explain. Like so many liberals, I live in a divided household: the older generation is with Hill, while I intend to give my ballot the Bern. Both my parents, of course, have very good reasons for whom they support. My dad has mentioned that Bernie’s wish to eschew free trade will just selfishly hurt the poor countries to which we outsource. My mom has mentioned that Hillary seems more well-rounded on things like foreign policy, while Bernie keeps yelling about his one issue.

Can’t disagree with that, certainly. But it led to an interesting conversation. I told her what I’ve heard, and basically believe: that yeah, Bernie certainly has less foreign policy experience; but what with the breadth of what the President must deal with – and what with the massive army of advisors he or she chooses – at the end of the day, I really just want someone who is intelligent enough to parse the advice given to him or her by military personnel, and sympathetic enough to my values to do what I would wish with that advice.

Mom grimaced, and said that it still wasn’t quite enough for her. She would feel safer with a President who’s able to inspire respect for power in other world leaders; and basically she fears that with a sad-sack like Bernie as figurehead, other world powers like Iran and China might grow greater than us and start threatening us and our world hegemony.

I was taken aback both by this and by the ordinary answer that rose to my lips: “Oh well.”

I’ve never brought the logic this far, but I suddenly realized something. Voting for Bernie inspires wishful thinking hedged by fear and regret in voters: the same emotions inspired by the thought of shaking an addiction. Because the possibility of a Bernie presidency is the possibility of an end to our addiction. Our addiction to being the world police, and the world’s greatest power.

A close friend of mine once summed it up this way: “Hillary is the best leader for the current system; Bernie is the best leader for a new system.” We liberals have been talking about what a different U.S. would look like ever since I’ve been alive. Now that we’re close, we realize what we’ll have to give up, and we’re getting cold feet.

I think my generation is so pro-Bernie precisely because we’re uniquely prepared to face this. Our parents were raised by a generation smug in the knowledge that their country had smitten ultimate evil in WWII; and when they tried their hand at being peaceniks, it was smug in the knowledge that they were against the ultimate negligence in Vietnam. But my generation was raised in the shadow of 9/11, and all the shades of gray that became visible in that shadow. How sometimes we try to help other countries, and only end up causing more harm years later. How sometimes horrible things happen, but there’s no one you can reasonably blame. Most of all, I think the overreaching fear from 9/11 caused us to grow up with an awareness of something important: that all our meddling and military action, though regrettable and remonstrable, is very much a guilty pleasure. It’s not just a disgusting cancer to let go of joyously. It has a good side. It makes us feel safe.

People in the liberal hotbed where I was raised talk about an America where gun violence is not rampant; where good education and healthcare are basic rights. But I think most of them haven’t realized that in their imagination, this new America is still subject to certain assumptions they grew up with: that we still be the top dogs of world trade; able to influence worldwide policy with sanctions passed at the lift of a finger; always with more and bigger nukes than those who want to destroy us; always there to shove the dysfunctional faux-democracies in Iran, China, wherever, back in line.

If we really want to be like Iceland or Norway or Switzerland, or even Canada or Germany, the picture might not look like that. Liberal frustration stems from the fact that America the modern civilized democracy and America the empire cannot coexist. If we really want to focus on fixing America first, then we will have the weird and scary experience of watching the world map shift around the vacuum we leave. But to change the way things are, we have to make a choice.

If you’re dreaming of Bernie but you feel doubts come gnawing, this is for you. We as a country are at that moment when we throw away the last empty cigarette box and think, wait, hold on, crap – this isn’t gonna be all roses and dew drops. What can I say? We’re right, of course. It’s never as easy as we think, to quit our strange addictions.

But that’s no reason not to try.

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