My new iPhone: falling headfirst into the 21st century

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My husband might have been one of the last people on the planet with a flip phone.  I was right behind him with a phone that didn’t flip, but didn’t have any keyboard either.  We talked a great deal about upgrading to a smartphone.  But both of us felt like being more connected to our e-mail, Facebook and internet in general were not something we wanted.  We didn’t want to become one of those people who spend more time looking at their phone then they do talking to you when you get together for a beer.  And then we went to Baltimore.

I love Madison, but one of the things you cannot really get in Madison is a good bagel.  I would say that even in Louisville, the quality of the bagels is sometimes suspect.  One of the pleasures of traveling to cities for us is a good bagel.  So several mornings in Baltimore, we went in search of a good bagel.  One morning we tried just walking around downtown, figuring that surely there’s enough morning business traffic to have spawned a decent bagel place.  The next morning we asked the concierge and he directed us to….Panera.  This raises the question, with the advent of smartphones, is the profession of concierge on the decline?  I mean, Panera?  In retrospect, we know there are good bagel places in Baltimore.  Perhaps we should have asked a local before we went, but now, thank god, we can just ask Siri.  Yes, we made the collective plunge and got ourselves iPhones.

Like a child with a new toy, I spent the first 12 hours or so playing.  Oh, all the wonderful things I could do!  I could check in on Facebook.  I could look at my blog.  I could instant message my brother and sister.  Last night, my husband asked Siri who the coach of the Oakland Raiders is.  Dennis Allan, my friends.  Look at how our lives have changed.

I know the decision to get a smartphone is, well, really almost not a decision for anyone under the age of 20.  It’s not, “Should I get a smartphone?”  It’s really, “Which one?”  But I’m a sociologist, and so with almost all the decisions in my life, there’s a lot to think about.  A bagel-less Baltimore pushed us over the edge, and it certainly is cool to suddenly be one of the people who doesn’t just have to stand around, but can stand around and gaze deeply into the shiny face of your iPhone.

Will the iPhone make my life easier?  No, I suspect not really.  Part of the reason we couldn’t find a bagel place in Baltimore was that neither of us did any research before we went.  In my old-fashioned past, I would do something like buy a travel guide before we went somewhere.  I would read this book and scope out some interesting places for us to go.  I would probably turn down the corner of  the page with the bagel shop.  And then I would carry the travel guide around in my purse.  Now, of course, I can download the Lonely Planet app.  Is that easier?

Don looking lost in front of the Howard Johnson

Being a person who can remember life without cell phones, one of the things I remember being surprised by was how much more time people spent on their cell phones talking to each other than they had before cell phones.  At first, cell phones were really about those rare situations when in the past, you could have used a portable phone.  I think about the scene in this week’s Mad Men when Don is hanging out at the Howard Johnson looking for his wife.  You just wanted to practically scream at the screen, “Just use your cell phone, Don!”  Those were the moments in the past when you needed a cell phone.  What we never really needed them for was to be in constant communication with everyone about…nothing.  And yet, that’s how we gradually began to use them.  Adding to your daily life a stream of constant conversation that wouldn’t have been there before never seemed to me to be making anyone’s life easier to me.

So I’m not going to lie to you and say that I bought our iPhones because they make our life easier.  Already my iPhone has been acting wonky, functioning fully in every capacity except as a phone.  And so I’ve had to go back to the store, look up information online, and call Apple to try to fix the problem.  Already my iPhone has asserted its needs.  Over and over again in our history, we create technology to free us from something, only to find our freedom reduced by the needs of that technology.  Does your car really give you freedom?  Or does it just give you a long list of things you have to do in order to have a car–pay car insurance, take a driver’s test, pay vehicle taxes, get it serviced, fill it up with gas, find a place to park it, wash it, clean it, etc.?  Does your car take care of you or do you take care of your car?

I bought our iPhones because they are cool.  They are a source of status and identity.  Even though I spent a whole 14 weeks in my environmental sociology course talking about the ways in which status and identity drive our need to consume, I still wanted an iPhone.  They are fun and probably in some circumstances, useful.  But mostly I just wanted to be someone who had an iPhone.  Like Saumel Jackson and Zoey Deschanel.  The night after I bought our iPhones, I had iPhone dreams.  A restless night of sleep in which I imagined that the iPhone could cure my sore shoulder.  I woke up worrying about how staring at that tiny little print would affect my eyesight.  I had dreams in which the power of the iPhone grew and grew.

The newness and excitement will, of course, wear off.  My husband and I are smart people.  Surely we can figure out how to be judicious in our use of this new technology.  I comfort myself with the fact that at the same time we both bought iPhones, we have also begun to play music together.  Two guitars are considerably less complicated technologically speaking, and if the apocalypse comes and the grid goes down, our guitars will go right on working.  I find comfort in that balance between old and new technologies.  I think it tells me that an iPhone, for all its sophistication, can never really take the place of a guitar.  And Siri can never really take the place of an actual person.  And that if we are smart and careful, we will continue to use our technology wisely, rather than allowing our technology to use us.

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