© 2016 Matthew Lee Johnston

In defense of drug phones

I had a smartphone before they were smart. I worked on an early version of Windows that ran on a Motorola flip phone back in the 90’s. I had the first Palm Pilot. I rocked the Danger HipTop before it was the T-Mobile Sidekick. I have also had every other iPhone since its inception, naturally. I’ve worked on products that have captivated many an eyeball on small portable screens. I am partially responsible for millions of moments lost in distraction.

In June of 2015 I accidentally soaked my iPhone in a waterfall, signaling the first time I had done such a thing in my long history of toting around expensive pocket computers. Because my cellular contract would not be up until the following September, and because of a growing feeling that as humans we were becoming too affixed to our mobile devices, I chose an inexpensive regular cellular “flip phone” as my temporary surrogate device until the new iPhones came out. I called it the “Summer of Presence.”

What happened next was pretty fascinating. I had to re-wire my brain to not depend on the tiny window of distraction during idle moments, and instead look around or talk to people. Observation became something I did for the sake of observing, not so I could find something to post on Instagram. I read more. I consulted maps before leaving the house and wrote directions on Post-Its. Sometimes I just stared at people while they stared at their phones. It was like being a ghost. It still is.

At first I experienced boredom during idle times and felt self-conscious about not having something to stare at while out in public. In fact, I had good reason to feel that way which I will get to in a second. But the notion that not having a phone to look at felt uncomfortable to me was alarming and disturbing. My natural state of being had been subverted by something unnatural, fueled and powered by an industry that charges a premium for this “privilege,” and relies on customers to engage, and to document their life experiences so that they can monetize them.

It’s almost one year later and I still don’t have a smartphone. However, the script has been flipped. It’s amazing how people…friends even…some of whom are relatively new to the smartphone scene, engage in tech shaming. “Jokes” about how I need to get a real phone. Comments about how my flip phone is some kind of statement. I’ve been called a hipster, Walter White, and “old school” because I don’t have a smartphone. When Apple’s iMessage system jacked up my communication with friends because it doesn’t play well with others, these friends became frustrated with me for not having an iPhone. Last weekend when I went to a show, a security dude with half of his teeth and some seriously imposing neck tats accused me of having a “drug phone.”

I am somewhat surprised by how readily everyone seems to have abandoned their scruples and thrown them in to the phone hole. If you are comfortable with being constantly distracted, then that’s on you. But it’s my view that by spending so much time on our phones we’ve surrendered something that makes us uniquely human, and we are impacting the world around us with our new indifference to it. People without smartphones are the ones most affected; children, old people, and hipster drug dealing Luddites like me.

The impact of smartphones on our ability to function is real. We’re losing our ability to navigate our world without instrumentation. We look at our phones to determine current weather conditions when we could just look out the window. We use GPS apps to drive to places we’ve been to before. But the most depressing by-product is what all of this has done to our interpersonal communication skills. The art of conversation may be dying in lieu of us getting better at emoji thumb-fu, and maybe that’s OK, but try striking up a conversation with a stranger this week and tell me it doesn’t feel more difficult for the both of you than you remember it being.

I’m becoming increasingly aware of smartphone obsessed behavior, and instead of sitting there while someone disrespects me and my time by staring at a phone as I wait for them to deem me more interesting than Facebook, I now just get up and leave. Call me when you’re human again. If don’t pick up it’s because I’m giving someone my undivided attention…just leave a voicemail message…it’s like a cloud service for people who still talk to one another asynchronously.

Oh…and ‘411’ still exists.

One Comment

  1. Posted February 1, 2016 at 5:00 pm | #

    I remember experiencing these sentiments, but then I got a smart phone. Thanks for the reminder!