Monday, May 9, 2011

Kick the Phone to the Curb

I teach about communication and technology, so it makes sense that I tell my students that they will wake up everyday out of date.  It is not really a new concept – sages since the dawn of time have been telling us that “you cannot step in the same river twice,” or words to that effect.  But time was when the notion wasn’t rubbed in our face the way it is today.  So what if Og, a couple of rivers and a mountain range away, was chipping a new axe head that would let him skin mammoths faster?  Big deal. When, or if, I ran into him he could tell me about it – or maybe eventually his kids could tell mine.  Time meandered.  But yesterday I learned that the world was in a lather to learn whether or not a K-9 corp dog was on the mission to kill Bin Laden.  What breed? How big? Did he/she carry technology? Canine tech? Do you really care?  Do you really want, or need, to know?

A corollary to my admonition to my students needs to be that out-of-date doesn’t necessarily mean out-of-touch with reality.  On occasion the opposite is true, sometimes that which is newly-minted, all shiny and popular, will also lead you astray.

It has been a long time since I have ranted about cell phones, now known as smartphones - too long.  So, I am now officially going on record as advocating that for many of us the time has come to kick the “smartphone” to the curb along with the 8-track, the Walkman, and the VCR.  Are you sensing an odd turn of example here?  Those are pieces of old technology – and the smartphone is the latest and greatest right?  No, not really.  For me the smartphone is the latest victim of technological Darwinism, they have become a branch that needs some heavy pruning here in the technology rose garden.

This is, however, not a universal condemnation of those smarty-pants phones.  It is restricted to “people like me.”  You see, despite myriad marketing claims to the contrary, no one technology platform can be all things to all people.  The tool is only a good tool if it meets your needs.  Too often we get that backwards.  We think, “Everybody has one.  I should too.  And if it does things differently, well,  I’m no old dog! I can learn new tricks!”  Personally, I have no desire to roll over and play dead for the smart phone.  And if you are, in some degree, a person like me, you might want to join the revolution.

OK, what defines a person like me? Here we go:

A person like me carries reading glasses.  I have always been visually challenged, but starting back at about 50 I had to begin using reading glasses in addition to my contact lenses.  So, I now need reading glasses to read my Droid, which has a larger screen than an iPhone.  And that is just to read the name of who is calling me - big stuff, center screen.  Surf the web?  Oh, sure.   Now, I need my reading glasses and a magnifying glass.  Maybe there is one here in the glove compartment. Oops.  Wrong lane.

A person like me never learned to “keyboard” and has hands larger than your average six-year old.  You can see where I am going with this.  My Droid has a cool little keyboard hidden underneath the touch screen upon which five-year olds and hobbits – who know how to keyboard – can easily use their apps by typing tiny words upon the tiny screen.  If you don’t want to use that keyboard, you can use the on-screen touch keyboard.  OK, it is a little smaller than the other keyboard – but don’t worry, when you touch a letter, the letter you are touching pops up on the screen.  That would reveal errors that would prompt you move to another key if you could, a: read the letter on the screen and b: knew where it lived on the keyboard.

Apparently, smarty phones also don't like the fingers of people like me.  Last night my wife and I were driving home.  Issues of import were unfolding in places far away.  First, her phone rang.  She touched and dragged, touched and dragged.  The icons were unimpressed and resolute.  They remained steadfast as the phone warbled along into voicemail.  Then my phone buzzed.  I thumbed and dragged, thumbed and dragged until finally the phone relented and connected the call.  I understand I can overcome this problem by using a small sausage as a stylus, which is an awesome solution.

A person like me makes actual phone calls in preference to texting.  Miniaturization is, as I have noted in the preceding paragraphs, a wonderful thing.  I note with especial awe the miniaturization of the receiver and microphone in my Droid and the various smart phones of my friends.  They are crammed right in there with the keyboard and the still camera and the video camera, and all that has been sacrificed is the ability to capture or reproduce sound with any fidelity during a phone conversation.  I am somewhat puzzled since these same gadgets seem to be able to record audio suitable for YouTube and play back mp3 files through ear buds with relative fidelity.  Phone calls, however, those become exercises in conjecture.  Rarely do I have any idea of what is being said to me.  Fortunately, I have years of experience in both cocktail parties and faculty meetings which enables me to respond to most unintelligible remarks with phrases that occasionally make sense. The downside is, of course, those times when my responses have nothing to do with the other side of the conversation.  My hope is that those to whom I am speaking are also faking it. Wait, maybe if I stick my finger in my other ear .  .  . Oops.  Wrong lane.

A person like me remains uncomfortable with the idea that a cell phone should get its own seat at the table.  I realize that in the 1950s the television began to claim a place in the living room.  Now it often gets the whole room.  I suppose you could try to talk over it, but surround-sound makes that difficult.  So we shut up and let the TV do the talking.  Nowadays, people position their phones on the table so it can share in, if not dominate, the conversation.  It has somehow gained the same dispensation as a precocious child - it can interrupt whenever it wants because, well, it is just so cute.  "Seen and not heard?"  My, what a quaint concept!

A person like me resents having to pay .  .  . doesn't have pockets where the thing fits .  .  .  .  can't merge contacts on .  .  . . well, I could go on.  But I will restrain myself.

So what is the point you ask?  Should those who share my biases and complaints retreat back into the 20th century?  Hook our phones to the wall with wire?  Pass on the pleasures of the Internet?  Au contraries, mon frère!  All I am suggesting is that we considered the attractions of other tools.

I would assert that my iPad or Xoom or any other of the emerging tablet computers excel at everything my Droid can do.  My iPad does it better and faster on a bigger screen that I can read and which actually recognizes my fingers.  The color and sound is better, the battery life far superior.  And it does more - I can paint on my iPad :-)  I have stayed with the wi-fi option as opposed to paying another arm and a leg to connect to the latest G3, 4, or 5 network.  Even with that cheap option I can sit just about anywhere, in the bathtub [very carefully], in coffee shops, in McDonalds, in parks, and there is usually an wi-fi network that allows me to iPad away.  And if I actually need to talk with someone - well, now for that I need a cell phone.  But it can be pretty cheap, and really stupid.

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