From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

January 25, 2016*: Me too!

For years, and admittedly for no particularly good reason, I resisted having a smartphone. Partially my resistance stemmed from being always connected via a computer so that on the one hand a smartphone wouldn't have added much, while on the other chances were good that it would have added too much. Partially it stemmed from enjoying the incongruence of being someone intimately involved with digitality who would take a very simple and close to ancient cellphone out of his pocket when it rang, causing more than a little bewilderment. Partially it stemmed from wanting to wait until a phone could really do super things ... like make a cup of coffee. About six months ago, however, when number two son left to travel around the world and wanted a simpler phone (with less chance of being stolen) I "inherited" a Nexus 5 phone that, at least until a year ago was most definitely a very advanced phone. I quickly got used to using it, and only a bit more slowly adjusted to taking it out of my pocket where people would then notice that I was no longer demonstrably retro.

Perhaps one of the strangest aspects of this prolonged resistance is that in the summer of 2007 I wrote an article (in Hebrew), ultimately published in 2010, about the desirability of having an always available source of information in my pocket. In June of 2007 the first iPhones, the tool that more than any other ushered in the era of instantly available information, were released to stores. All this suggests that there was good reason to assume that I'd be an early adopter. After all, there I was, on the cutting edge of the information revolution, presciently envisioning what was to come. But instead of jumping in I continued to watch from afar. And of course since then, on numerous opportunities, I've observed how others have used their smartphones. And now I've had a chance to also observe myself.

My present "entrance", though total, was, and has also remained, rather limited. I've tried hard, and almost successfully, to keep all alerts, other than "traditional" phone calls, silent. In other words, I wanted to have a computer in my pocket which I could use for information purposes, but as much as possible not view the device for what it really was - a communications device. Frankly, for a rather simple, and even obvious, reason I learned that doing so was close to impossible. Once upon a time computers were "personal", but phones - and long before each person had his or her own - weren't. Even today, when communicating is undeniably a central aspect of computer use, it's still possible to use a computer without an internet connection (though I doubt that anyone actually purposefully does that). But a phone is different. If a phone isn't communicating it's not doing its job. There's no point in having a phone without a phone number. And this means that it's exceeding difficult to keep alerts silent. If someone sends me an SMS he or she expects that I'll read it, and that's all the more true for more immediate tools like WhatsApp. So, for a couple of months I could still respond that yes, I'd received someone's message but that I only check messages once every one or two hours. Soon, however, it became obvious that my idiosyncratic use conflicted with what was universally perceived as a more logical use.

There are certain undeniable benefits to a smartphone over a laptop. Over the past two or three months I think I've opened my laptop twice while riding the train home from work. Though working from the laptop gives me a feeling of doing "real" work I have to admit that there really isn't much point in trying to work on the train. Partially that's because the ride isn't long enough for me to truly sink my teeth into something I'm working on. So I've learned that on a relatively short ride (during which napping is actually my preferred activity) whatever I might find worth doing on a laptop can more easily be accomplished on the phone. Though I'll still sometimes take out my laptop while on the train there's no doubt that a smartphone - with access to books or articles - is easier to use, and I have to admit to the truth that even if I really try to get "work" done (meaning on the whole writing) while on the train ... it doesn't work. I see others who seem to be succeeding, but for me it's not worth the effort (and it's even - perish the thought - more effective to jot something down on a slip of paper ... and I've always got a pen in my pocket).

Studies apparently show that although just about everybody downloads and installs lots of apps, most people only use a handful, if that. I haven't conducted any "research" on the matter, and instead I've only glanced around (and over shoulders) to try and see what people are doing on their phones. Over the past two or three months, as I've been preparing this column (at least in my head) I've made an effort to observe people on their phones - without being overly intrusive, of course. Without a doubt Facebook gets the most use, though I've seen lots of WhatsApp (or something similar) use. I've also, BTW, seen/heard people actually talking on their phones. Frankly, if I have to choose (and no, I don't have to) I prefer that people on the train communicate via the keyboard than through holding lengthy, and noisy, and often uncomfortably personal, conversations. About two months ago I found myself scratching my head because I'd hardly seen more than three or four people playing Candy Crush on their phones (and one person told me that actually it was a different game). Since then, however, that number has grown considerably. Yes, it seems that people are still playing it. On the other hand, I haven't seen anyone playing Angry Birds, and I'm sure that there are quite a few games I'm not familiar with that garnered millions of users, and millions of hours of play on smartphones. Games on smartphones make sense. They offer a pleasant, and noncommittal, way to pass the time - and just about everybody has some time for passing. Most games (or at least smartphone-based games) tend both to peak and to fade quickly. We're happy to use them to pass the time, but we apparently also have a need for variety and change. So they're popular for a short while before we move on to playing something else.

Yes, I talk on my phone, though I've learned that that's not necessarily its primary function. And I type out messages as well. One of the things I find most captivating about writing on a smartphone is the predictive keyboard. Lots of sites collect auto-correct bloopers. These are fun, but considerably less interesting than what seem to be the underlying assumptions of predictive text. When I start typing out a message I quickly detect how I'm oh-so-politely being corralled into a mode of instrumentality. A Lifehacker article from about a year and a half ago gives a glimpse into how predictive keyboards work, but it emphasizes how the keyboard learns from what I write and adapts to my style so that over time it will truly, or at least somewhat accurately, reflect my own style. That may be true, and perhaps I have to give it more time, but my experience suggests that more than it's trying to learn from me or is being trained by me it's actively attempting to train me. Frequently the suggestions presented to me are clearly not what I was intending to write, but are close enough for me to acquiesce and accept them. And whenever I accept these suggestions I'm letting the predictive text "know" that I'm not going to argue with it. More often than not I'm presented with options that clearly seem to be urging me to get to the point. Rather than the phone knowing what I want to say, it seems to understand what I should say, particularly in the get-to-the-point framework of using a smartphone. What's more, it wants me to do so quickly, preferably without any superfluous or flowery language. And though I can be stubborn, algorithms can be persistently stubborn and continue to offer me their "suggestions" long after I've already given up arguing.

Throughout these Boidem columns I've noted the extent to which our digital tools have become part of the family, even extensions of ourselves, and objects with which we develop truly personal relationships. Marshall McLuhan is credited, perhaps incorrectly, with telling us that "we shape our tools and thereafter they shape us". Whether it was him or not, that basic idea is consistent not only with the way in which the smartphone nudges us in a particular direction, but also with our willingness, perhaps even desire, to be nudged. I think that my awareness of this tendency, perhaps even eagerness to capitulate to that nudging, was what caused me to originally resist having a smartphone. After half a year, and despite all the obvious advantages, I get the feeling that perhaps I should have resisted even more.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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