Dumbphone

25 Oct

On the heels of the announcement that Newsweek is going all digital, Andrew Sullivan wrote this piece in which he called print magazines “horses and carriages” in an age of automobiles. The autos in this not-exactly-apt metaphor are data devices, i.e. smart phones and tablets. He also called for an abrupt and immediate shift to pure digital media—essentially asteroid-bombing the printed word into extinction. He called tablet subscriptions “the only viable way forward,” implying that people who read magazines like Newsweek, of  course, already own tablets.

I resemble that remark.

Newsweek is allowed to do whatever makes business sense for their company; I don’t take issue with their decision. But–not asking rhetorically here–where is this assumption coming from that everyone owns a smart phone and a tablet? More importantly, why is it implied that people who do are somehow smarter and more sophisticated consumers of current events? And is our sudden and heavy reliance on mobile technology a pure, or a mixed blessing?

I wanted to investigate, so I found a study from March of this year that showed 46% of adult Americans own a smartphone. Among the 88% of adults who own a cell phone of any kind, the ratio is even higher—about three in five say their phone is smart. What about tablets?  A Pew survey right after the 2011 Holiday season found that 29% of Americans own a tablet or e-reader–nearly one third of the population. These numbers are expected to increase dramatically over the next two years.

Pretty compelling stats. But I really didn’t need convincing that me and my library-card-toting, slide-phone using, glossy-magazine-subscribing ass is behind the times.  It’s the tone that gets me. I’m an intelligent, involved, under-30 person who likes to read things in print form. Also: I can’t afford a $400 tablet. So how am I supposed to take this statement from the same piece?:

And the tablet is so obviously a more varied, portable, simple vehicle […] than paper, print and staples. Why the fuck do [magazines] exist at all, except as lingering objects of nostalgia?

The stance seems a little aggressive (hello, F-bomb?). One reader sheepishly admitted to enjoying reading magazines in waiting rooms, to which Sullivan simply responded “read it on your phone.”

This is the problem I have with many smartphone owners. There’s a sense of smugness and self-satisfaction like that of the Star-bellied Sneetches, with an additional element of cultish recruiting. The logical fallacy presented (usually in a condescending tone like the above) is that cultured, discerning, up-to-date people have smartphones. Therefore, it follows that people who do not have smart phones must be none of those things. Why is this a fallacy? Because there are still 54% of us that don’t have that kind of phone. If you think those people fall into the category of nostalgic fogies that just can’t be made to care about the world…well, I know a theory about 47% of Americans you might find interesting.

There’s no point in fighting the inevitable decline of physical media, but allowing it to occur organically is the best course. Calling for an abrupt stopping of the presses is like saying “well, there are only 60 ring-horned rut pigs left in the wild, but since their environment will be destroyed in five years we should just kill them all now.”

Plus, there’s something sadder than usual about this particular cultural transition, which is widely acknowledged as the most rapid in history (certainly faster than the one from horses to cars). A little mourning wouldn’t be amiss. After all, it’s not much of a leap from pen and paper to flesh and blood.

Case in point: I recently hung out with a friend who spent the entire day with her nose in her iPhone. She has a job that requires constant connectivity, but I hadn’t seen her in a long time, and we were good friends. In the past that would have meant a long, chatty tete a tete—now I realized I’d have a better chance at a real conversation with her if I texted her from across the table. I could have felt miffed, but I mostly felt sad. I couldn’t blame my friend, because this is, inevitably, where we’re all headed.

Coincidentally, I read an interview this morning with psychologist Sherry Turkle, who studies technology and self at MIT. She has published a book on this very subject called Alone Together. She explained the wildfire spread of social technology (like texting) as a function of our deep-seated need for approval.

It used to be that people had a way of dealing with the world that was basically, ‘I have a feeling, I want to make a call.’ Now I would capture a way of dealing with the world, which is: ‘I want to have a feeling, I need to send a text.’ That is, with this immediate ability to connect and almost pressure to … because you’re holding your phone, you’re constantly with your phone, it’s almost like you don’t know your thoughts and feelings until you connect. (Emphasis added).

Hey, it’s the way of the future. Newsweek is making a smart choice, and others will quickly follow suit. Technology will get cheaper and consequently more accessible, and one day everyone really will own a tablet. Even I, one of the last non-senior citizen holdouts of the old guard, am asking for a Kindle this Christmas. I’m only saying there’s more at stake than just “paper and staples”–there’s a human element that can’t be ignored, and can’t be chalked up to mere nostalgia. The steps are few between eradicating bookstores and proposing marriage via text. I’m only proposing that at print’s graveside, we bury the past with a solemn salute instead of a condescending crow.

And is it totally trivial if I say that reading on a screen for a long time hurts my eyes?

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One Response to “Dumbphone”

  1. Johnb547 May 27, 2014 at 9:38 pm #

    Wow that was odd. I just wrote an extremely long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyway, just wanted to say superb blog! aagddeackeef

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