[Readers: here's a largely non-relationship column, for a change of pace...]
My cell phone is an idiot. It’s a straight-up, dingbat dumb-ass. It can’t do anything, except make phone calls, and has no competency to tell me where I am, why I am there, how I got there, or what I should do, think, feel, and see now that I’m there.
It doesn’t inform me of my position vis a vis the nearest Williams Sonoma. It can’t tell me the deepest lake in South America, play Tetris, recite the last ten Superbowl winners, or even the weather.
It’s occasionally embarrassing to have a stupid phone. Because you can tell that my phone is dumb just by looking at it. It’s five years old, which is like 250 years old in Human Years, and Smart Phones wear their smarts ostentatiously. The thinner they are, the smarter they are. Smart phones are sleekly discreet about hiding the fat bulges of their buttons, whereas my phone actually has buttons that you actually press, you don’t flick your pinky fingertip over them like a plenipotent wizard.
Sometimes I pull my meathead phone out in public and wince at my obsolescence. Other times, I defend it to myself like you would a big bruiser of a child whom you love but who is more adept on the playground than the classroom.
There’s a fine line between “smart” and “smart ass,” after all. I feel like I should have a bumper sticker that paraphrases, “My Stupid Phone Can Beat Up Your Honor Student Smart Phone.”
My husband keeps nudging me to undertake a techno-upgrade, but I’m resisting it. This isn’t about anything so facilely embattled—although appealing—as being a Luddite. I’ve got nothing against technology, per se.
(And, there’s also a serious side to my resistance: The trace minerals that go into manufacturing our relentlessly upgraded Playstations and high-tech gadgets are fueling unimaginable violence in Congo to extract and profit from tin ore, coltan, cassiterite, and other resources. The yen for the new new thing has its victims, in a few different places).
My reluctance is more about my uncertainty that I really want a smart phone in my life, some appliance that outwits me.
“Smart.” That attribute must be testing well in focus groups, because it’s the Madison Ave. adjective of choice, the fashionable “new black” of descriptors. It elaborates everything from lipsticks to dishwashers. Smart mascara makes mysterious adjustments to your lashes with its acumen, and so on.
It’s ironic. Charles Pierce describes in Idiot America that we’ve become notoriously anti-intellectual, especially as regards our politicians. We like our Humans and Politicians folksy and defiantly ignorant of things like science, book-learning, “hard” words, and facts, but meanwhile, we prefer phones, vacuum cleaners, dryers and jeans (they’re smart! Microfibers “know how” to conform to your shape!) to be brainy and dazzle us with their intelligence.
Being a nerd (think Al Gore’s debate performance) is a curse if you’re an American politician. But it’s a blessing if you’re an American blender.
There’s a long, tormented history in fiction around this business of animating machines and things with human attributes, of course. It stretches from Frankenstein to HAL in 2001, to the Terminator movies. It begins with hubris and the urge to demonstrate ingenuity.
Then, our creations turn on us, destroying us by the human attributes that we endowed them with. A modest example from a Smart Phone: they send a beacon that “informs” on you. Owning some of this technology is like putting a Lo-Jack on yourself. Now, researchers are using our “really smart phones” to “harvest” a wealth of “intimate detail from our cellphone data, uncovering the hidden patterns of our social lives, travels, risk of disease” and political views, reports the Wall Street Journal.
Basically, your phone is snitching on you. Through it, outside parties can predict with "uncanny accuracy" where you'll be tomorrow. They can even identify “influencers,” people who are likely to sway other people’s opinions. What they do with these people once they find them, I'm not really sure.
I can imagine a Phone turning on its maker and doing HAL’s incriminating monotone from 2001: “I Am Now Telling Your Wife Where you Are, Joe…. I Am Now Telling Your Wife Where You Are, Joe…” Or, “I’m Afraid That I Can’t Let You Use Me to Cruise that Website for Bottles of Expensive Red Wine, Pamela Haag… You Said You Would Cut Down... Remember? Remember?”
The Washington Post ran a feature a few months ago about a woman who was having an affair. Her husband reported her missing, and one of those loathsome traffic cameras to snag speeders provided footage to the police that pinpointed her exact location—at her lover’s apartment. She hadn’t even been speeding (as a group, those who are on their way to top-secret trysts are probably scrupulous about obeying speed limits and not getting hit by buses). The police knocked on the door, and told her to “call her husband.”
I’m sorry, but I’d rather not have a municipal Speed Monitoring and Enforcement System Camera getting involved in my marriage in any way whatsoever.
We are captains of our iPhones, and masters of our Smart Technologies--or so we feel. Then they can become our masters in ways subtle and direct. Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows documents the “This is Your Brain on the Internet” decay of our cognitive skills and capacities to “think deeply” that our technological over-reliance has wrought.
For the time being I’m sticking with my dumbass phone. When I ask my phone where the nearest pizza joint is, it doesn’t jump to attention and tell me. No, my dumb-as-dirt phone stares implacably right back at me, with the dense, undiscriminating girth of a knee-whacker who knows how to keep a secret, and would say to me incredulously, if it could say anything at all, “Are you tawkin’ to ME?!?! Well, you MUST be, ‘cuz I’m the only one here…”