Until a few days ago I never owned, carried, or used a smartphone. That made me an anomaly not only in geek circles but, increasingly, among civilians too. I had always been the pioneer adopter. Now I found myself at dinner parties watching friends do the kinds of things that they always used to watch me do: Drift away from the conversation, engage with unseen interlocutors, jack into the planetary dataspace.
The experiment was less inconvenient for me that it would be for many others. I work from home, I’m rarely offline, and I could use my feature phone’s primitive data services in a pinch. Still, why? Because, as William Powers says in Hamlet’s BlackBerry, “The air is full of people.”
Someone you know has just seen a great movie. Someone else had an idle thought. There’s been a suicide bombing in South Asia. Stocks soared today. Pop star has a painful secret. Someone has a new opinion. Please support this worthy cause. He needs that report from you — where is it? Someone wants you to join the discussion…
The subtitle of Powers’ book is A practical philosophy for building a good life in the digital age. He wants us to question our “digital maximalism” — that is, our uncritical embrace of connectivity for its own sake. But he frames the question using a series of historical examples. Technology, he argues, has always played a complex dual role as a mediator between our inner lives and the crowd.
In the first example, from Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates and Phaedrus leave the connectivity-amplifying city for a walk in the countryside, so they can enjoy a deep private discussion about a lecture that Lysias had given. But first Socrates wants Phaedrus to recite the lecture, and expects him to do so from memory. Phaedrus says he can’t, and produces a written copy. This was “the very latest communications technology” — one that Socrates was wary of, but that here enables an experience that combines withdrawal from the hive and engagement with it.
I’ve been reflecting on continuous partial attention, and the shallowing effects of cyber-augmentation, for a while now. It’s why I took a break from this blog, put my podcast on pause, and sat out the early phase of the smartphone era. But it was inevitable that I’d get a smartphone someday, and when Microsoft made an offer I couldn’t refuse, I did.
As it turned out, this past Friday was the day. On Saturday, driving down to Boston with the family for an outing, I rode shotgun so I could explore the new thing. But I was determined to use it in a balanced and appropriate way. Since we were headed to Cambridge, and since there’s an elmcity hub for Cambridge, I checked it and found out about the Horns and Antlers exhibit at Harvard’s Peabody Museum. That’s right up Luann’s alley so we decided to go.
Then, feeling slightly conflicted, I dipped into the Twitter stream and read this:
@gardnercampbell: Just found & bought new poems by Gjertrud Schnackenberg. Harvard Bookstore makes my day.
Really? One of my favorite people is visiting Cambridge the same day? Shades of manufactured serendipity. And lo, Gardner and I were able to continue a dialogue we’ve been having for years, but rarely face to face.
So what do I think of Windows Phone 7? I love it and I fear it. Now admittedly, I would love an iPhone or an Android too. So if you know these devices you’ll need to look elsewhere for a comparative review.
Then there’s the fear. During the relatively few periods when I could have been connected to the crowded cloud but wasn’t, I’ve reflected on my own uncritical embrace of digital maximalism. So I do worry about carrying the crowd in my pocket. But I hope I’ll figure out how to strike the proper balance. One thing I’m pretty sure of: you won’t find me electing myself mayor of a coffee shop.