I was a little late to the smartphone party. Not too late–I got an iPhone in 2009–but back then was a different time for smartphones, one with fewer apps and slower downloads. I upgraded over the years and was pretty happy with my experience. And then I switched networks, from AT&T to Sprint, and joined my sister's family plan. The move saved me a few bucks a month, and I got a brand new iPhone 4S out of it. (I'd just cracked the screen on my 4.) Everybody wins, right?
Not so fast. I noticed almost immediately that it was slower. Web pages took ages to load. Trying to listen to a Spotify playlist was impossible, since the songs would stop halfway through. Path was useless, since the phone wouldn't load the pretty, filtered pictures. Don't even get me started on YouTube. My app updates wouldn't download unless I plugged in to a WiFi network, and I was angry on a regular basis. I lived for weeks like this without webpages, short on songs, unaware of my friends moments and very behind on my memes.
A discouraging evening of Google searching revealed that I wasn't the only one with a slow Sprint phone, either. I got upset, first at myself for not doing my research before signing a contract, and then at Sprint for making me sign a two-year-long commitment for a service I hadn't even tried. Then I got upset at myself again because really, it's my own fault. So here I was with an amazing device that could do amazing things, but only if I was super patient. It reminded me of my old AOL days when I'd go make myself a sandwich when my eBay search for "snowboarding boots" loaded over our family's 14kbps modem.
It was weird what happened after that. I found myself reaching for my phone less often, finishing conversations with laughter instead of on Wikipedia and I actually listened mp3s for the first time in years. I also had what hippies might call an enlightened moment. What the hell was I doing reaching for my phone in the first place — and Googling my way out of conversations and getting mad that my pocket computer wouldn't stream songs when I took the subway? At what point did I stop paying attention to the fact that I could even access the Internet while walking down the street and listening to any song in the universe?
I think it all happened in 1999. It was around then that we switched from dial-up to cable modems and cell phones got cameras. We realized suddenly that these gadgets were going to get really good really fast, and we got greedy. We're so used to technology working better from one day to the next that, when it stumbles, we scold it. The thought process actually makes sense. We designed technology to address our imperfections, and when they fall short of perfection, we blame the gadgets. It's sort of a shoot-the-messenger problem except that we're really just abusing and discarding the messenger for newer, better messengers. It's actually a great business model.
Louis CK has a rant about this. One time, he's flying on a plane (which is an amazing thing to do in and of itself) and the crew tells him that he can access the Internet. "And it's fast, and I'm watching YouTube clips. It's amaz— I'm on an airplane!" he says. "And then it breaks down. And they apologize, the Internet's not working. And the guy next to me goes, 'This is bullshit.' I mean, how quickly does the world owe him something that he knew existed only 10 seconds ago?" He has a point. When do we admit to being horrible spoiled children about the amazing things technology hath wrought?
I've always been curious about how technology shapes our culture and our culture shapes technology. Sometimes the pendulum swings a little too far in one direction, and we arrive at a machines-are-taking-over moment. I don't think it's quite Terminator time yet, but doesn't it feel weird when you leave home without your phone and get the fear? I'm not afraid of my iPhone or anything like that. I'm actually more afraid of what I would become without it, somehow handicapped in a particularly 21st-century manner. And wow, does it feel embarrassing to admit that. I think I direct my disdain towards my phone which I hate.
In fact, I hate all technology sometimes, despite the many ways that it makes my life better. I hate it for not working right. I hate it for being less good than other technology I can't afford. I especially hate it for making me get so emotional about a pile of metal and glass.
Image via Flickr