The case against smartphones: To get one benefit you make a lot of trade-offs

Virtually everyone I know has or is getting a smartphone. I keep resisting the Siren call, however, because as far as I can discern, the smartphone provides only one benefit and in return the user has to give up a lot that I prefer to keep.

The benefit is to have it all here and now, and by all, I mean the Internet, email, games, text-messaging, movies, music, directions and documentation such as airline or event tickets. In short, everything that the user is accustomed to getting on her/his computer, DVD player, landline telephone, stereo system, Gameboy, paper newspaper and MP3 player.

The only additional benefit that the smartphone provides over any of these devices is to be able to have it here and now, at this instant, immediately, right now. No matter what the app, you can find an equivalent on at least one and sometimes several other pieces of equipment that do the same thing. The only additional benefit you get from the smartphone is the instantaneous nowness.

And here is what you give up to get the smartphone’s immediacy:

  • Civility: Smartphone use spoils interactions with other people. Checking a batting average, playing a smartphone game in the restaurant and text-messaging while you’re talking all offend the commonly held conventions of etiquette. The scene of a table full of young people, each on his or her own cell phone, replays daily and nightly in every city across America.
  • Size of screen: The smartphone screen is too small to be of any real use, if you ask me. The miniaturization of the smartphone experience offsets the value of immediacy—I would rather see a larger screen for a movie or TV show, to play a game or even to surf the web.  Scrolling, and especially horizontal scrolling, slows down the search for information. The eyes can quickly review a lot of detail at one time, but there is only so much detail that can fit on a small screen.  Whatever you’re doing thus takes longer on the smartphone than when using a computer or reading a book or Kindle. It’s funny, though, whenever I raise the size issue with smartphone owners, they brag about how much bigger their screen is than those of other smartphone brands.
  • Sound quality: The sound on a smartphone is terrible—and it’s always breaking up. I understand that with headphones you get a pretty good sound from the MP3s and movies you play, but the sound is only as good as the headphone, and the best headphone never compares to the warmth that the room environment provides to sound that comes from speakers.  Call me an effete audiophile, and why not: there’s nothing I like more than putting my e-width feet up and listening to some Beethoven or Kate Bush from a beautiful sound system.

At this point, I imagine that smartphone defenders are eager to point out that there is another benefit of the smartphone—having everything in one place. And by everything, I don’t mean all the experiences that devices with larger screens or better sound systems give us better, but stuff for which size (and sound) doesn’t matter, like tickets and other  documentation.  I travel a lot by Megabus and last time amazed me: half the passengers showed their smartphones to the ticket-taker. I see more and more people presenting the smartphone at concerts, plays, airports, restaurants and sporting events.

But having all your documents in one small place has its drawbacks: What if you lose your phone? Or if some super freaky hacker steals it or buys it hot? For anyone using the smartphone to manage all documents, when you lose it, you lose everything.

Paper tickets are also so easy to deal with: You show it and then you throw it in a shoebox or file or wherever you keep your receipts for reconciliation, tax or expense account purposes.  When you’re done, you throw it out. If you need to have an electronic copy, you just scan it.

Occasionally when I’m with a smartphoner, it’s helpful that she/he can punch out the directions to someplace we’re headed (obviously none of my friends and family are “Applers”).  Other information, e.g., where is the closest Chinese restaurant, can also be useful.

But these small conveniences aren’t worth the cost.  Smartphones are expensive to buy and expensive to operate, especially if you go app-shit crazy. There’s no such thing as unlimited use on smartphones, which is why Internet service providers love them so much. The more you use the smartphone instead of a computer, the more money the corporate leviathans make.

Many tech writers and social critics believe that we have entered the age of the portable device, and that pretty soon all of us will be managing our lives on that little square of plastic and wires in pocket or purse.  If that’s so, I’ll be the last person that still prints his ticket on the computer or waits for them to come in the mail. I’ll be the last one to present the paper to the ticket-taker. And I’ll be the last one to ask complete strangers coming out of the subway at Union Square where Irving Place is instead of accidentally ramming into a wheelchaired individual because I was looking it up on my smartphone.


One thought on “The case against smartphones: To get one benefit you make a lot of trade-offs

  1. So the questions become when will the transition be made (if at all), and what comfortable median between overkill and techfree will be decided upon or created in a smartphone?

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