My phone’s battery is getting flaky. It won’t hold a charge for as long and it runs out quick in cold weather. So I’m on-line looking for a battery and then I think I ought to just junk the thing and upgrade. My phone is one of these:
Yes, it’s a dumb phone. Or in the marketing jive they use these days, a “feature” phone. What the fuck does THAT mean? Problem is, I like my phone. I like my cheap plan. I make and receive a few calls. I make and receive a few texts. That’s it. That’s all I use it for. I don’t navigate. I don’t play games. I don’t take pictures (it has a camera). I don’t access the web. I don’t app.
I don’t have a problem with any of those things. I just don’t need ’em. When I’m out at the pub quaffing pints I don’t need to look anything up or follow any events. I just like to drink my beer, bullshit with the locals and the barmaids, and enjoy the general goofiness going on around me. Lots of other folks are tapping screens, talking to Siri, and doing other smartphone stuff. After all, the new phones are really portable computers. I like computers and I even have a laptop that I can travel with. But I like to sit in a comfortable chair and not have any distractions while I do my computing. That mostly consists of blogging, checking email and Facebook, and surfing around reading and doing research on things that interest me. I don’t have to do any of those things when I’m out socializing.
Sometimes I worry that my aversion to a fancy new phone is making me a neo-Luddite. Horrors! No self-respecting science nerd ought to be accused of Luddism. I’m not a techno-phobe. After all the miracle of the world wide web is making my virtual dialog with you possible. Think of the enormous technological infrastructure required to make that happen! I’m all for it. But a couple of things keep me from advancing from dumb to smart in the phone department.
One, cost. My phone is really cheap. I like that. I don’t use it much, so why should I spend a lot of money? My cars are all paid for and I don’t drive that much. Perfect match, don’t you think? Two, I use my computers quite a bit when I’m home. I need a break from them when I go out. Three, I like to be free of stuff when I’m out and about. I’m a guy. I don’t have a purse or a murse or a bag or anything except pockets. I try to keep it simple: wallet, money clip, keys, handkerchief. It’s bad enough dealing with reading glasses or sunglasses or a comb or lip balm or a jacket & hat or what-have-you. I don’t need any more shit to lug around. My current phone is pretty small, so if I do have to carry it I can fit it in a small pocket. I like that.
I got to thinking about this notion that the gigantic international computer network that we are a part of contains “all the knowledge of humanity” and that we can “access it at any time” with our mobile devices. Well, OK. It beats carrying around the Encyclopedia Britannica. But any collection of human information, achievement, and wisdom must also surely contain human misinformation, failure, and stupidity. Those are at least as abundant as the other. Why would I want to enhance those things? All human individuals already carry around with them the idiocy of the race. To be fair, individuals also possess the virtues of the species. The computer does not sort the good from the bad. Just the opposite: everything is equal is cyberspace. The human user has to impart judgement and separate the wheat from the chaff. The sublime from the shit.
A computer can’t help me do that. At least not right now. Right now we are in the Stone Age of the bio-cybernetic revolution. I don’t have any fear of trans-humanism, cyborgs, or artificial intelligence. We’ve got a long way to go before we understand the mind sufficiently to enhance it. Note I said “enhance” and not “improve”; one does not presume the other. Like I said even the iPhone is a Stone Age implement. It’s the first glimpse of a potential future, but it’s the equivalent still of flint-knapping in the grand scheme of things. The technological interface will someday be seamless and invisible and won’t require advertising carpet-bombing to convince anyone to participate.
The last thought that sticks with me is the ubiquity of the Google search. The word is now generic. You can google anything. And if you have your smartphone you can google anytime and anywhere. But googling just gives us answers to questions that are already known. It’s Jeopardy! stuff, usually. Don’t get me wrong. I google all the time. Beats flipping through the almanac. But we still google things that already exist and we just need to find them. We are riffling through the file cabinet. The greatest filing cabinet of all time, to be sure, but still just a filing cabinet.
Steven Chu, the eminent physicist (1997 Nobel Prize, former director of the Lawrence Berkeley Lab, former Secretary of Energy, on the faculty at Stanford) was once asked if he liked puzzles. No, he said, he didn’t like spending time on things in which the solution was already known. What a wonderful attitude! He liked thinking about things that NEEDED solutions.
That’s what I want to do. Think things that haven’t been thunk. Create. Invent. Imagine. I do that just fine right now. And it’s easy enough—later—to compare what I thunk up with stuff others have done and are doing. That’s what the web is for and it’s great for that. But I can wait until I get home to do it.