With the image of heads buried in their hand-held screens surrounding us, Andy Love examines the way smart phones have changed our social interactions in ‘Communication Problems’.
“This one has a better battery life, better definition screen, better camera…it’s also flatter,” says a girl wearing glasses to two of her peers who listen closely as if she’s a wizard telling a story. Smart-phones progress so rapidly and quickly that they have become essential in everyone’s lives. After working for the past year in a phone shop, it is easy to notice how many people get so excited by the intricate details of new products coming out quite frequently. But the truth is, very few of them actually know what they are buying or buying into. Many times I have personally asked people “So…why do you want this new phone?” and the reply is usually “Because…it’s the next one, so it’s better…right?”
Smartphones cater to almost half the UK population (48.4% according to eMarketer) and yet most of us don’t use a mobile phone for its primary function – vocal communication. How many people do you actually call on a regular basis and how many do you use intermediates like Whatsapp, Facebook chat or even Twitter? Some of my friends will actually pick up the phone in a spooked tone if called. Social media has also turned most of us into attention addicts as explored in the show Husbands after one of the main cast posts a bad picture: “But did they comment on it? Like it? Retweet it? Repost it? Favourite it?” Something else that I found out through friends is that social media and Whatsapp has turned most of us into “stalkers” without wanting to. Most will know the anxiety that results from sending a message on Facebook and seeing that the message has been “read”, or the ticks on Whatsapp with the sometimes long wait for a reply. We sit and wonder what is taking someone so long to reply or to message back. How hard is it to pick up your phone, right? Maybe you could call…but maybe that would be inappropriate. It is no wonder that when signing up to a contract, you are now given more minutes than you would actually ever use, unlimited texts, but the data…well, for that you pay a bit more. Most people could tell you I am very much “online” all the time. Foursquare can be seen as a “real life monopoly” – I need to tag where I am to earn my points and badges. Instagram can be turned into a “photo diary”, Facebook keeps you in touch with work, friends in the UK and abroad, and finally there’s Twitter where I personally interact with people with a bit more dry humour. However, after getting bored of it all and not having “meaningful” interactions with friends for a bit, I decided that it was time to cut my losses and find out if the smart-phone has become an everyday habit or a necessity. I purchased a Motorola Razr – the iPhone of its time, and an iPod Classic to be able to listen to my music.
The first good thing – it seems like such a luxury to be able to use a phone for days on end without charging! Two days without having to plug in my phone was a godsend! It was also great during lectures to not have a LED light distracting me, reminding me that I had someone messaging me on Facebook, but during a meeting I kept trying to reach the phone in my pocket every five minutes. It felt like trying to reach an extension of my limb – something that should have always been there but was gone. It also helped a lot communicating with friends as I just could not be bothered to reply to long messages (no qwerty keyboard) which forced me to actually call people. Communication is clearer and more direct when we speak to someone as it reduces the margin for misinterpretation (something that I tend to suffer from as I tend to be ironic/direct through text and it doesn’t translate well). Going to the gym was also simpler as again no notifications or blinks meant I could focus more on working out. What seemed difficult, however, was living without apps. Every time I visited a new coffee shop I could not tag it, I couldn’t take a photo of something I thought was nice and sometimes if I had to speak to someone on Facebook I had to wait until I was back home for it to happen.
Another thing was planning – I am not the greatest planner out there so it is great to be able to use GPS and check train times on the go. I don’t ever use the internet for that before leaving the house and that has led me to getting lost a few times. I blame that on “instant” technology actually making me lazy so that I didn’t bother thinking ahead, rather than pointing the finger at the smart-phone itself. The experiment was supposed to last four weeks but came to an abrupt halt at the end of the third one – whilst going clubbing for my flatmate’s birthday someone thought it’d be a good idea to steal my RAZR. I was actually very surprised at that – I mean, really? So I did not survive the fourth week without it through “outside influences”. The outcome? I have learned to control myself a bit more now – I don’t take my phone with me to the gym, taking only the iPod instead. That means I can work out without being disturbed unnecessarily. I avoid texting more now and keep it only to friends who are generally busy. Communication with my best friend has improved massively, to the point where now he will sometimes say “Call me”, instead of typing up his diary on Whatsapp. I have learned how to control myself a bit more with some apps and keep my smartphone now primarily to make calls (I pay for unlimited minutes, I might as well use them). The best thing from the experience is to realise that I don’t need to be online all the time. It is really annoying to have coffee with the top of someone’s head while they stare unflinchingly at their smartphone screen. Sometimes being unreachable is a good thing: when you talk less often you have more to talk about when you see each other again. It also meant that only some people would contact me regularly on the RAZR – it is a sad truth, but using social apps like Facebook chat or Whatsapp becomes so easy when you are bored that you end up creating more shallow connections with people that you are not really friends with. They mostly fill a temporary need and kill time. So smartphones are probably not essential and upgrading every two years for one with a better resolution or camera focus will be unlikely to improve your life massively. Being able to contact your 350 friends on Facebook probably won’t either. Start paying more attention to those who contact you more often and in different ways, people that want to see you regularly for coffee and as chat. Paying attention to those people certainly improved mine.