Choosing Between a Smartphone and a Dumbphone

Smartphones in an age of networked individualism – can we survive without them?

Call me a dinosaur, if you must. I have never owned a smartphone. I still carry one of those old Nokia models that lets me text, call and nothing more.

I have heard one can do virtually anything with a smart phone today. One can not only contact people around the world with the tap of a button but a smartphone can even help you find your way around the city or even help you with your investments. There are a number of Apps and software like Fintech ltd which automates all the investment decisions, which were done by humans alone, in the past.

Why don’t you just get a smartphone so I can get hold of you anytime?,” friends have frequently entreated. Even my parents have, all with the best intentions, tried to lure me into their Whatsapp conversations. Perhaps that makes me a less-than-ideal friend and daughter, but really: I don’t want to be contactable at every instant, or be ever-present in the virtual world.

Speaking at a TED Conference this year, Sergey Brin heralded the smartphone revolution as “emasculating”.

I wouldn’t go as far, but on some levels it is hard to dispute that having the Internet on your palm affords a lot of conveniences. We now marvel at how life was possible before we had Google Maps, Facebook and the World Wide Web in our hands.

Can we really do without a smartphone today as the hyper-connected generation?

It’s not obvious that we can. We sleep with our phones, and take no ease unless we know where it is. We hold onto them like a rosary, reflexively thumbing it even as we speak. We feel our smartphones flickering in the periphery, in the middle of a lecture. In what seems like a nervous tic, we are compelled to look down on our device every couple minutes, as if there is always something very important to do or to attend to.

I still startle each time I enter an eerily silent subway with passengers all hunched over their screens, tapping away at Candy Crush, scrolling down an endless Facebook newsfeed.

What became more troubling was realizing how family gatherings have become technology parties where both adults and children sit in the same living room, eyes glued to their devices. Or at dinner parties, where people could be physically there but with heads in the technological cloud.

 We can be so alone together these days.

Sociologists say we are living in an age of networked individualism – people are not hooked on gadgets, they argue, people are just hooked on each other. We are increasingly networked as individuals in loose, fragmented networks providing on-demand succor, rather than embedded in tight-knitted groups. We can choose who we want to interact with over the network, and overcome physical constraints of the social environment we grow up in.

In the past, people lived in villages and today we live in cities. Tomorrow we live in huge server farms we call “the cloud”. For many of us – and you, reader, if you are reading this presently on your smartphone or laptop – tomorrow is already here.

There is a general sense that this represents some sort of freedom that we have never had. But for all the semblance of freedom we have gained, I can’t help wondering what we might have lost. How much of our lives are we secluding away as we divide our attention between the interminable notifications, emails and social posts that aren’t really that pressing? Is Candy Crush really that much more rewarding than, say, a serendipitous conversation with a random stranger you meet on the train? Or reading a book, for that matter? Yes, I forgot to mention how smartphones have also taken the book away from people these days.

More so than that, I think we have adopted a new lifestyle without giving enough thought to what it means to be constantly sharing aspects of our lives on our thin simulacrums online.

Does radical sharing, openness and personal transparency make us happier, or more lonely and divided? Is social networking, which smartphones have made enticingly easy, really creating more authentic identities, or entrapping us in a hive mind where groupthink leads to the cult of the amateur and an amnesia of the self? And what about the massive amounts of personal data and digital footprints we leave behind in the public-by-default, private-through-effort Internet culture we live in?

Clearly there are no easy answers to these questions, and I imagine it wouldn’t be a simple choice between having a smartphone or a dumbphone. In fact, even the choice to stay out of the virtual network is increasingly an illusion as maintaining an online presence is normalized to the point that not participating makes you unusual, even suspicious. What surprises me, though, is how rarely we even ask these questions before we adopt a lifestyle of hyper-connectivity.

I might be getting a little nostalgic here, but I do miss the days when serendipitous interactions occur in the real – not virtual – world: random discussions over a book a fellow commuter is reading, or the nod of recognition from someone noticing that we were wearing the same T-shirt. And more so than that, I miss a time when it had been easier for everyone to be fully present at a get-together, enjoying each other’s company without the distractions of a flicker or buzz on their phones.

At least for now, I am quite contented with my old Nokia, and am holding up on getting a smartphone. So, leave me a message after the tone, and I promise to call you back.

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Chi Ling, Chan is third-year Political Science student in Stanford University who writes here and there. She is contactable at chiling@stanford.edu and @callmechiling.