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Smartphones & Our Ever-Changing Communication

Smartphones make our communication more efficient by decreasing our need to actually talk on the phone, but is that always a good thing?
iPhone 4

My wife and I got iPhones a few months ago, after having spent five or so years on “feature phones,” and suffice to say, we’re never looking back. Even just the ability to finally — finally! — text each other has been incredibly nice. I’d even go so far as to say that I’m not quite sure how we got along without it, though it’s impossible for me to say that without some hyperbole attached.

I mention our relatively recent upgrade only to point out that communication is constantly evolving, personally and socially, and these days, this evolution is happening at a faster rate thanks to technology like smartphones, e.g., iPhones and Android devices. This point was driven home for me by a recent Gizmodo article by Sam Biddle titled “The Best Part about a Smartphone Is Never Having to Call Anyone,” which includes this rather interesting statement:

Yes, smartphones being less phone and more computer isn’t a breakthrough notion. But Phones, for the first time in their history, are being designed to undermine their primary function — making calls. It’s almost paradoxical. The phone I carry isn’t just able to offer me magical services (Maps! Internet! Vintage-y photos!), it’s actually facilitaitng a world in which I never have to talk to anyone. A dream world.

Now, at this point, I feel that I should mention that I don’t really like talking on the phone. I’d much rather communicate via e-mail, or text for that matter, especially regarding fairly trivial matters. What’s more, I’ve even created a sort of “getting things done” workflow involving e-mail, such that if you want me to remember something and take action on it, your best bet is to e-mail it to me.

At my office, we have intra-office IM, and it’s been a godsend. It’s so much easier to IM a co-worker to ask them to look at something then to call them, track them down, etc., and then ask the same request. Admittedly, it’s humorous to IM a co-worker who is less then ten feet away from me, and yet it quite truthfully is more effective and efficient to do so. And not having to take off my headphones to do so is the icing on the cake.

And so there’s a part of me that is in awe there, right alongside Biddle, of our bright and shiny iPhones and this brave new world of communicating. But there is also a part of me that finds it kind of sad.

Or, to be more specific, I find the ease with which other forms of communication are dismissed to be kind of sad. Don’t misunderstand me: I love technology, and I love the ways in which it can change our lives — and our communication — for the better, sometimes even dramatically so, e.g., the World Wide Web. But I don’t think that’s quite what’s going on here.

Earlier in the article, Biddle makes his case:

Talking on the phone is awful. Unless it’s your girlfriend halfway across the world, an elderly relative who doesn’t know any better, or begging your lawyer for help from a downtown jail, phone conversation is gratuitous. It’s devoid of all of face-to-face’s wonderful nuance — scrunched eyes, half smiles, head scratches — and stuffed with all of the bullshit decorum. The pleasantries. The pauses. The catching up. Nobody wants to catch up. If you need to catch up, you don’t know shit about the other person for a reason. The phone conversation is a vestige of past eras in which you had to keep track of the mundanities of your friends’ lives, lest they challenge you to a pistol duel or exclude you from a ball (my memory of social studies is hazy at this point). But it’s an outdated form. The wonder is gone. The novelty of a transmitted human voice is kaput, and in its place sits a vessel for every way we’re forced to be polite and phony.

Once you get past the hyperbole and snark, there is some truth to what Biddle writes. Phone conversations are limited when compared to face-to-face conversations. However, it’s silly to pretend that there aren’t trade-offs involved, and that smartphone-enabled communications, e.g., texting and tweeting, don’t have their own limitations.

I may not like talking on the phone and may find texting et al. more efficient. However, that doesn’t mean that I haven’t spent extra time to make sure that the tweet that I’m writing conveys what I want to say as clearly and precisely as possible, or that I’ve haven’t expended extra effort when deciphering the nuance of what, exactly, was meant by that last text. In these situations, it could be argued that a phone call would’ve been far more efficient because tone, inflection, and emphasis are communicated much better by the human voice than by emoticons and uppercase letters.

But let’s say that, generally speaking, smartphone communications are more efficient and free up a significant portion of our time. To what end? What does all of this extra time afforded to us by our smartphones and their apps allow us to do? This is where I have the biggest issue with Biddle’s perspective, which he states so clearly here:

Consider the text. No longer is the SMS inbox an inbox at all. The list is gone. It’s chat-like now — more like a river of IMs than static blasts of SUP and WHERE R U. Graceful keyboards and conversation-like interfaces have supplanted the actual conversation. Talking about run of the mill dumb stuff doesn’t require the requisite spoken prelude and pointless goodbyes — whip it out, tap it out, cut to the chase, stick it back in your pocket. And the image. If I see a motorcycle accident, or hilarious fat guy in a tiny car — snap — I can dispense with the breathless storytelling.
Through all of these apps and ways to share, you’ve cut out a bit of human pointlessness. Sharing something insane through MMS is sure as hell better than having someone call you up to tell you about it. Almost every one of the best smartphone apps — Twitter, to avoid having to hear the attempts at wit of others, Wikipanion, to avoid calling someone up with an obscure question, Text, to preclude yelling “TURN OFF FIFA I’M TRYING TO FUCKING SLEEP” at my roommate — shield me from an incredibly annoying world.

I’ve never met Biddle. I have no reason to doubt that he’s a nice guy, a good friend, and a lot of fun to hang out with. But if Biddle truly believes that the ultimate purpose of my smartphone and its myriad apps is to “shield me from an incredibly annoying world” — or to facilitate “a world in which I never have to talk to anyone,” as he puts it elsewhere — then something’s gone very wrong here.

Humans are relational creatures: we are meant to be in relationships with each other. Indeed, we long to know and to be known, and as a result, we spend a significant portion of our lives trying to relate to those around us, and to get them to relate to us, via ways both good and bad. If the ultimate purpose of our streamlined, smartphone-enabled communication is to allow us to curve inwards into ourselves, to more effectively cut the social dross from our lives and those that we feel bring it — in a word, to live more self-centeredly — then I think that’s very selfish, arrogant, and cynical.

Biddle may want to avoid the incredibly annoying world, one in which human interactions are often messy and inconvenient, one that is rife with “the mundanities of your friends’ lives.” But messiness and inconvenience are not intrinsically bad things. Indeed, the messiness and mundanities are the very stuff of relationships, and that can be a very good thing.

How many times have you had an awkward conversation that somehow evolved, unexpectedly and delightfully, over its course into a truly meaningful conversation — a conversation that, given everything you had assumed about the other person and had brought into the conversation at the very start, you never would’ve imagined? True, a text or two may have allowed you to bypass all of that awkwardness, but at what cost?

Technology ought to draw us into deeper, more thoughtful communication with each other — but we should never pretend that technology-enhanced communication is better (or worse) than “normal” communication. Tweeting is not less valid than a phone call, nor is a long dinner conversation inherently more valid than e-mail. They’re just different, and they each have their time and place, their own advantages and disadvantages.

I love it when my wife sends me texts throughout the day with updates as to what our boys are doing. I may not be there, but they allow me to imagine the conversations and playtime activities. However, those texts, as welcome and enjoyable as they are, are nothing compared to actually playing with my boys: wrestling with them, rolling cars around, even watching an episode of Pingu or Bob the Builder together.

And I may use MMS and Twitter to coordinate a dinner with some friends in the space of a few characters — again, a very good thing. However, once we arrive at the restaurant, the iPhones get put away because nothing compares to a couple of hours spent reveling in each other’s company and lives; enjoying the jokes, both good and bad; sharing stories that are the more delightful because of their meandering nature; and enjoying conversations that don’t have to be condensed into 140 characters but can grow and sprawl unheeded and untended for hours.

To simply hold that communication is worthless and pointless because it wasn’t done via a smartphone-enabled method strikes me as incredibly cynical. Or, as one of the commenters on Biddle’s article puts it:

I don’t get how somebody calling to tell you about something they saw or experienced, and being able to express their actual emotion, is “pointless” compared to sending an MMS. That’s like saying traveling to different countries is “pointless” when you can just watch TV and movies about those places.

I enjoy my iPhone, and I enjoy all of the ways in which it has enhanced and expanded the manner in which I can communicate and share my life with friends, family, co-workers, etc. But I would never, in a million years, think that my iPhone communications are better, more valuable, and/or more efficient simply because I did it with some iOS app. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. And even if it were, efficiency and autonomy aren’t the ultimate benchmarks for me. Rather, it’s how clearly, accurately, and graciously I have said what I have to say — which holds true for any communication regardless of its vehicle.

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