A stupid way to use a smartphone

by Gautam Raja

It’s hard to be surprised by phones any more. They do so much. And yet, the other day, I was treated to an impressive use of the smartphone I’d never seen before.

I was talking to an industry rep, and asked him whether Method A was better than Method B. The rep said A was generally better. That wasn’t enough for me; I always need to know why. “So is it because…” and I offered up an arcane possibility as to why A was superior.

The rep half-nodded, even as he whipped his phone up in front of his face, and was instantly engrossed. He turned away from me, forehead almost touching the screen. He reminded me of a toddler who knocks something over, then covers his face with his hands, hoping he can’t be seen.

I know many of you would assume the rep was a Millennial, unable to bear the terrible burden of not knowing something under the Google sun. He wasn’t. He was comfortably Generation X, just like me.

Recently, a dear cousin of mine made an observation about modern life through the imagined eyes of his father, who died in 1985 at the age of 48. “If he was to come back now, and heard one of his grandkids say, ‘Let me take a photograph on my phone’ he wouldn’t know what to think. He might imagine us all gathered in the living room in front of the telephone… but how would you use it for a photograph? And why?”

As we talked about it, I realised most smartphone magic could be explained by someone who left us in 1985. Checking the phone for time or weather? Sure, you called the service. Using it to map your way to a hotel? You phoned and got directions from the front desk. Remotely checking on the delivery person at your front door? Aha, you phoned your neighbour. But taking a photograph?

My cousin’s father, like mine, was probably born into a household without a telephone. And just as I remember getting our first television, my father remembers when his family got their first telephone. He recently emailed a musing on the subject, talking about how he, as a child, would accompany his father to “Burmah-Shell uncle’s” office, and would sit, fascinated by the large Bakelite contraption on the corner of the desk. He would will the object to ring just so he could watch this marvelous technology in use.

His family eventually got one in their home, “hitched up against the wall on a stand” like a public phone. “And soon it did become public,” my father wrote. “Neighbours would pour in, stand in line and talk into that Bakelite handle without a thought that they were disturbing the family who owned the dastardly thing.”

The growth of the telephone in his lifetime from precious scarcity to careless ubiquity, was a matter of as much concern as wonder. My father is someone who loves to ask and ponder why, and I wonder how he would have reacted to the rep who didn’t even pretend to notice a message, or feel it ring before he used his phone to, nearly literally, cover up his insecurity. I’ve long noticed that people find saying, “I don’t know” as hard as passing kidney stones, and it seems this problem is worse than ever. For those who feel inferior for receiving information instead of disseminating it, the smartphone means they never need knowledge from another human again. Soon, it’ll be acceptable to have someone shove a phone up in front of their face to end a conversation. It’s a new feature and it’s coming.

First published in Gulf News, December 20, 2016