Your smartphone is dumb. Mine is too. I’ve got an iPhone in my pocket, and a Galaxy S III, and an HTC One, and they’re all stupid. The BlackBerry Z10 in my bag is a clot, and the Lumia 920 isn’t just thick in the hand, it’s just plain thick. Today, on the fortieth birthday of the first cellphone call, the gadget that was supposed to liberate us has turned us into plagued, screen-tapping obsessives, in thrall to every buzz and bleep.
Before you say anything – though I understand you may instantly have raced to the comments section before you even reached the period in my first sentence, desperate to berate me – I’m not a luddite. I love smartphones; I like Android, iOS, Windows Phone, and even have a soft spot for BlackBerry 10 in places. I don’t leave the house without at least one phone in my pocket. It – and its ringing alarm – is the first thing I reach for in the morning; with the exception of the light switch it’s probably the last thing at night.
That devotion, or maybe obsession, doesn’t mean I’m blind to the limitations of what we have today, however. The modern smartphone is faster, lighter, runs longer, has more apps, sensors, radios, and gadgetry than any before it, but all that complexity has only served to pull us in closer, to enmesh us more with the digital world on its terms.
Your phone still, generally, demands you reach for it and proactively consult it. If it has something for you, it’ll beep to let you know, but it’ll generally do that on its own timescale. Many devices have a “do not disturb” mode, which blanks all (or all but the most important) notifications between certain periods, and some can “intelligently” manage alerts depending on what you’re doing at the time, though that tends to amount to little more than bashing calendar entries against the clock and keeping quiet when you’ve remembered to log a meeting taking place.
“Most phones are dumb in how they understand context”
Beyond that, for all their sensors and smarts, most phones are pretty dumb in how they understand context. Right now, they’re portable terminals for the internet, for the most part: a smaller window than our regular browser, or one we view through the medium of function-specific apps. Much of the development we’ve seen from phone software and hardware over the past 3-5 years has been in translating the internet into something that fits onto a smartphone-scale screen.