There's an App For That
by Andrea Esparza
Andrea Esparza was born and raised in the small West Texas town of Lamesa. She attended nearby Texas Tech University, where she obtained her undergraduate degree in business administration with a major in Management Information Systems. She spent the next seven years working in information technology and configuration management in the computer industry, when she decided she wanted to take her career in a different direction. In the fall of 2007, she entered into the MLA program at St. Edwards University and is focusing her studies on English and writing.
It's a double date of sorts—four old friends getting together for dinner at Gino's Pizzeria in old Round Rock, Texas. The buttery aroma of fresh baked bread and garlic-spiced oils intoxicate us, as we are led to a candlelit table in a back corner. We are particularly hungry this evening, and our eyes devour menu details. We place our order with an upbeat waitress. I decide on a heaping plate of pesto and shrimp linguine, while the remainder of the table shares an extra large, extra cheesy pepperoni pizza. As the waitress gathers our menus, I instinctively reach for my phone to update my Facebook status:
Andrea Esparza checked in at Gino's Pizzeria
I tap the tiny screen with conviction and drop the virtual pin on the digital map of my real-life. Now everyone in Facebook world can know exactly where I am. I put the phone off to the side—for now. I look around the table at the rest of my dinner party, silent—all three of their faces illuminated not by the flickering flame of the oil lamp, but by the ghostly, bluish hue of their iPhone screens. Laura is pondering her next move on a "Words With Friends" game, while her husband, Dan, browses through videos on YouTube. My fiancé, Roland, has received a notice that I have tagged him in my check-in at Gino's, so naturally, he takes to perusing the Facebook newsfeed.
It strikes me at this moment how strange it is that this little ritual has become the norm for us. We go to any given place, sit down, engage in mindless chatter, and when the conversation begins to slow and the quiet creeps in, we are quick to resort to our little box of busy. We bury our noses in these small rectangles of virtual world.
Dinner has arrived, and in the midst of eating, Roland mentions a funny video he came across a few nights ago on the Internet. He insists that it is a must see and pulls it up on YouTube, positioning his phone for us all to see. We watch intently and chuckle. But my gaze shifts to the table just beyond our tiny video screen. A man looks over his shoulder at us multiple times. Is he amazed with our cutting-edge technology, or does he pity us?
In 1992, it was rare for the average person to own a mobile phone. However, it was in December of that same year in the United Kingdom that Neil Papworth sent the first text message via desktop computer to Richard Jarvis' Orbitel 901 mobile phone. Appropriately, the text message read, "Merry Christmas." At the time it was, perhaps, a common greeting suitable for the season, but one could say it held a double meaning, as it gifted the spark of the mobile networking juggernaut.
The use of text messaging was slow to gain momentum in the 1990s, but by the year 2000, the average number of monthly texts per person reached 35 in comparison to the 357 documented now. Today, message volumes have reached 1.5 trillion annually, a notable trend, which later dovetailed along with the growing usage of smartphones.
It wasn't long after the historic first send of "Merry Christmas" that smartphones began to make their way onto the mobile phone scene. A smartphone, which can be defined as a mobile phone that offers advanced computing abilities, allows the user to perform tasks such as: access email, update a personal calendar, surf the web, and, more recently, install other applications that further the usability of the phone. Today, any given smartphone user can download media such as music and books, update social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and even practice strumming a virtual guitar.
According to PCWorld.com, smartphones have also existed since the early 1990s, but were primarily used as enterprise devices for keeping track of appointments and contact information. Large awkward devices such as IBM's The Simon (developed in 1993) gave way to more compact and advanced gadgets such as Research in Motion's Blackberry and Palm's Treo in less than a decade.
My own humble beginnings in the smartphone realm began during my second year in college. It was 1997, and I'd joined the revolution with the purchase of my very sexy Motorola StarTAC clamshell phone. I was in the possession of one of the first "flip phones" ever manufactured. It seemed so state-of-the art. My friends were envious. My parents were disappointed with my extravagant purchase. But I didn't care. I deemed it a necessity. Gone were the days of pagers and payphones. I was now in-the-know with cutting-edge technology. I kept the sturdy StarTac throughout my college years, upgrading only after moving to start a new job in Austin, where I acquired an even sleeker-looking Samsung flip phone. For years I remained perfectly content with this contraption that actually did little more than make phone calls.
This all changed when I met Roland in 2005. On our first date, he wielded the bulky Blackberry 8700 like a pistol. I teased him mercilessly about the obnoxious size of his "phone." But I couldn't ignore its robust capabilities. He could view emails, keep a date book, and more importantly, send flurries of text messages with ease. At the time, he lived forty minutes away, and we messaged incessantly throughout the day—me, feverishly pressing number keys in quick succession to form one simple sentence, only to have him send me several responding messages within seconds. But not this, nor the accumulation of a phone bill exceeding double the usual amount for bypassing my text message limit, could motivate me enough to purchase anything more than my trusty old flip.
In October of 2007, Roland—a soldier in the U.S. Army—was deployed to Iraq for fifteen months. Prior to his arrival in Tikrit, he was to spend several days transitioning in Kuwait.
"I'll call you as soon as I can," he told me as he lined up to board the bus to the airport.
Initially, I felt an indescribable sense of loss. It's not like he had died. He was alive somewhere halfway across the world, but I wasn't sure when I would ever communicate with him again. From the moment he boarded the plane, I carried that little flip phone everywhere. It was with me in church. I carried it to the bathroom. I never let it leave my side; always remaining on standby should he try to reach me.
Nearly a week later, just before my lunch break, I received a strange text message. Roland was trying to send a Yahoo instant message to my phone. I squealed quietly and desperately tried to write back in frenzied excitement. At the time, that cursed numeric keyboard was both frustrating and useless. Unable to access blocked messenger sites at work, I gathered my things and hurried home for an early lunch. I managed to fumble a message to him:
"Hold on! I'm going to go home. We can chat there!"
But no sooner had I logged on at home and said hello, than his timed session on the computer was over. Heartbroken and devastated, I sat crying the most pitiable of tears. It was the push I needed to find a more reliable and mobile means of communication.
Enter the Blackberry. Yes, it was a brick, and it looked like I had a small laptop strapped to my side, but it provided the solution that I needed. Not only did I have access to a phone, but I could also have my messenger and email on and with me at all times. I would never miss another message again. This constant connectivity helped alleviate the burden of our being apart, as we were able to communicate more regularly through the remainder of his deployment. And that spontaneous tri-tone of an incoming message was always a welcome sound, and it commanded my attention, no matter the hour.
Definitively, that was the beginning of the end. With that phone, I could text faster, I could chat with friends, and I could browse the web. I never felt more connected, and it felt so empowering. There's a reason Blackberry users have lovingly adorned their phones with the moniker, "Crackberry." Even after Roland's return, I could never leave the house without my great big phone in tow. I knew every button and every scratch. I kept every contact, date, and task list within fingertip's reach, all with the scroll of a wheel and a touch of a button.
In 2008, Apple announced its second generation of the iPhone. After months of lusting, Roland bought himself one and later surprised me with an iPhone of my very own. I was resistant at first, not wanting to release the beloved Blackberry from my grasp. My attachment to it had become, perhaps unnaturally, personal. Outside of my dog, it had been my constant companion for just shy of a year. (I admit that I still have that Blackberry to this very day as my alarm.) Even so, I couldn't help but be enticed by the allure in having an application (app) that streamed music from radio stations programmed precisely to my tastes. I was lured by the vibrant graphics on the screen, the ability to add photos to contacts, and find GPS-enabled directions in Google maps.
That brings me here—some kind of hard-core Internet junkie in a phone-induced coma. What started as something magical in its practicality seems to have turned into something quite addictive. What seemed to be applications that would help me stay organized and entertained now consume my every spare moment. But is it truly that bad? Could this era of gadget-fueled multitasking really be taking such a toll on my psyche? This is precisely what some critics have set out to prove.
The Downside of Smart
In his New York Times series, "Your Brain on Computers," Matt Ritchel points out that some studies suggest that "juggling email, phone calls, and other incoming information can change how people think and behave…our ability to focus is undermined by bursts of information." This "darkside" of smartphone-enabled multitasking compounded with the growing issue of distracted, cell phone-wielding drivers shifting their focus from the road, and thus yielding deadly consequences, seems to highlight a bigger issue. In a recent University of Kansas poll, 83% of students surveyed believed that texting while driving was unsafe—even more unsafe than talking on the phone while driving—however 98% of them admitted to doing it anyway.
I admit. I shamefully fall into all of these categories. Bringing it even closer to home, I'd had a debate about the smartphone issue with my mother, who is now in her early sixties.
"But Mom, it helps me to be more productive. I can send emails, keep track of the news, and even read some of my schoolbooks."
"That's why you're so tired all the time! You never take time to rest and just…CHILL."
"Oh Mom, but don't you think it's cool that I can check in with family and friends from all over the world…and share where I am and what I'm doing?"
"Ohhh you and your sister! Always putting your business out on that FaceSpace! I already told your sister to stop doing that!"
I remember laughing—repeatedly—at Mom's comments. She's one of the last remaining flip-phone-carrying, landline-owning readers of hard copy newspapers. But her opinion does hold some validity. Some existing research suggests that the smartphone era has turned us into shallow, inattentive thinkers whose addictive tendencies can spawn decline in productivity.
As I was writing this essay, I took note of how often I arbitrarily looked at my phone throughout the day. The tally had reached fourteen by the end of the workday. And of those, I spent nearly half browsing Facebook updates, playing matches of "Words With Friends," and/or reading and responding to emails.
I decided to challenge myself to do without the "smart" portion of my smartphone for at least 24 hours by turning off the data reception in my phone settings. This would allow for me to make and receive phone messages, but all Internet access, online applications, and text messaging would be off-limits. It would be just like my old StarTAC days. Within one hour of my first attempt, I'd failed—sucked in by the playful tone of an incoming text message. (Apparently, these are not sent over the data network.) I fought with myself to not look, but my overpowering curiosity ultimately won the battle.
I tried this experiment again the following day. This time, I tweaked the settings by disabling all notifications that indicate an incoming text message. I also took the extra step of reminding friends and family that I would not be responding to text messages. Should they need to get a hold of me, I'd told them, they would actually have to resort to the dreaded phone call.
The anxieties mounted in the hours leading up to my going "offline." I felt as though I were making preparations for my impending death.
Friends would message, "OMG! I feel so bad for u!"
Others would bid me a "Good luck! See you on the other side…"
I pulled the plug at 5 p.m. after work and vowed to stay disconnected until 5 p.m. the following workday. When I took myself offline, it came to mind how people often remark on the freeing sensation of being without a phone, but I felt anything but free. With no seemingly immediate contact with the outside world, I felt confined. How strange it is that for decades, conversations via phone were the most widely accepted method of communicating with one another, and now, phone calls border on intrusion. I am more likely to get an email or instant message from the person who sits in the next cube over than I am to receive a phone call—or heaven forbid—a personal visit. Therefore, unless I felt there was information that desperately needed to be shared, I held off on calling anyone via phone.
Throughout the day, I found myself still arbitrarily glancing at my stale phone, as if into a nothingness—no new emails, no new moves in "Words", no new updates… I truly felt…well…disconnected. In the Wired article, "Help! My Smartphone is Making Me Dumb—or Maybe Not," Brian X. Chen describes the fundamental reasoning behind our yearning to be connected as an attachment to the lifestyle of being "always on" that supports the need for us as individuals to belong. Even more striking are Chen's comments on the seemingly irrational attachment a person (such as myself) can have to such a device, "The stimulation provokes excitement—a dopamine squirt—that researchers say can be addictive. In its absence people feel bored."
I was truly feeling the weight of this boredom settle in throughout my workday.
All work and no data makes Andrea a dull girl.
I started cheating in the early hours of my workday, as I checked Facebook, CNN.com, and email multiple times on my computer. Strangely, I continued checking my phone compulsively. I knew there was nothing to see, but there was something about touching the coolness of the glass lock screen that felt involuntary. Even stranger was the fact that, as I began to make peace with my situation, I seemed to be more focused on my work. I was able to finish tasks more quickly and with fewer mistakes. I had no idea to what degree the mere presence of my phone had been making me unproductive.
Still, as the final hour approached, I eagerly counted down to the moments I would have access to my old life again. I could envision all the data—text, email, pictures, and news headlines—pushing up against a proverbial dam about to give way. I had surmised by this point that productivity was overrated and making a phone call for each and every question or comment I had was for the birds.
I had concluded that yes, I could probably get a lot more done in a day if I weren't stopping every few minutes to answer random text messages or see what new junk email had arrived into my inbox. I surmised that seizing every opportunity to look up information about a given celebrity on the IMDb app is not usually necessary. No, I don't have to know what everybody is doing on Facebook every half hour. And could I do without the flashy notifications for every play my favorite football team makes? Probably.
On the other hand, what a great comfort it was to get up-to-the-minute text message updates on the progress of my best friend's surgery, three states away. And what a joy it has been to receive news and rosy-cheeked pictures of my rapidly growing ten-month-old nephew. On any given day, engaging in a full-on phone conversation with each and every person in our lives that may happen to cross our minds is not only impractical, but likely impossible. To be able to reach out and say, "Hi," "I love you," or "You've gotta see this" is invaluable to me, and this happened to be the thing I missed most throughout the course of my experiment—the ability to reach out and digitally touch somebody from within the confines of my workday.
Clearly my experience has shown me that too much of a good thing can be bad. In light of that, I started silencing and putting away my phone for an hour or two at a time throughout the day. Still, after all the research, experimentation, and discussion, I couldn't help but notice another phenomenon manifest itself within the scope of writing this piece. What ultimately surfaced was the trending decline of the good old-fashioned personal interaction. In an age of instant messaging, virtual workplaces, and online shopping, we are deprived of face-to-face socializing and thus seemingly resort to various methods of digital friendship.
Considering the huge strides made since that "Merry Christmas" text less than two decades ago, this technology is bound to become more advanced. The question is whether or not these amazing technological advances will be at the cost of experiencing human emotion in its most uninhibited form. For now, I accept that this little gadget is a wonderful and convenient means of communicating and gathering information. And, I can only hope that my loved ones can be accepting of my "irrational attachment" to my beloved smartphone.
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