Wednesday, August 11, 2010

In Defense of the Dumb Phone

I haven't gotten a new cell phone since 2005.

Are you suitably shocked? Most people are. Whenever I whip out my vintage Samsung SGH-X497, I usually hear a chorus of "You don't have an iPhone?! Not even a BlackBerry? I thought you're Mr. Technology!"

It's true. I am Mr. Technology. But I've never been Mr. Mobile Technology and I'm not about to start. It's not that I doubt the usefulness or importance of owning a device that can put all the knowledge of the world in your pocket (or, more specifically, put all the knowledge of the world in your geeky Blackberry holster). There's no denying that the present and future of communication, information and the intersection of the two are currently being charted by every new high-priced phone Apple releases. I'm just saying that, for the time being, I want no part of it.

Wanna Get Away?
Remember those Southwest Airlines commercials with the tag line "Wanna get away?" Sure you do. Well, it turns out that's a pretty unrealistic sentiment. You can't get away. Ever. You won't let yourself. The world is a far-too-connected place sometimes, and you can blame that mobile device on your belt. (The holster still looks geeky, by the way.) Along with the ability to instantly hit up Google and find out what other movie that familiar actor was in, the bells and whistles of your smart phone have introduced four little words into the universal lexicon that have changed vacation time forever: Sent from my iPhone. Sure, you're out of the office. But even when you're on a golf course in California, your boss in Chicago knows you're still seeing all those work-related e-mails. Besides, this is urgent and wont' take too much time. Wanna get away? You can't.

Likewise, when the boss is on that golf course in California, he's free to check in with everyone in the office from the sand trap on the ninth hole. Have you finished inputting the revisions he left for you? By the way, it's sunny here. Wanna get away? You thought he did.

It's not that I don't like e-mail. Far from it! When I'm on a computer, I'm devoted to Gmail. Sometimes I have to wait a while to reply to a message, just so I don't freak out the sender with an instantaneous response. But when I'm away from my e-mail, I want to be completely away. It's a voluntary decision that becomes an involuntary responsibility when the inbox follows you everywhere.

I value the ability to get completely off the grid, so when I started shopping for a new phone, I knew I would be looking for the best, dumbest phone I could find.

The Quest for a Dumb Phone
I'm going to bury my old phone in the backyard. I loved that little guy and it did everything I wanted: made calls, sent texts and rang when people called or texted me. Unfortunately, the battery wasn't lasting too long anymore and the call button worked about 45 percent of the time. I don't know the exact conversion, but five human years has got to be close to 75 cell phone years. 10-4, good buddy.

But it's hard to get a good dumb phone these days. I was obviously overdue for an upgrade (my phone still said Cingular on it) and AT&T had loads of online deals for me for all the best smart phones. For a while, my inner techie was intrigued by the idea of joining the cast of thousands who think they have all the answers because their iPhone, um, technically does. So I headed over to my local AT&T store and decided to give these smart phones a serious test drive.

I approached each phone as if it were my own and began composing a brilliant test text: Matt was here. It didn't matter which phone I tried. I hated them all. My thumbs slipped off the buttons, forcing ridiculous typos that I would have avoided with numeric keys and the T9 setting. The vast system of menus, icons and navigation to reach the phones' unnecessary features confounded my short attention span. And the thought of brandishing a Blackberry on a geeky belt holster remained as repulsive as ever.

So I came back down to earth, swallowed my Web-savvy pride and combed the AT&T site for the dumbest phone I could find. I settled on the LG GU295. It has a camera (the one upgrade I really wanted) and doesn't do much else, unless you pay extra for some feature.

You can judge for yourself in the picture below, but I would even dare say it's a smart phone, as long as we're using the fourth definition of that word.


Anna said...

I was very anti smart phone too, Matt. I finally upgraded when I did a job interview and one of the questions the interviewer asked was, "Do you have a smart phone?" Well that and I wanted to use FaceTime.

Julie said...

It's not that you can't get away so much as it becomes more of a decision. I don't like to answer non-personal emails from my phone (student emails are a definite pass), which helps to lower awareness, and then I guess you just have to be willing to have some people think/know you're ignoring their issue. Of course it helps to not have a real "job" or "boss" :D

Prasenjit said...

I was too in your, chiefly in Anna's league. But my work type and the ambience was too hard to be fended away. Mostly it was a kind of peer pressure that made it almost obligatory to have a smartphone, though not i phone, but aa android, it looks pretty cool, but I am never off the grid and sometimes I desperately think to put it in my cabinet and bring out my good, old Nokia with alpha numeric keypad.