Urgent Matters

The case against smartphones

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Without a doubt, people become addicted to smartphones. But that's not the worst of it; it has become clear to me that users just as quickly become slaves to these devices.

It doesn't take much to amuse me. The latest bit of evidence is the Talking Tom application that can be downloaded free of charge to one's smartphone. It features an animated alley cat who repeats anything you say in a voice that sounds as if he just inhaled helium. It's hilarious. Apparently, I'm not the only one who thinks so. Within the first two weeks of its launch, the app was downloaded 1 million times, as Fortune magazine reported recently. To date, Talking Tom has been downloaded more than 55 million times and has spawned other talking critters that collectively have generated another 55 million downloads. The menagerie has proved so popular that there is talk of expanding the franchise into cartoons and consumer goods.

The reason that I'm bringing this up is that I currently am wrestling with whether to purchase a smartphone. I've been holding off, waiting for Verizon to offer the iPhone. Now that it does, I'm still not sure that I want one, tempting as Talking Tom might be. My hesitancy has nothing to do with cost — I can afford one, and the data plan that comes with it. Rather, the reason is a fundamental belief that such technology has more downside than upside when one takes a big-picture view of the situation.

There is little question that each generation of communications technology makes us more productive. For example, fax machines were a quantum leap forward from overnight mail, which was a huge improvement over snail mail. However, faxing soon gave way to e-mail, which was better still. Soon thereafter we were able to send and receive e-mails using mobile computers, which made us productive even when we were away from our desktops. In the blink of an eye, that capability was extended to devices that we can keep in our pockets. Now smartphones entertain us, inform us, and allow us to buy goods and services from vendors anywhere on the planet, no matter where we happen to be standing — all while still enabling us to communicate via voice, text or e-mail whenever we wish. It is beyond amazing what these devices can do — there currently are more than a half million apps in Apple's iTunes store alone. Arguably, smartphones are the ultimate productivity enhancer.

But what is the human cost of such wonderment? I am amazed, on a daily basis, at behaviors that are driven by the obsession that so many have with smartphones — indeed, I'm beginning to believe that many people are possessed by them. Almost every day, I see people nearly get plastered when crossing the street because they are riveted by the e-mail that they're writing, or the video that they're watching. Bus? What bus? Worse, so many people are texting while driving their cars — an incredibly selfish act that not only puts them in grave danger but also everyone around them — that governments from coast to coast have had to post signs and create public-service announcements telling them not to do it. One might think that should be instinctive, but that would be underestimating the powerful lure of these devices.

Without a doubt, people become addicted to smartphones — and fast. But that's not the worst of it; it has become clear to me that users just as quickly become slaves to these devices. As soon as they hear the ping that alerts them to the arrival of a text or e-mail, they spring into action. This has created an expectation — amongst our families, friends, colleagues, bosses and clients — that we will be available to them 24/7/365. I don't believe that is healthy. If an engine is left to run around the clock, it eventually will run out of gas. I think the same holds true for humans. I wonder whether the time will come when people become so burned out from having to be "on" all the time that productivity actually will plummet.

All of that said, I suppose it is inevitable that I will join the legions of smartphone users, probably sooner rather than later. Did I mention that Talking Tom is hilarious?

What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.

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Insights from Donny Jackson concerning the most important news, trends and issues.

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Donny Jackson

Donny Jackson is editor of Urgent Communications magazine. Before joining UC in 2002, he covered telecommunications for four years as a freelance writer and as news editor for Telephony magazine....
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