The Curmudgeon

I’ve been thinking recently. About smart phones. I don’t have one yet. I’ve been tempted. Not because they offer something I’ve wanted. But because everyone seems to have one. Except me.

So I ask, doubtfully: How would I use it? What would it do for me?

Understand, I’m no digital Neanderthal. In the early 80s, I was punching stacks of IBM cards for the government, which believed a natural gas company was systematically making several cents each on thousands of transactions. They settled.

I had an Apple IIe before it was fashionable. In 1985, in business school, I had to explain what I could already do with Multiplan and what she, my instructor, was proposing I do after taking a required course using an IBM and Lotus 1-2-3. She was mystified and adamant.

By 1986, I had joined a company which developed business simulations for big money-making companies.  They paid me bigger money. In 2002, I even patented some software for facilitating debates. My partner thought people would like to argue. We wanted to move them along.

All told, I’m on about my tenth personal computer. In my closet, I have an original MacBook. And several more; all well used; all superseded. My current one is about 7 years old. Getting up there, but it serves. I look forward to the new new thing.

In short, I don’t dislike computers. I’m not scared of them. On the other hand, I never really wanted to get close to one. I once named a handheld voice-activated-recorded-kind-of-thing.  Lucille, I called it. Lucille took messages and memos; held addresses and phone numbers; responded to my voice. Lucille fit so snugly in my hand. But the love affair didn’t stick. Its battery died and I lost it all. I would have had to start over again. Again, it’s in my closet.

I now feel as warmly toward these devices as I feel towards a hammer. When I’m confronted with a nail…

I look at how people are using their smart phones. In general, they are talking to friends. Some are texting. To me, texting is typing, and was called that once upon a time. My wife says texting is different than typing: shorter and faster than e-mail. In either case, though, talking was generally supposed to be better. We used to travel thousands of miles for a face-to-face: a smile, a warm handshake, a hug, something more.

There’s an advantage to texting though. You can do it silently, secretly and while you’re supposed to be doing something else. Like paying attention. Excuse me: multitasking.

Some, of course, are also listening to music on their smart phones. Recorded music, that is. So their ears are plugged in. I have an ipod: much smaller than an iphone. And it’s separate, which is, as I see it, an advantage. When it’s broken or lost, I’m only out the phone or the songs: not both. When I lose the combo-phone-addressbook-music-maker-emailer-brower-camera-…., there goes my life. Start again. And back it up, this time.

Speaking of cameras… Many are using their phones to take photos – or movies – and showing them to others. Again, I have a real camera: my antique old-school substitute.  Actually, it’s a 12 MB Canon but it’s falling into disuse. There is a lot of excellent photography: in magazines, on postcards, on television…. On the other hand, they don’t have me in it. Or my family. There is nothing my friends enjoy more than seeing hundreds of photos of me and my family.

And so much more people do. They play games. Read maps. Check sports scores or stock prices. They read or blog or read blogs. Some are dangerously distracted, motoring down the road, glued to their screens while they negotiate traffic. Smack!

In general, these devices, connected to “the world,” make us feel important. They massage the ego. That may be their most important value, though the last we admit. It reminds me of my first class in business school, attacking my first quantitative finance problem, watching my colleagues earnestly pounding their new high-powered calculators. Looking down. I thought, “If Harvard could see us now….”

As one of the unconnected, I confess feeling envious of my co-connected peers. Facebook. Twitter.

So I’m torn. Should I try to be “in the loop?” Always with something more to say or hear or share? Or am I hopelessly estranged? A un-digitized wallflower? Too self-centered to see, hear, and accept what’s good for me? I don’t know. What I do know is that too many people are looking down, fiddling with buttons, searching in their small, electronic windows, making their small talk smaller.

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