If you read this blog, follow me on Twitter, or are my wife (hi, honey!), it should be obvious by now that I have a little problem when it comes to smartphones. One might say that what I call a genuine enthusiasm for the devices is really an “obsession,” but I don’t think that’s quite right. Really, it’s that I can’t seem to settle on what is the Right Phone For Me. This search for said phone hasn’t harmed me or anyone else, though it’s a major reason I was exiled from Amazon, but it has gone from being a fun (and at one time frugal) exploration of technology to being something of a source of stress, as no single device feels like it checks sufficient boxes. My wife aptly said that I am the “Princess and the Pea” of phones. Bullseye.
But why? Why am I not as hung up on tech devices in general? I’m perfectly happy with my laptop for example, and I was so far from being obsessed with my tablet and Kindle that I divested myself of them. There must be something about the particularities of the smartphone that have caused some specific neurons to fire in me, and keep firing.
Let’s take a few steps back and take account of who we’re talking about. I am a severe introvert. I am curious. I am creative. I am anxious. For decades people fitting that description have found solace in technology, and in personal computers in particular. The advent of the Web raised computing’s appeal exponentially, but we’re still talking about a device – a desktop or laptop computer – that more or less stays in one place a few feet away.
The smartphone takes everything that’s great about personal computers, and rather than manifesting in an external appliance, puts it all into a small device that is more or less attached to you. It’s in your pocket, it’s in your purse, it’s in your hand. All the time.
My phone is not just a way to “get things done” wherever I am, nor is it just a way to amuse myself in any given situation. To me, the phone is an extension of myself, an augmentation of myself, and a way to safely (more or less) interact with the rest of the world.
Through my phone, at any given moment, I can inform, educate, and entertain myself. I can execute a panoply of tasks, plan for the future, and relive my past. I can express myself just as I like, and converse with the population of the Internet, all from a place of my choosing, at a safe impersonal distance. And from that impersonal distance, I can become as open and personal, or as distant, as I choose.
(Would that these devices had existed when I was a teenager, and as ubiquitous as they are today! I can’t help but think they would have been quite the release, quite the tonic, quite the safe house, for my alienated, terrified, self-hating, miserable adolescent self.)
And so the value of the phone to me cannot be overstated. That means the container of that functionality becomes extremely important; it’s the vessel for my augmented self. Things like size, weight, shape, and overall performance become all the more important, but so do considerations like tactile feel, cosmetic appearance, and myriad miscellaneous factors that I’m not even conscious of. I’m going to use the damned thing a lot, and it has to be something I enjoy using. I need to feel, yes, an affection for it. “It does what I need it to do” is totally insufficient.
A lot of the peas under this particular princess, however, I think have been totally legitimate. The HTC One M8 was too damned slippery, and (the unit I had at least) was unbearably slow. The Nexus 6 got too goddamned hot in my hands no matter what I did, and I went through several different units before I gave up. The Nexus 5 had an abysmal battery and camera. I could go on. But a couple of other phones I tried, I could have/should have just stuck with. They were great, but in ways big and small, still had me looking for something else.
What makes this a more or less recent phenomenon for me is the switch to Android from iOS late last year. With iPhones, there’s not a lot of choice, so not a lot of internal debate. “You want the big one or the little one?” is a very recent addition of variety to the platform, and it’s the whole shebang. Once you buy, that’s what you’ve got, at least until the next one comes out a year later. Nothing to gnash one’s teeth over until then.
With the Android universe, you have dozens of manufacturers making dozens of models of devices, and many of them are simply amazing (and many at amazing prices), especially now. But the paradox of choice sets in, and the knowledge that these variations on the Android theme proliferate, it’s hard for me to feel satisfied that what I have is what will suit me best. This is not healthy for me, of course.
I admit freely that I’m too focused on this, surely to the detriment of other things (though let’s not kid ourselves that I’d otherwise be curing cancer or something), but I hope it’s a little clearer as to why this little quest has been as important to me as it has become. My phone is my way to a safer, happier, more “realized” Paul, a Paul that I like better. The tool, the extension of myself, that enables this, therefore, has a big responsibility. So I don’t choose that tool lightly, even though I could stand to dial the gravity down a touch.
* * *
Update: This princess is now resting comfortably.