Why I Have a Dumbphone

I admit it. I sometimes think about buying a smartphone. I watch all the folks around me who flip through emails, videos, and maps, pulling up all kinds of goodies from the Internet, even as they make calls, and I think, “I should get one of those.”

Recently, I was in Goodyear, Arizona for a business conference. Everyone there was Twittering away while I sat back, listening to the presentations. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how folks could send tweets and still actually hear what was being said. How can you effectively do both? And why isn’t it rude to be buried in your communications when someone else is communicating with you? I understand that these days media conferences are all about getting the word out. People are encouraged to tweet in real time, whether it’s all about business or the latest entertainment event. But is that really the way to go? What do we really gain from that behavior?

Me, I need to sit down and concentrate when I want to share information. I don’t just want to spit things out. I want to digest them first and only regurgitate the important facts. I’m a proponent of self-editing, even though I know I don’t do it often enough. In this age of instant communications, are we connecting enough? I worry about the social implications of the current social media trends. We’re skimming the surface. Are we creating the climate for the new disaffected masses, not really meeting human needs as we embrace our new digital culture?

As I was traveling, I found myself in the Charlotte Douglas airport to make a connecting flight. In the ladies room, I was greeted by a lovely older lady, who gave me a cheerful hello. I looked into that kind face with the warm smile. I made eye contact. And even as I did, other women flew past us. No human contact could pull them away from their smartphones. How sad, I thought to myself, that we can’t spare time to be pleasant, polite. In Phoenix, the ladies room attendant was disgruntled and disinterested. Can we really blame her, when no one seems to see her as a human being?

And then today, I found confirmation that maybe, just maybe, I’m not on the wrong track. Dr. Keith Ablow was talking about new studies of how this digital technology negatively impacts children. What’s missing? The human interaction we all need.

That reminds me of the day my mother and I sat and watched a four-year-old girl try to communicate with her mother at a Panera Bread restaurant. Every time the young child tried to ask a question, she was shushed. Every effort she made to connect with the twenty-something woman was cut off. It made us sad to watch this display of unmotherly behavior. Why? Because we always made the effort to talk. Did we always succeed? No, but we tried. I couldn’t imagine having a mother who told me to be quiet every time I reached out. That strikes me as cold and unfeeling. Oh, did I mention that the entire lunch was spent by the mother having a phone conversation with a friend? Do you know how hard it is to sit and watch a child fidget that long without wanting to approach that mother? Back then, I was too polite. Now? Now I think I would grab the bull by the horns and just invite the child to sit with us. The hell with her mama. I’d be more than happy to chat with a four-year-old child. A mind is a terrible thing to waste, isn’t it?

Ever found yourself trapped in the supermarket by the Aisle Wanderer armed with a smartphone, who drones on throughout your shopping excursion, whining about whether or not to get those crackers? How come we always seem to be headed in the same direction at the same time? How come it’s so impossible to put the smartphone down when the cashier is rining up the order? Why not use the self-serve checkout, where you won’t insult humanity by maintaining your ever-so-important conversation about that awesome vacation you just took?

Every time I am tempted to buy that smartphone, I remind myself how nice it is to have a dumbphone. A plain, ordinary flip cell phone. I even had the phone company disconnect the Internet features because I kept hitting the wrong button and hooking up online without meaning to, racking up the monthly charges.

The way I look at it, I don’t want to stumble into my communications like a drunk loading up on cheap gin and peanuts. I actually want to be effective in what I say and do. I want to be conscious of my own thoughts. Most of all, I want that “down time”, those lovely little moments when I sort out the hours of my life. What’s working? What’s not working? What did I do wrong? What did I do right? What can I improve? If I’m always hooked up to my smartphone, when will I have time to actually be smart?

Sure, I’m probably insulting a lot of people by not instantly messaging. I actually only just found I had Twitter messages in my account that I had never read in the year plus I’ve been connected. And as for Facebook, I still am not convinced it’s the way to really get together with people and have a meaningful dialogue. Call me a rebel. Call me an oddity. I think we need to put the “social” back into social media. I hereby grant each and every one of you the right to shut off your smartphones, to set up “safe zones” and “safe times”, when the world can just hold its water while you do something else. It’s okay to make your own rules about how, when, and why you connect to the Internet. The world will not fall apart if you don’t check every ping that pops up on your smartphone. People can wait. When folks know that you only check in a few times a day, that tells them the window of opportunity to communicate with you is defined. It gives them the chance to pace themselves. Better still, it means there’s no rush to get in touch with you.

Years ago, back in the days of snail mail, a letter was a communication that brought the written word to the reader in ways that could make us feel. Soldiers and sailors longed for letters from home, provided it wasn’t the dreaded “Dear John”. Lovers and sweethearts clutched envelopes to their breasts, their hearts flying at the thrill of those affectionate words. From a distance, we could hear about the lives of those we love and imagine ourselves with them, enjoying every moment. It’s time to get back to really connecting with the people in our lives, whether we do it long-distance or in person. People should always matter more than the technology, and the technology should enable us to be more human, not less. Never forget that the heart is the heart. It needs what it needs, to feel that when it speaks, someone is actually listening. Next time you find yourself rushing around like a chicken with its head cut off, stop yourself. Look folks in the eye. Listen when they speak. We’re losing a very important part of our humanity and we need to reclaim it, but we can only do that by being genuine. The younger generations are counting on us to teach them the way, even if it means we get ourselves dumbphones.