Smart Phones

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Every major new product takes time to really incorporate into our lives well enough to develop the appropriate etiquette and boundaries. Gin was the problem in 18th Century England, when poor people spent all their money on bottles and ended up in the gutter, mothers neglecting kids and fathers neglecting both. Over time, the British government and society developed safeguards and boundaries that allowed gin to become an established part of British life, without continuing to wreak wide-spread havoc. (Not that it causes no problems, but they subsided to a personal, not a societal level.)

Smart phones are our current disruptive product. When cell phones first came out, there was no etiquette for portable phones and lots of rudeness occurred. Over time, rules of when to use them evolved, especially among teens, and there are now social rules about when it is appropriate or rude to talk on phones.

Always-available phones, especially now that email is available on them, made off-duty workers more productive – but also destroyed their work-life balance and, by keeping them constantly interrupted, prevented them from taking the breaks that encourage creativity and problem-solving. While most companies, especially those that work across multiple time zones, still prefer to have their employees available all the time, there is a growing awareness of the costs, and some companies are starting to restrict off-hours smart-phone use among their employees.

As is often the case, there have been more subtle effects, too. Plans are made on the fly rather than nailed down ahead of time. Logistics – “where are you?” – are easier to deal with – although they also take a lot longer, especially when people try to keep their options open till the last minute.

Most insidiously, smart-phone users simply stop using their memories. Why fill your brain with data if your phone can find it in seconds? This leads to intelligent young adults who have no idea where their favorite restaurant is, even in which neighborhood, because they use their GPS  for it every time. Or a lawyer who has no idea what his kids’ phone numbers are when he loses his phone. These aren’t catastrophic, of course, but they reduce the amount of information that is readily available to be mentally manipulated, leading to some odd and possibly detrimental gaps.

If history is a good guide, smart phone etiquette, boundaries, and effects will continue to evolve in ways we can’t predict now.