On Facebook & Phones

living in and loving a world of digital doohickies

Mike Paulus, illustrated by Ian Kloster

Raise your hand if you’re on Facebook. OK, raise your hand if you have a smartphone. All of you? Good. Now, if you feel kind of guilty about using Facebook or your smartphone, leave your hand up. Most of you? That’s what I thought.

Most people I know talk about these things as if they’re ashamed of them. I’m not sure why. While I didn’t grow up connecting with people on things like Facebook, I’m not quick to condemn them. Actually, I don’t condemn them all.

Facebook is just what cell phones were to the 90s. And what non-cell phone phones and shopping malls were to the 80s. And what giant, LSD-fueled arena rock concerts were to the 70s. And what, um, the telegraph was to the 60s. All of these things are just one part of a social group’s puzzle – places and methods for talking.

I understand, for older people, seeing younger people staring at computer screens in public is a little weird. But I think it has more to do with the legacy of “too much TV.” Online social networks have their drawbacks, and they can be misused, but using Facebook and the internet in general is not the same as watching TV. It’s not perfect, but your brain isn’t being nearly as passive. And in many cases, you’re actually communicating with other actual human beings.

And it’s not just “young people” we’re talking about. For all ages and all walks of life, saying you’re “on Facebook” is almost like saying “I have email.” I’ll admit, the ubiquity of online social interaction has exploded in the past 6-7 years; however, much like death, taxes, and my insatiable hunger for bacon-topped donuts, it’s just a part of our world. Singling it out as some sort of modern scourge or a harbinger of societal ruin is just kind of dumb, Mr. Cranky Pants.

And for those of you who accept this, yet think “it’s just sad” that people will from now on grow up connecting over computers as much as in person, you can cheer up. If you look closer, these people are still interacting offline, and the people who are honestly locked to a computer screen 24/7 have bigger problems – if it wasn’t Facebook, they’d be addicted to something else. Blaming one’s iPhone is just blaming the symptom, not the disease.

Now, you’re hearing this from a guy who loves technology and gadgets and whizbangery in general – I make my living on the internet. But you’re also hearing this from someone who didn’t owned a cell phone until five months ago.

It was a Christmas present. From my mom.

See, at this point in my life, I find a lot less excitement in acquiring the “latest and greatest” gear, and a lot more fun in figuring out how to get exactly what I need from exactly the right gadget. After doing this for a number of years, I’ve learned something important – I don’t need a whole lot of gadgets.

As far as a cell phone, I’ve just never found the need. And while there have always been plenty of situations where it’d be “nice to have one,” those situations were always few and far between – and they usually came and went with very little disruption to normal life. I’m usually by a landline. I’m always by a computer. No one has trouble getting ahold of me.

My wife and I both use 7-year-old Mac laptops (12-inch iBook G4s for those who care), and they’re just about hitting the end of the line right now. Our cell phones cannot run apps. Our one television is a mere 20 inches wide. And people, we’ve had the same DVD player for 10 years. It’s called an “Orbitron,” and I assume it’s constructed from the leftover parts of nicer DVD players. A Blu-ray disc would probably make it explode.

Much of my family’s digital lifestyle (and gadget purchasing) is based on a desire to be thrifty, but we also just don’t need much more than what we have. It’s as simple as that.

Ten years ago, I downloaded every cool little computer application I could find, installed it, and then I promptly used it for a good two minutes before never touching it again. One day I realized how much time I was wasting on just playing around with this stuff and how little time I was spending on actually doing things. I can’t remember where, but I once read an article on technology and creativity, and the crux of it was this: a $2,000 laptop is not going to make your screenplay any better. Actually writing it will make it better, and you can probably do that with the computer you bought five years ago.

Since then, I’ve tried to be a lot more zen in my attitude towards tech. If it’s a useful tool, then great. If you’re more excited about the tool that what you can do with it, them enjoy it briefly (if at all) and move on.

Smartphones and Facebook are the same way. If you’re not really connecting with people and learning new things, I think it’s time get moving.