Friday, October 1, 2010


I am not looking forward to picking out a new cell phone.

I do not like cell phones. They do not work, at least not for me. No matter what phone I have or what “provider” I am signed up with, there is no signal actually provided for me. I think it’s a sign from the universe that I was just not meant to be in constant contact with the rest of humanity. The world clearly needs a break from me.

The thing I hate most about cell phones, though, is not that they’re unreliable little backstabbing menaces – you don’t survive into your fifth decade on this planet without developing coping skills for that sort of thing – it’s that they’re not just phones anymore. They are multitasking unreliable little backstabbing menaces. Even the basic and outdated model I have now has enough computing power to run a small business, and every year they come up with new phones that can do even more. There really isn’t much anymore that a cell phone can’t do, and I find that disturbing.

The reason for this pernicious mission-creep is because these phones were designed by engineers, and engineers don’t think like the rest of us. I’ve known a lot of engineers in my life, and they follow roughly the same percentages of “good people” vs. “wastes of space” that most other occupations follow. But they definitely do have their own mindset about gadgets, and it is not my mindset.

When an engineer looks at a gadget, the question they ask is, “What can I get this thing to do?” Whereas when I look at a gadget, the question I ask is, “How can I get this thing to do what I want?”

These are two very different questions.

You can see the difference if you ever try to read through the manual for any gadget you own. Manuals are written by tech writers, people who work with engineers every day and therefore absorb their way of thinking. And these manuals are laid out by feature.

“Look at this button! Look what it can do! And it can do this too! Isn’t this great? And look – over there! There’s another button! And it can do all these things! Why, there isn’t anything you can think of that this thing can’t do!”

What I need is a manual that’s laid out by task.

“Oh, you want to do that? Really? Are you sure? Well, okay. Go to this screen. Push that button three times, spin that knob a quarter turn and then push the first button again. When the screen turns red, push the second button from the left, and there you go.”

And really, the only task I want my cell phone to accomplish is make and receive calls.

I have a camera. I have an Internet-capable computer that can send emails and browse the web. It even plays games. And we own a Wii, which the girls tell me can also be used to play games, though I have no personal evidence to support that. In short, I have any number of gadgets whose function need not be replicated on my phone.

And this always comes as a great surprise to cell phone people.

The last time we switched phones Kim made the mistake of sending me out on my own to do this. Kim is a gadget person, and she often makes the general mistake of assuming that what seems obvious to her will be equally obvious to me. It makes health-care a lot more interesting that way, for example.

This is how I found myself in the Cell Phone Store, surrounded by tiny little gadgets of gargantuan capabilities that would surely be of use to other people. Eventually the twelve-year-old girl behind the counter noticed me and asked if she could help me.

“I’d like a new cell phone,” I explained, showing her the desiccated remains of the one I was currently using.

“Yes,” she said. “I can see that. What would you like your cell phone to do?”

“I would like my cell phone to make phone calls.”

There was a short pause while this registered.

“No camera?”

“No camera.”

“No Internet?”

“No Internet.”

“How about texting? Surely you want texting?”

“No, I’ll just write.”



“Ooooookay,” she said. “Would you like that made out of wood?”

Damn kids.

Eventually I left and Kim took care of it. But that was a while ago, and now it is time to start that process over.

We’ll see.


Janiece said...

The reason for this pernicious mission-creep is because these phones were designed by engineers, and engineers don’t think like the rest of us.

I think it depends on the engineer and how they're compensated. Since I'm a coin-operated kind of gal, my engineering goals have more to do with "how useful can I make this system so the customer will actually, you know, BUY IT," rather than the the gee whiz factor.

And speaking of technology, would you please change your RSS preferences so that the entire blog post is sent to RSS rather than a truncated version? When I'm at my PC I don't really mind clicking through, but when I'm on my work laptop or my smartphone it can be problematic.

David said...

Well, that makes sense about engineering goals. I just know what it feels like from my just-barely technoliterate perspective. There's just a lot of features crowded into most things these days that I will never use and didn't ask for. I'm willing to stipulate that this is MY problem, however.

Speaking of which - RSS preference? Huh? I will have to explore a bit, I suppose. I'll let you know.

David said...

Hi Janiece - assuming that RSS is the same as Site Feed, I think I've taken care of it. If not, let me know.

Eric said...

See, I'm on the opposite side of this as a non-engineer: I didn't have a cell phone at all until I was looking at upgrading my PDA and thought, "Well, hell, why not get one that can make phone calls, too."

I understand the "mission creep" issues: there are devices I don't own or don't want because they no longer reliably do what I'd like without other stuff getting in the way. But: as far as phones are concerned, it's the pocket computer I want first, and the fact it can also send text messages and make calls is a bonus.

David said...

I think I must just be easily overloaded by gadgetry, so I try to avoid it. I don't have a PDA, for example, nor an mp3 player. It's bad enough I have a cell phone.

My thought process was, "I don't want a cell phone. Yet I have to have a cell phone (for various reasons). Okay, I'll meet it that far and no further." And having other gadgets welded onto it by people who think they know what I want better than I do (try finding a phone WITHOUT a camera - it's not easy), well, no. But I am clearly in the minority here, and I just wish these kids would get off my damned lawn.

For a blogger, I'm something of a Luddite, I guess.

Kathleen said...

I actually had a cell phone salesperson laugh at me when I showed them my old single-purpose phone, which had finally bitten the dust (the salt water at the beach may have had something to do with it).

That said, Eric and I got iPhones just before the big move, and I am sold. For the real-time map/directions feature, if nothing else. It's a wonder in this crazy sprawling mass of humanity (LA).

Beatrice Desper said...

Another Luddite here. I just got my FIRST cell phone a couple of weeks ago. I was told people won't leave messages on land line phones.
I tried to set the date last night and was reduced to tears.
Mr. Telecom (yes my husband works for France Telecom) doesn't get it.
Wait until I tell you how I spent 10 euros (about 12 dollars) to check my messages....

Beatrice Desper said...

Remember when answering machines came out when we were kids? Why have them? Just call when you know they're home.
I know, soon I'll be getting my AARP discount.