Scenario One: You are standing by the table. Your phone is lying on the table. The phone rings. You reach over, pick it up, and answer it.
Scenario Two: You are standing by the table. Your brand-new smart phone is lying on the table. You hear an unfamiliar fragment of music. You hear it again. You hear it a third time and finally figure out that it’s coming from your phone. You pick up the phone. On the screen are two icon images of telephone receivers, one in green and one in red. Being not exactly dumb, even if you’re not as smart as a smart phone, you deduce that the green icon probably means “answer.” You tap the icon. The phone keeps ringing. You poke the icon. Nothing. You swipe at the icon. The ringing gets louder. You keep swatting at the image, with no result. Finally the music stops. You put the phone down, gently, so as not to scramble its smart little brain. The way you might if, for example, you threw it against the wall or slammed it to the floor and stomped on it.
A few seconds later, the plain, dumb landline phone made a plain, dumb telephone-ringing noise. I picked it up and answered it. My partner, two states away, was calling on his own semi-smart phone while he was out for a walk in a small town in southern Colorado. Truly, the wonders and convenience of modern mobile technology are amazing. The only bad part is learning how to use them.
When I told him about my new phone that was apparently too smart to talk to the likes of me, he described an experiment he had heard about. Apparently several four- and five-year-olds were taken to a room equipped with an assortment of electronic gadgets like laptop computers, ereaders, music players, and cell phones. The kids were given no instructions, just allowed to play with the stuff. Within a few hours, they had figured everything out. They were playing games, taking pictures, playing music and videos, and making phone calls—no doubt to buy stuff from Amazon or order pizza from Mongolia.
I did not find this inspiring.
At least, not at first. Then I gave it some more thought. To little kids, a piece of new technology is just another toy. They don’t worry about minor details like having to pay for it if they break it, or whether they might mistakenly delete all their friends’ phone numbers, or what it might cost if they accidently place a call to Siberia, or whether they might embarrass themselves by inadvertently sending rude text messages to their bosses. They just play. They try something; if it doesn’t work, they try something else. They tap icons and swipe screen symbols and mess around until, accidentally or on purpose, they figure out how to make the thing work.
It seemed like an approach worth trying. It worked, too. Once I started playing, I easily figured out how to send text messages, make calls, and use the camera. And it only took me a day and a half of experimenting (well, plus asking my daughter) to learn how to answer the damned thing.
The phone is no help, either. I don’t care how “intuitive” its designers may think it is. It doesn’t provide answers; it just sits there in sleek, superior silence and insists that I figure things out for myself. I’m trying to think of this as an opportunity to learn, not just technology, but important inner qualities. Like persistence. And patience. I’m trying to see the phone as a sort of spiritual guru. Like Yoda, only with a ring tone.
So far, I’m not feeling particularly enlightened. I have realized, though, that technology companies are missing a great opportunity. When I bought the phone, the salesman at Verizon did his best to sell me a whole line of extras, from carrying cases to extended warranties. I declined most of them.
There’s one extra, though, I probably would buy. What they really need to offer with their smart phones is a couple of hours with a smart five-year-old.