In Unexpected Praise of the Phone I Never Thought I’d Own

I just set my iPhone’s timer for 20 minutes, because 20 minutes is just the right amount of time for the delicates I’m hand-washing to soak, before I rinse them and hang them up to dry. I’ve written about my iPhone before, but that was back in the beginning of my relationship to the ubiquitous gadget. Having fully integrated the little brick into my life in a way I would never have expected, I think the device merits a second round of evaluation.

Originally, I praised the iPhone’s gender neutrality. iPhone cases tend to be much more “gendered” (or marketed at different targets) than the iPhone itself. But inside the phone–I didn’t think it would really matter. I figured I would use it for the occasional text or phone call. And that’s true. It holds up to these functions (although I don’t like the way it seems very easy to remain ‘on’ a phone call when you think you’ve hit ‘End’).

What I was most worried about was that I would become addicted to the phone, yet another clueless cult member experiencing very little of reality outside the edges of the screen. I think that could still be a risk, especially if I used data for internet browsing or downloaded games. The configurations that you choose for the iPhone really change these effects, though.

I do have a small amount of data on my plan, but I save it for when I really need it–primarily when I’m lost, or when I at least want to have a searchable map backing me up. So what this means is that under “Settings,” I have cellular data turned off. I use WiFi if I want to use my phone for Internet browsing in the house (or in a café with WiFi), but I’m not walking around refreshing my Facebook feed.

In fact, most of the reason I like the phone so much is for what it does for me at home. (The big exception here is the camera, which I’ll get to in a moment.) As someone who has to and generally likes waking up early (ish), I am still more often than not generally unenthused about getting out of bed, especially in winter. But I do like checking email, listening to music, and generally starting to think a little bit–all before I get out of bed. These activities, more than trying to guilt-trip myself into putting my feet on the cold tile floor, get me moving.

I’m using an iPhone 4, so presumably the screen display has improved a bit in updated versions. It probably doesn’t matter very much though, because the iPhone 4 is already damned good. Even my blurry, sleep-filled eyes can handle the screen. So I read an article or two on the NY Times or Al-Jazeera, and I check my email, and I put on some music that makes me feel a bit more positive about the day, and then I get out of bed. It’s not actually a catapult (what I probably need), but it helps.

Moby Dick, better looking but much less approachable than the Kindle version.

After getting out of bed, my day in iPhone usage continues. I have an app that is connected with the bus timetables for Lyon, so I check to see when the next bus is coming. As I sit on the bus for 30 minutes in my morning commute, sometimes I read a “real” (paper) book, but often I turn to my Kindle app. If I end up standing, holding the iPhone is sometimes easier than dealing with a paper book. Plus, I’m trying to get through Moby Dick, and it’s satisfying to have the percent completed edging up at the bottom of the screen.

I can also turn to Moby Dick rather discreetly while watching the kids, if I do it on my phone. I can also look up song lyrics on the fly so that I can try to teach them more songs to add to their somewhat limited repertoire (for my sake if not theirs). If I’m trying to Skype with my parents on an evening when I’m working in the afternoon, I may be shooting off emails to them negotiating the time we’ll agree to sign on as I’m juggling my babysitting duties.

When I’m traveling, the phone changes functionality completely, or at least I change the way I use it. It becomes almost purely a tiny email device, and I use email (or Facebook messenger) in lieu of phone service. In this way, I can connect equally well–and equally cheaply (i.e. for free) with friends and family. With the ubiquity of free WiFi in and near cafés in many cities, it’s easy to use email as a stand-in for text messaging, avoiding international phone charges. It’s also nice to be able to send quick emails to my parents letting them know I’ve arrived or departed safely without having to haul around or locate a computer.

And then there is that camera, the reason I initially decided to swing for the iPhone instead of a cheaper phone and a pocket camera. I don’t take my real (big clunky) camera out enough, but I almost always have my iPhone on me. Many of the recent photos I’ve shared on Photo Fridays have been taken on my iPhone. While I could have gotten better resolution from my Nikon, I had the iPhone with me–and that makes all the difference.

So, I was wrong. I use this device a lot, and I like it a lot. Best of all, I haven’t become addicted. It stays in my pocket or purse when I’m with other people, but by myself, it gives me a lot of functionality in one small device. Instead of the bulky, rather ugly CD player/radio I used to have next to my bed for my waking-up-to-music thing, I have the iPhone. It also replaces watches, alarm clocks, to a certain extent maps (though I still find paper maps much more reliable if I have thought ahead but am truly lost), and timers. It is small enough to fit in some of my pockets (which is a feat for women’s clothing–check out our pockets, guys, it’s pitiful) and yet large enough that it isn’t easily misplaced. 

What I like best about it is that it is one thing and I will probably not be updating it for a very long time, as it currently does its many jobs very well. I have found a few ways to use it that I didn’t predict, but I can’t say that I need it to do anything it already does better. So, as long as it keeps working, that’s it–it’s something I don’t have to think about anymore. 

The biggest thing that I don’t like about it is something that doesn’t seem to be changing in updated versions of the iPhone: BATTERY LIFE. I go through a full charge about once every 2-3 days, and I think that’s really pushing it. By contrast, I used to charge my flip-phone once every two weeks or so. Granted, I never checked email on it, but I texted, made phone calls, and used the alarm at the same rate. 

The second biggest downside is the phone’s fragility. While I use and love and totally rely on the Otterbox Commuter Case, I hold my breath every time I drop this baby. Which I do. Because I’m often carrying real babies, or a load of laundry, or whatever, and the thing gets bumped off the table by the 4-year-old, or… well, a lot of things can happen. I still don’t take it running (although I know people who do and haven’t had any problems) and I would be very hesitant to use it in a lot of situations where it could easily be damaged. 

Finally, from an environmental standpoint, I worry about the phone’s life once I eventually part with it. Can the rare metals used to produce it be recycled? I feel guilty relying on such a gadget–I feel even guiltier that I got this phone while I already had a phone that worked perfectly well (albeit not in the country I currently live in). In addition to being something of a precious object itself, it also requires all that energy from frequent charging. Overall, it’s not something I’m really proud of. 

So, while I use it, I like it, and I am now taking full advantage of it, the iPhone is part of a lifestyle I’m not altogether proud of. I’m using up resources more than I’m making any or making good use of what I’ve got. This is always the flip side of technological breakthroughs. It’s exciting to be able to check email before I’ve even fully opened my eyes, but do my everyday luxuries justify the environmentally harmful mining that had to happen for these to be produced? 

My only consolation is that the cluster of gadgetry and alternative devices I would use to accomplish the same functions are also produced in ways that are harmful to the environment. By reducing so many functions into one physical object–semi-precious though it may be–I am at least consolidating my demands for physical objects. 

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