I am a conflicted tech reporter. I started covering the technology beat because of my love for the power of the smartphone. But the conspicuous consumption of gadgets, with its attendant human and environmental costs, makes me feel as though I'm complicit in injustice. To reconcile these feelings, I've settled on five principles for owning a smartphone. They help me use my device to its fullest potential.
1. I will make things with my smartphone.
Smartphones are not just for email, Facebook and fantasy football. They are multi-sensory assistant droids that extend our powers of creativity and observation. They’re loaded with powerful cameras, microphones and accelerometers. We can interact with the info they store with our fingers or our voices. They can communicate with other computers. And there’s an app for everything.
To take full advantage of these pocket-sized supercomputers is to be a more dynamic, fully realized human being. Communicate visions with Instagram! Tweet or blog observations! Capture inspiring quotations and share them with friends! Damn the data trail, track my location and create a spatial record of life being lived! Why? Why not?
2. I will help people with my smartphone.
If I meet someone on the street who needs directions, I will show him or her the way with my best map app. If someone needs a question answered, I'll look it up for them. If a friend drops her keys in the movie theater, I'll use the light to help her find them. If someone needs a locksmith or a mechanic or a police officer, I've got a way to help right in my pocket.
3. I will support my community with my smartphone.
Smartphones are not just personally empowering. They are sensitive data nodes that can make a whole city smarter. My location info helps Google, Apple and other mapping companies compute local traffic patterns. My city of San Francisco ties me into civic meetings via smartphone.
In Portland, Oregon, where I used to live, an app called PDX Reporter for iPhone and Android lets residents report potholes, graffiti, street light outages and other problems by submitting a location-tagged report. I could even upload a photo. When a program like that becomes available here, I'll use it.
4. I will not needlessly replace my smartphone.
This is the one that weighs on me the most. Smartphone manufacturing comes with labor problems and environmental damage. Smartphone use drains the planet of energy and resources. There’s no such thing as a purely ethical smartphone, so any purchase is a compromise.
And yet we love our gadgets. Great new phones come out every year (if you’re an Apple user) or freaking constantly (if you’re an Android user). Smartphones are hardly just for geeks anymore, but they’re certainly for people who love technology. Sometimes it’s hard to resist buying the latest technology if you love it.
I will resist it. My phone could land Apollo 11 on the moon in the background while I play Angry Birds. If it can do what I need it to do, I will not replace it. I will keep it until a new one comes along that blows it away in so many ways that it makes me faster, better and stronger. And if I can’t find someone who needs my old one, I will do whatever I can to recycle it.
5. I will put away my smartphone.
My smartphone is a portal to vast worlds, but I will not let that alienate me from my physical surroundings, especially the people. If I'm with people, I don’t need a phone to mediate my interaction anymore, so I will keep it in my pocket. I will check my notifications later. I will use it only if I need directions or an answer to a question. Then I will put it back in my pocket.
Samsung's depiction of addicted iPhone users
Can you think of other smartphone principles? I think these are a good start.