Zombies stagger around my city amid frequent near-collisions. On sidewalks and buses, the undead stare blankly into screens. I've heard people proudly refer to themselves as "digital zombies," which horrifies and puzzles me. Aren't zombies bad? Isn't it our job to fight them?
I have been a vocal member of the resistance for years. But soon, I might succumb.
I'm no Luddite. (Is anyone anymore?) Technoskepticism is part of my identity, though. I have proselytized for Slow Media and the idea that faster isn't always better. I have tortured students by assigning them the task of giving up their devices for a day. I even spent six straight months offline, just to see what it was like.
My unplugging experiment ended on New Year's Eve three years ago, at the very moment when my husband, coincidentally, broke his cell phone. We had headed to a party right before midnight. The destination address was on his phone -- which he had left at our house, too far away. Having failed to find the party, we returned home, where he tossed the device across the room a little too hard. He hasn't had a mobile phone since.
Here we are, a professional couple -- a journalism professor and a web designer, no less -- with nary a smartphone between us. I teach courses in social media. Maybe I should walk the walk. Around 60 percent of Americans now have smartphones. Maybe I should join the club.
I've almost enlisted in the zombie army before. I periodically read tech reviews, consider networks, compare prices, play with demo devices at stores. I tell myself: "I will buy this smartphone tomorrow. Or maybe next week." But I never do.
I have resisted taking the plunge for many reasons. Touch screens are slimy, clinical, unsatisfying. Digital surveillance is creepy. (You know your smartphone is tracking you, right?) Apps are overhyped. As a recent book title attests, there's no app for happiness.
And, I'm uncomfortable with the device-industrial complex, whose business practices are unfriendly to customers, workers and the planet. "Ethical economics," "fair trade" and "sustainability" are largely absent from their vocabulary. Here's why my zombiedom has repeatedly been put on hold:
- Device Makers. I hesitate to give more money to Apple. "Proprietary" used to be a four-letter word. While Steve Jobs was a gifted designer and marketer, he also sounds like a tyrant and monopolist. Our house already shelters iMacs and an iPad. Do we want to live in Appleworld all the time? (To be fair, Samsung, Google and their ilk are similarly competitive and ethically challenged.) Mike Daisy's monologue about iPhone sweatshops was irresponsible and discredited, but working conditions at FoxConn in China truly were bad. Are workers in device factories now being treated more fairly?
- Big Telecom. I love my independent wireless provider, which costs less and doesn't require a contract. I'm pretty sure the company isn't being evil -- or plowing millions into lobbying against net neutrality, as some providers do. Their choice of phones was always tiny, though, making it attractive to buy an unlocked one elsewhere. And such devices cost several hundred dollars from dodgy-seeming online vendors with restrictive return policies and limited tech support. Buying a smartphone also taps my fear of obsolescence. You might be surprised that I care about being au courant when I've been carrying around a clamshell dumbphone since the oughts. But if I'm going to pop600, I don't want my device to be passé next week when they release, say, those curved phones that are the next big thing in South Korea.
- Raw Materials and Recycling. It's hard to find an eco-friendly smartphone. Dozens of materials from complex supply chains go into each device. The demand for rare minerals has global manufacturers and local elites scrambling to control natural resources -- to the detriment of local economies, ecologies and workers. I found one device that embodies ethical and environmental responsibility: Fairphone, which is made with some conflict-free minerals. In 2013, this Dutch company sold more than 25,000 phones in Europe, but they're not available in the U.S. yet. Fairphone calls attention to the lifecycle of devices but is still trying to improve labor conditions and ease recycling. Only 8% of cellphones are recycled, according to EPA.gov. Most e-waste winds up in poor countries, where it harms public health and the environment. Like many of us, I have not "closed the loop" yet. Despite the dearth of devices in our home, we've somehow accumulated a drawerful of useless dumbphones. I'm reluctant to enrich this collection.
Considering these qualms, why do I want a smartphone? Let's say I got my $10 worth from my flip phone. The sound is so bad I can't hear what people say, nor they me. It lacks message notification beeps. Keypad texting is so cumbersome that I dread making plans with friends that require long missives. My replies are often the equivalent of grunts.
Then there are carrots. Yelp, GoogleMaps and Skype would come in handy when I'm traveling. I'd like to stay in better touch with friends who virtually live on Facebook. Photography is an old passion that I could rekindle with a high-res device and easier sharing.
I'm confident that I can get a smartphone without becoming zombie-like. Devices do have "off" buttons, and I know how to use them.
My ambivalence has delayed me for years from buying a device. But I did nearly take one for free: When one of the big box stores was giving away smartphones recently, I came close to jumping on the bandwagon. I perceived it as fate. Right before driving to the store on Sunday, I hopped online to confirm the details of the promotion.
It had ended on Saturday.