Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Being Flip

An essential element of hipster culture – along with de rigueur denial that one is a hipster – is irony: the fashion and lifestyle choices from silly beards to flip phones are regarded as cool because they knowingly are uncool. My own uncool choices for better or worse have no irony to them: they are merely uncool. No man bun ever could make them pass for anything else. For example, my 9-year-old flip phone (which had replaced a damaged one very much like it in 2009) makes no other statement than that I’m a consummate procrastinator and haven’t gotten around to exchanging it. It’s less a matter of choice than inertia.

At least it's more than two cans and
a string
I don’t need a smartphone for work, as most people do these days, and I’m seldom far from a computer screen, so there is little practical inconvenience from my telephonic backwardness. True, there are times when I idly ponder such things as which astronaut flew the penultimate Mercury flight (Walter Schirra) and what was Jean Harlow’s birthday (March 3, 1911) and then have to wait 20 minutes before I get home and look up the answers on my home screen. So far that’s not been reason enough to say, “Today’s the day I’m going to the Verizon store.” That doesn’t mean I deliberately avoid the tech. One day I’ll damage my flip phone by dropping it on concrete or in a pond or something and finally I’ll be motivated to join the 2010s. Meantime, while missing out on smartphones’ benefits I’ve also been missing the downsides.

There are downsides. For one, they are not good for effective IQ. That’s not a mere assertion. Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity is a 2017 clinical study by Adrian F. Ward, Kristen Duke, Ayelet Gneezy, and Maarten W. Bos of the University of Texas at Austin. They gave 800 smartphone users tests that required concentration and cognitive effort; all of them powered down their phones but some put their phones in another room while others put them on their desks, in their pockets, or in their bags. The participants who put their phones in another room solidly outperformed all the others. Just having the (powered down) phone nearby was tempting and distracting. The authors concluded “that even when people are successful at maintaining sustained attention—as when avoiding the temptation to check their phones—the mere presence of these devices reduces available cognitive capacity.” Still, this one is easily addressed: if you need to concentrate on something, put your phone in another room.

Another effect – damaging more for some folks than for others – is social and psychological. Checking texts, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and the rest is notoriously addicting. How many people habitually scroll as they stroll? Social media addiction causes depression in many people as they obsessively pursue “likes” and compare their lives to the virtual facades of others. The more sites we visit, the higher the risk. From a study in ScienceDirect: “Use of multiple SM [social media] platforms is independently associated with symptoms of depression and anxiety, even when controlling for overall TSSM [time spent on social media].”

This brings us to the 2017 indie movie Ingrid Goes West currently available on DVD. It spun in my Blu-ray player last night. The smartphone is a co-star in the film. Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) is a mentally troubled young woman with a horrible self-image and severe difficulties making and keeping real friendships. Retreating to her phone, she becomes a follower of Instagram star Taylor Sloan (Elizabeth Olsen) who posts about her fabulous California lifestyle of sun, fun, fashion, and joy. When Ingrid inherits money ($60,000) from her mom, she uses it to move west and become part of Taylor’s life, which she does by secretly stealing her dog and then returning the “found” animal. Ingrid judges her own life entirely by the likes and shares on her own Instagram account and by her inclusion in Taylor’s social media. Everything Ingrid pursues in real life is for the sake of the online image. Ingrid’s behavior goes beyond creepy and far into the criminal, yet she remains a sympathetic character throughout the movie and she at least has the excuse of being troubled. It is soon clear, however, that Taylor (along with all of her friends and family) is a massive phony whose real life is anything but enviable. Not quite a **spoiler**: Ingrid, scrolling her phone in the final scene, has a moment of happiness, which for the viewer is a particularly bleak ending.

Thumbs Up on the movie. Nonetheless, despite its warning, my next phone will be smart.

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