We now have tricorders.
Back in the day (or more recently), did you watch the original Star Trek series? Remember those communicators everyone carried around, the ones that could record and transfer data? They were called tricorders, and we have those. People have in their pockets, a camera, video camera, global positioning system, Internet interface, data recorder, communication device, music player, and a whole lot more in a package no bigger than a deck of cards. Not just a few people, but a whole LOT of people. Yes, true, there are a few things smartphones can't do, like take lifeform readings, but apparently there are people working on that.
I'm what you might call a "late adopter" or "laggard" when it comes to new technology. Some might even say "neophobe", since I tend to be dragged into the New kicking and screaming. 30 years from now when everyone has moved on to the next interface I'll be still using the old laptops. I'll complain that the new tech feels insubstantial (because it practically is), and that a good computer is weighty and takes up more space than a sheet of paper. How can I even type anything worth reading without the physical clicky-clack of a keyboard?
But, staring down at my 2007 Nokia Tracfone, so old that I have to go to tech support every time I want to add minutes, and looking at the new technology and all it can do, I wonder if it's time. How incredibly useful would it be to have a combination camera/GPS/phone with me every time I go in the field? Or, at professional meetings, I could join in all the community building on Twitter and tweet about talks. Some of my colleagues have designed apps which allow the recording of behavioral observations in the click of a button, and then upload the data to the cloud. No need for a clipboard checklist and stopwatch.
At the same time there's so much that disgusts me about smart phone use, and cell phone use in general. This video pretty much sums it up. It's become a huge distraction that keeps us from interacting with one another. This is because there's no standard etiquette for smart phone use. We've finally gotten to the point as a society when cell phone use in each other's company is shamed. The same does not apply to smart phones, since they aren't so much a phone as they are a tiny computer interface. The standard rules of "turn your phone off in a meeting" do not apply anymore, because most of the use isn't making phone calls.
I'm afraid that when I take the leap, I'll be tempted to use this wondrous tech to distraction. Which is why I'm proposing in advance some basic etiquette rules for smart phone use. And I'd like to hold everyone else to the same standard because that's just the world I want to live in.
The first and foremost rule in smartphone use is the Rule of Engagement, which is:
Your present company is who you should be engaged with.
By company, I mean "anyone who is either with you or currently holds your attention." And it really cuts to the heart of when and why smart phone and indeed, all cell phone use is rude. It's taking us away from engagement with whatever is happening around us. Including, but not limited to, the people we are presently with.
Why I'm using the Rule of Engagement as prime is because there are many instances where using a smartphone while with company can add to engagement. You may, for example, be viewing a talk at a professional meeting and wish to right then and there share what you are learning on Twitter. This is not only engagement, this is hyper-engagement. What the speaker is telling you excites you so much that you feel impelled to share their conversation with everyone else by using the hashtag for the meeting. There is absolutely no shame to this, in fact, it should be encouraged. Last week, tweeting at the 2013 Entomological Society of America meeting (#EntSoc13) allowed me and other people who were not able to attend to actually feel involved and learn and build community. Tweeting the talks as they were actually proceeding was outreach! Other cases where smartphone use doesn't limit engagement is when you can provide a piece of information to move a discussion forward (e.g. by a simple Google search).
In these cases there are still limits. In addition to the Rule of Engagement I have a few more.
1. All the old cell phone rules still apply. If you're in public and with company, using your smart phone for calling is still discouraged. And this is equally true with company in private. In other words, talking on the phone or texting in the company of others is rude. You are telling that other person or people that you don't value their time or presence, that they are boring or at least less interesting than the person you are talking to or texting on your phone. Since these classic examples violate the Rule of Engagement, they are still rude and should be avoided.
2. Other smart phone applications should be used sparingly in company. By which I mean, don't use your phone without a legimate reason. This is not the time to go link jumping on TV tropes, or check your email, or Facebook, or do /anything/ that takes more than a few seconds. Whatever you /do/ use it for should be relevant to the circumstances, like the examples I gave above. It's a tool, not a distraction device.
3. Approved smart phone use in company should be discrete and efficient. In and out, and as little of a distraction for everyone around you as possible. In a dark room, this might include dimming the screen so it isn't as bright. The point is not to be bothersome, and to cut away from it as quickly as possible so as not to disengage your company.
4. If use is extended, you should excuse yourself from present company. This was true for phone calls, and it's true for apps. You may find it inconvenient, but frankly is so freaking rude to sit with me and stare at your smartphone for five minutes as I try to have a conversation with you. If you have to do that, I'd rather you go elsewhere and indicate you need that privacy.
Now, I've made some of these mistakes in the past. Not with a smartphone, but with my laptop. Even with a 10 inch screen and keyboard on my lap it's so easy to disengage from physical reality and forget my surroundings. We need to treat these tools as what they are, tools, not as entertainment units to distract ourselves from being truly present with others. And when used legitimately we still need to be considerate of others.
The ultimate goal is more engagement. Smartphones can help with that, but they can also harm. We should be aware of their consequences and use them wisely.