Dear Dr. Boli: All my friends have smartphones, and I was thinking of getting one myself. Is it a good idea? —Sincerely, A Woman with a Stupid Flip-Phone That Was So Cool Five Years Ago.
Dear Madam: Smartphones do a number of different things, almost all of them in a mediocre but acceptable way. You can look up something on the omniscient Internet, if you are willing to read a few words at a time on a tiny screen. You can keep up with your correspondence, if you can navigate a tiny keyboard or put up with the very amusing errors produced by voice dictation. You can take pictures with smartphones that will sometimes be fairly good (Dr. Boli’s friend Father Pitt has sometimes slipped in a cell-phone picture without mentioning it to anyone). You can read books on them if you are not picky about typography. You can read Wikipedia articles about great books on them and spare yourself the trouble of reading the books. You can watch tiny movies on them. You can find an infinite number of recipes for fondues on them. You can keep your appointments on them. You can time your tea with them. You can tune a ukulele with them. Like an electronic Swiss Army knife, they compress an enormous number of tools into a tiny space; and, while no one of them is as useful as its dedicated equivalent, you are glad to have them all in your pocket at once.
The one thing smartphones are very bad at is being telephones.
The land-line telephone system is based on ludicrously outdated nineteenth-century technology: you could connect a telephone from 1898 to your home telephone line, and it would work. And the sound quality would be ultra-high-fidelity compared to the sound that comes from a cell-phone call. Dr. Boli does not understand all the technical details of why twenty-first-century sound is so much worse than nineteenth-century sound, but—considering that you can receive high-quality streaming stereo music over your smartphone—he suspects that some sort of Gargantuan practical joke is at the bottom of it. The jokers get away with it because everyone assumes that telephone voices ought to sound tinny and distorted. This assumption is absolutely unquestioned in popular culture. The next time you watch a science-fiction movie set in the distant future, pay attention to the futuristic communications devices, and you will notice—perhaps for the first time—that they all sound like telephones from 1898. As long as no one but Dr. Boli questions this assumption, countless hours of work will be lost, opportunities will be missed, and lives will be ruined because of telephone misunderstandings.
Dr. Boli therefore recommends that you keep a smartphone for all its useful applications; but when it comes to conversations with friends, you will have a better chance of getting through to them if you leave the phone in your pocket and shout in their direction.