Can there ever be too much PDA?

With the emergence of Personal Digital Assistants, cell phones get a makeover courtesy of the technological revolution

Credit: 
Photo by Matthew Rushworth and Tyler Ball

In the infamous 12-step program, the first step to overcoming addiction is acceptance. Although most iPhone and Blackberry addicts have no problem with this first step—indeed many boast proudly of their “crackberry” problem—the second step proves a little trickier: it urges addicts to recognize a greater power that can act as a source of strength during the difficult recovery process. But the source of such power isn’t an almighty deity; rather, it’s the root of the addiction itself.

The definition of the word “smart” in relation to phones has changed over time. The first smartphone, called Simon, was marketed by IBM in 1993 and was considered advanced due to its address book, world clock, calculator and other features today considered standard cell phone fare.

Simon received mixed reviews, and would today be considered a low-end smartphone. But the market has grown considerably since the early 90s as large technology companies compete for the latest and most advanced product.

In early 2007, a neat, single file—and seemingly never-ending line was formed at various Apple stores across the U.S., full of eager gadget fans awaiting the introduction of the next big technological revolution: the iPhone. At $500 apiece, the iPhone keeps users connected, updated and, most importantly, chic. This now-ubiquitous “it” item boasts Internet access, mp3 storage, movie viewing capabilities and even GPS.

The Blackberry is the somewhat older, traditionally more business-related, data phone seen often in the hands of men in black suits, but the addition of the Blackberry Pearl—available in gold, amethyst and pink, in addition to the traditional navy and black—has expanded the Blackberry-toting demographic to include teenagers and university students.

Blackberry’s website predicts the subscription of over 1.7 million new customers worldwide within the next year alone and recently released a new flip-phone version of the Pearl, while the iPhone 3G has been selling out in stores across Canada since its release in July.

Jennifer Valentini, ArtSci ’11, is passionate about the quality of her favourite handheld accessory, especially its unique Blackberry Messenger feature.

“BBM friends are the best things in life. My goal in life is to get as many as I can,” she said.

Exclusive to Blackberry users, BBM sends messages instantaneously, at a speed higher than text messaging. Valentini has 23 BBM friends.

Upon losing her Razr in the backseat of a taxi, Valentini said the Blackberry Pearl was the obvious replacement. Asked whether she would consider reverting to the Razr, she is firm.

“Absolutely not. I have so many things on my phone that help me with my life, so why would I ever go back to something that just calls and texts?” she said. “That’s just not enough.” Dan Trottier, a sociology PhD student studying social networking, surveillance and new media devices at Queen’s, said he himself does not own a smartphone, but made the choice to buy the iPod touch so that his mp3 player would have smartphone capabilities.

He said these features are becoming increasingly necessary, taking smartphones from the realm of the trendy to the functional and even obligatory.

“I see it being similar to earlier technology like camera phones or text messaging,” he said. “At one point they might have been a special feature but now you’ll have a hard time buying phones without these features. I think it’s the same with Internet access, data- transfer capabilities, keyboards and the like.”

It is perhaps for this reason that the smartphone craze seems to have the staying power that pogs, fanny packs and other fads lacked, though it seems Canada was slow to jump on the bandwagon.

“Smartphones are seen as the embodiment of a lot of the things we like about technology, such as convergence and ubiquity,” Trottier said.

“But many cultures have adopted them more rapidly than in Canada. There’s no simple explanation for this, but I gather that cheaper plans in other areas could be a contributing factor.” But Canadians have caught up. The Bank Street Apple store in Ottawa sold out of the iPhone within four hours of its release earlier this year—the first day it was available in Canada.

Although a changing job market began the shift toward faster communication, Trottier said smartphone marketing has pushed the popularity of the devices to the next consumer level.

“A lot of this need to speed up our lives comes from changing work conditions, such as the rise of flex-time,” Trottier said. “But it spills into other aspects of our lives, in no small part thanks to sleek marketing campaigns.” Patience, Trottier said, is no longer a virtue.

“These smartphones can speed up our lives, mainly through the expectation that at any hour we can receive and respond to any call, email or RSS feed. They allow a perpetual connection to other people, but also to institutions such as the workplace, the marketplace and the government.

“You can now, like never before, exchange vast amounts of information with your peers at any given time and from any place.

“These devices reflect the increased mobility in our society,” Trottier said. “Between longer commuting times, long-distance relationships and people working more frequently outside of the office, iPhones and other devices attempt to maintain connectivity in a time when we may see clients more often than co-workers, and co-workers more often than family members.”

As more of our information, entertainment and work moves online, so too do our social interactions.

Smartphones allow individuals to stay connected to online relationships at all times, however superficial they may be.

“There’s been a shift in terms of what we consider to be a friend. In an era where someone’s Facebook ‘friend list’ is made up of 500 or more people, the simple task of staying in touch becomes an ongoing process that is made easier by smart phones and other technologies,” Trottier said.

He added that the prevalence of smartphones could make being unreachable a desirable—and costly—thing.

“There will be a cost associated with not being connected. A very mundane example would be not being on Facebook. People appreciate it, but then they get frustrated when they don’t get invited to parties. You’ll see the same kinds of things in terms of the costs being weighed, and whether or not it’s worth it not to be constantly contactable,” Trottier said.

“This ties in especially with careers—you’re expected to be available as an employee.”

He said the smartphone craze is a natural technological progression from cellular phones.

“You can see that it’s more than just a fad when you look at the popularity of the forerunners of smartphones. Cell phones for a while had these kinds of functions, and now that people are good at using those, smartphones have become popular,” Trottier said.

“In many ways it’s not that much different from people toting their laptops around campus. It’s just that what was once a desire to be connected at all times is becoming a requirement.”

—With files from Monica Heisey

Photos by Matthew Rushworth and Tyler Ball

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