The magic slab of glass that contains all my friends… or not

A few years ago at a science fiction convention an author on one of the panels I attended described a modern smart phone as “the magic slab of glass that fits in my pocket and contains all of my friends,” which I thought was a really wonderful way to sum-up how that miniaturized computer which (among other things) obviates a telephone functions on a social level. Engineers and certain kinds of techies worry about the ins and outs of the physical technology, the software, and the networks that enable the functionality. But the sociological impact of that technology is something that most of the engineers who worked all those years to make it a reality didn’t foresee.

As a very early adopter of the internet (being a denizen of the old FidoNet to access UseNet groups back before the World Wide Web existed), in some ways I’ve lived in that space for a long time. Heck, since before those days I was involved in old school fanzines where everyone wrote physical letters that we sent to each other via the U.S. Postal Service to collaboratively create art and fiction, I have been used to the idea of friends who may be people I have never met in person for even longer.

So that description really resonated with me.

On the other hand, I have worked in the telecommunication software industry for about 33 years—during which time I have worked at everything from testing code and hardware, to coding, designing software systems, and writing both user documents, developer documents, help systems, and more—I have more than a bit of understanding as to what went in to creating the magic of the slab of glass that fits in your pocket.

For some of us, our smart phone/magic slab of glass is an integral part of every day. I thought I understood that before, but recently I have become even more acutely aware of how dependent I’ve become on my smart phone. Which requires a bit of explanation.

My employer has been migrating a lot of our tools (as well as our code and document repositories) to cloud services. More recently, they decided that for the most part we shouldn’t access company data with machines not owned by the company (which, frankly, defeats the point of putting things in the cloud, but…). So, for instance, a couple months ago they shipped me a company phone, and instructed me to move the three multi-factor authentication apps that I have to use to access various services off of my personal phone. This is more than a little ridiculous, because the authentication apps themselves don’t contain nor directly access company data. But, that’s their decision.

The phone they gave me is an iPhone XR, and it came with a matte black case. My personal phone is an iPhone 11. Even though my personal phone is purple and has a clear plastic case, when they are both asleep a sitting on the table or desk they look an awful lot alike. So, for instance, if I hear an sound that indicates a new direct message from one of my co-workers, about one-third of the time I grab my personal phone rather than the work phone. Which only wastes a few seconds, but it is still a little annoying.

More annoying is that if I walk away from my desk—whether to go the the bathroom, or get some more coffee from the kitchen, or maybe to take a break outside on the veranda—I grab my phone so I can catch up on Twitter and personal email and/or check the news. And, again, about a third of the time I pick up the company phone rather than mine, and don’t realize it until I’m all the way outside or in the other room.

That’s a bit more of an inconvenience.

And sometimes I don’t even notice immediately. I will flip through the home screen pages trying to figure out where my News app is, or Tweetbot, or why are their no email accounts at all in the Mail app (company email is all on Outlook, and I access it through the Outlook app rather than the built-in iOS Mail app).

I do not want to put my personal information on the company phone. As the company suggested, I created an Apple ID based on the corporate email address for use on the phone, so I can update that phone and download free apps (rather than just the ones available through the enterprise portal) if I decide I need them, and that’s find. But I don’t want to set it up as yet another device accessing my personal email and my twitter stream, et cetera.

I know it’s a first world problem, and even then, it is a fairly minor inconvenience. I get irritated and try to be more careful to really look at the phone as I reach for it. But human perception relies on extrapolation and guessing rather than actively processing every single nerve impulse that comes it. So our brain subconsciously makes quick assessments of things based on basic shape, size, and what we expect to see when we glance at something. There are reasons in makes sense that our brains evolved that way–in a dangerous situation you don’t want to waste critical moments resolving every detail within the field of vision.

But it means this issue is going to be a problem going forward one way or another. Like how I might grab the wrong keys while heading out to the car.

It just reminds me, every time it happens, how I’ve gotten used to being about to browse the world in this magic slab of glass in order to fill in some of the downtime of life.

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