So last month I got a smartphone.
It’s been incredibly low on my priority list for, like, ever. I won’t bore you with a long list of reasons why. Suffice it to say, it has to do with cost, durability, replicating technologies I already have, and a desire not to be plugged in like someone from an Aldous Huxley dystopia, staring at a small screen in my hand while navigating through the world.
I’ve been a late adopter to various media and technologies: though I was quick on MySpace, as a musician, I was late to Facebook. Only got on Twitter towards the end of my PhD, when I started applying for academic jobs and realised that they might wonder why this young guy, clearly of the digital native generation, who is applying for media and comms positions, doesn’t know about this groovy medium. My wife and I held off mobile phones themselves for way long, capitulating when we moved to London and would have to balance her work, my studies, and this strange new world of school pick-ups and drop-offs. (Still, its primary use was and remains messages of the “coming home x” and “ok x” variety.)
So you see that when I have adopted a new technology, however late in the game, it’s been for the most practical of reasons. When I got tipped to join a teaching exchange to Moscow this spring, we realised that I would need a camera, and maybe I didn’t want to be lugging our faux-DSLR around… and then there’s the increasing tweeting that I’ve been doing at academic conferences, and other moments when it’s seemed like it would be handy to have a phone that takes pictures and connects to the internet. Handy, but not vital. Well, maybe Moscow was going to tip the bucket over.
Now the proud owner of a Samsung of some or another description, inherited from a friend, complete with a plan that costs me (crikey!) less than my old monthly plan on the dumbphone, I have been learning its ways and means. I don’t think I get all of it yet, and I’m convinced that all of those people who look so productive and effective as they crouch over their machines are in fact tapping the same button several times and waiting for something trivial to load.
But it has had its uses. Not just for capturing interesting views of the city on the instant, like the front door of Gorky House through a railing fence, though that is certainly nice. It’s the unexpected uses. I was heading to our hotel from Paveletskaya metro station when I passed a stationer’s shop, and in the window, they were advertising what looked to me like cute little change purses for 34 roubles. “Perfect,” I thought, “nice little gifts for the kids.” So I went in. Found notebooks, a cheap-ass fountain pen (I’m a sucker), and other little bits. But not, hunt as I might, the promoted change purses.
I ventured to ask the shop staff. But, for the first time cut loose from our English-fluent colleagues who hosted us, I was unable to conjure any rudimentary Russian to ask for what I wanted. And really, dear reader, when on earth is it necessary to pick up the word “change purse” when starting with a new language? I asked if they spoke English; they didn’t speak English. I mimed at fancier-looking wallets behind glass; they didn’t get it. I made a rectangle in the air with my fingers and pointed to the window outside; nothing doing. Then an idea hit me.
I placed the rest of my purchases near the till, went outside, and snapped a picture with the phone. (I’m sure some of you saw this coming already. Those who didn’t can scroll to the top of this post for additional clues.) Then I went back inside and produced the image. Smiles. Open hand gestures. “Ah!” they said. And led me to a box with not change purses but slightly-larger-than-A4-sized plastic folders. For taking school work, I suppose. Anyway, they were still cute, and I still bought them as nice little gifts for the kids. (Put a notebook in each, ’cause that’s how I roll.)
In media studies, we call these affordances. And while I don’t think life is impossible now without, this kind of facility, it did help smooth my “Anglophone abroad” difficulty.