I bought the Samsung Galaxy Note II smartphone a few days ago. It has a 5.5 inch screen. That’s a really big screen. With a quad-core processor, 2 GB of memory, and the Jelly Bean Android operating system – along with a sophisticated pen technology to augment core touchscreen capabilities – the Galaxy Note II is probably the most advanced smartphone on the market. For technology geeks, it is the ultimate bling, aggressively massive and potent. By comparison, the Apple iPhone recedes into the shadows; feminine, shy, and demure.
I am not a big fan of tablets, probably because I like to use my computers for work, not pleasure, and tablets are really designed to consume media. Or, in the parlance of the technology and media savants, they are designed for people who want to “lean back”, not “lean forward”.
But I’ve always craved larger screens for my phones. Let’s be clear here. When it comes to smartphones, we’re not really talking about phones at all. We’re talking about small, powerful computers with woebegone phone applications shoehorned inside. When it comes to assigning priorities for these devices, the goal of building a good phone with high-quality voice communication capabilities probably lands about 10th on the list.
Partly for that reason, when we buy a smartphone, we really care about the screen. The phone is an afterthought. In fact, you actually don’t need much of a visual interface to make a phone call. But for nearly anything else you are going to want to do with your smartphone, you will need a high-resolution touchscreen.
In the past year or two, we have begun to witness a screen size arms race. Where 3.5” used to be the standard, set by Apple – and Blackberry, with its built-in physical keyboard, could get by with an even smaller screen size – beginning in 2011, Android manufacturers began pumping out phones with 4” screens, then 4.5” screens, then – with the Samsung Galaxy S III – a 4.8” screen. In that context, the arrival of the Galaxy Note II with a 5.5” screen was all but inevitable.
Let’s itemize the advantages of a larger screen and then cut to the heart of the matter – what is the displacement factor of a large screen versus a smaller screen? In other words, what does the phone displace, not just in your pocket, but in your life?
Touch screens replaced phones with keyboards because they enlarged the display opportunity. This presented phone manufacturers with numerous feature options, ranging from web access to email to text messaging to music players to social media to maps and navigation, and ultimately to the tsunami of smartphone-tuned software applications available via the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store.
The problem phone manufacturers faced, however, was that most of the features underwhelmed people when they had to squint at a 3” or 3.5” screen to use them. Usability suffered, too. Small buttons and keyboards, and the design shortcuts required to make them work in a Lilliputian screen environment, ultimately left phone purchasers holding nothing but … a phone (albeit an increasingly lousy one).
The success of the iPad really resulted from this failure of the smartphone to fulfill its promise. The major issue was screen size. Once Apple nailed the design elements, and created a beautiful user experience, the larger screen sealed the deal because it allowed the full range of feature options to work as they were supposed to. The only problem that remained was portability. Apple provided wireless access for the iPad, but the 10” form factor made it cumbersome to tote around. And you still needed your phone.
Ahh, your phone. The intoxicating early success of the iPad placed in bolder relief the inadequacies of the smartphone. Only at that point did smartphone screen sizes and screen resolutions began to grow. And so now we have the Galaxy Note II, which is only a half inch smaller than the Kindle, and which is essentially a small tablet with a phone (and a pen). Typing still takes forever, but typing is no joy even on a full-sized tablet. And the predictive word options that display when I am typing on the Galaxy Note anticipate with uncanny accuracy what I actually do want to write. No one will use my smartphone to write a novel. But concept of the Galaxy Note is still fantastic.
And what makes it fantastic? It solves the conundrum of mobile technology; it combines portability with usability. The Galaxy Note II is slender. It slides right into my front pocket. But the screen is large enough that I can watch Netflix (last night, Trailer Park Boys), easily read email, surf the web, jot notes, and read books and documents. I am less interested in leaning back than leaning forward. I truly wish I could more easily type on my phone – perfection would be the ability to actually write my novel on it. But there is no other phone that comes this close to delivering a tablet experience. If not for the metaphysics of the really big phone, I would call my possession of it a sort of Nirvana. Instead, it is a kind of hell.
The hellish metaphysics of a really big smartphone emerge from the displacement issues. My pocket is full. My heart is not. There is always this issue with visual technology. Does it kill your soul, pixel by pixel? I’m not talking about irradiating your brain. I’m referring to the particle of emptiness at the center of our being, around which our corporeal identity wraps itself and clings to because without it we have no space where we can turn back on ourselves and reflect and thereby become fully human. Without that particle of emptiness, we are dumb, and fully plantlike.
It amuses and even inspires me that so many people frame real life through their experiences watching Seinfeld, The Simpsons, The Family Guy, South Park, and Chappelle. That is the function of art, even (especially) comic art. The really big smartphone frames real life as well. Only without the comic art to offer redemptive compensation for time spent away from real life. Instead, the really big smartphone generally promotes a vacant absorption in a static or banal or simply meaningless and rote (booting, load time, buffering) screen experience. It roots us in a place where we lose access to our particle of emptiness. We vegetate.
For this reason, I am ill at ease. My really big smartphone is in my pocket. It combines portability and usability and fulfills my fantasy of a single device that can meet virtually all of my digital needs no matter where I am. But it drains my battery and makes me stupid.
Where does that leave me? With an existential dilemma. One simple way of thinking about an existential dilemma is when you can’t live with something and you can’t live without it. Which is the case with my smartphone. How do you address an existential dilemma? With an idea that transcends the conundrum and allows you to resolve it. These days, I am reading Kierkegaard, who is mostly known for sticking it to Hegel. But Kierkegaard is also known for his pursuit of what one might call “the big idea”, the animating principle and goal around which one can organize one’s life, “the idea for which I can live and die.”
Kierkegaard speaks to me because he gets the concept of the empty particle at the center of our being that we must, at all costs, preserve. The really big smartphone obliterates that particle because, like much new technology, it seduces us. Our interactions with the smartphone acquire mystical, totemic significance. The phone becomes a fetish, which is to say an end in itself that dislocates us.
Kierkegaard reminds us that the really big smartphone – as fantastic as it may be – is nothing on its own. It is merely a tool – a beautiful hunk of plastic, glass, and silicon – that we can use to pursue the big idea. It is not the big idea itself. This awareness restores us to sanity and makes us smart again.