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Shannon Casas: Smartphones are so great — except when they're not
Shannon Casas high res
Shannon Casas

I was sitting on my front porch on a recent evening when I spotted yet another mosquito hovering near my leg. I have tried a few cheap mosquito remedies, but nothing has worked yet.

So, I pulled out my smartphone and ordered a bat box from Amazon. If a bat takes up residence in this box, I’ve read — also on my phone — it could eat up to a thousand mosquitoes in a single hour.

The bats may take a year to find the bat box, but the box itself arrived on my front porch within two days.

Smartphones are pretty great.

Then, I sat back in my wicker chair and started scrolling through social media, ignoring my little ones playing with their bicycles on the driveway.

I was late to the game as smartphones overtook the nation just after I graduated from college. Already, people were complaining that too much time was spent staring at these little screens.

I didn’t want to be one of those people, sitting with a group of friends, none of whom were actually talking to one another. 

Then one day, I realized that I was missing out on a lot of conversations my family was having over text messaging, and I was making vacationing overly difficult without Google Maps in my pocket.

So I joined the club. I bought an iPhone. 

It’s hard now to imagine unfolding a paper map to determine how to get somewhere. I used to keep one in my car, and I recall the difficulty of folding it back up when I was done. There was also the brief time period where I used Mapquest to pull up directions, printed them and took them on the road.

Now, Google can tell me where to go as I drive — and it knows where I go. That’s more than a little unsettling but oh-so-convenient when I need to pull up “coffee shops near me” during a vacation to Miami or day trip to the mountains.

I also have the general store at my finger tips — and the department store and the boutique store and the toy store. I don’t have to drive all over town looking for a bat box. I bought it in the course of maybe two minutes. 

So, now Google knows that I need mosquito control and I live in Gainesville and I vacationed in Miami earlier this year where I purchased some coffee.

That’s all valuable information for Google to have so it can serve me advertisements for mosquito control and coffee. 

Google and Facebook have access to so many users and know so much about each of them, that it’s no wonder they’re sucking up most of the digital ad revenue, making it tough for this and any other newspaper to carve out a share of that money even as the overall pot increases. 

It’s just one transformation that’s turned the news business upside down.

As the editor of a newspaper that cut two days of print publication, you can guess that I hear sometimes from older readers who aren’t interested in accessing the news on their smartphones. I’ve had some say they don’t “do the internet.” In fact, I can make an educated guess that this column has a lot more print readers than smartphone readers.

Maybe they don’t want the Googles of the world to know their every move and thought, but I’m guessing that’s not what’s keeping them away from news on their phones.

Some just don’t like to read that way — which is totally fine. I prefer a printed book over Kindle any day, though almost all of my news consumption is done on my phone.

Sometimes I feel self-conscious staring at that screen while waiting to see a doctor or while eating my lunch or while letting my little ones play.

I might be buying a bat box, or reading some in-depth journalism about another newspaper that’s gone out of business, or learning when I should plant tulip bulbs in my yard or text messaging my family about upcoming Little League games.

These smartphones connect our world.

I still shake my head when I see people gathered together looking at their phones instead of one another. But I’ll give them a pass if they’re reading

When I hear people complain about smartphones, sometimes I want to remind them how they connect us in ways we never were before. Too often those connections are less meaningful. But these are tools in our hands that we choose how to use.

Sometimes I look at my kids through the camera lens on my phone more than I look in their eyes. And sometimes I scroll through the videos on my phone so thankful I have them to look back on as children grow — or in my case move away.

We can fall into the trap of feeling left out as we scroll through our social media, or we can use these phones to get an Uber to go meet with some friends.

My nana is 94, and she uses her iPhone to get her and my grandpa Uber rides to my parents’ house. She also uses her phone to keep up with family across the country, including on Facebook and Find Friends, where she looks to see exactly where we are in the world as well as whether — as all grandmothers want to know — we made it home safely.

It’s certainly not the era of rotary phones and TVs with three channels controlled by a dial.

But we can adapt, and think about how we use technology and sometimes put it down. On that note, I’m going to put my smartphone down for the next week and see what happens.

Shannon Casas is editor in chief of The Times and a foster parent. You can hear her most weeks on the Inside The Times podcast on iTunes or Google Play.

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