The year-end Dear Smartphone column in 2019 was about shopping online and holiday pandemonium. It was a prophetic post: “Maybe a future Christmas will put less emphasis on running between stores and accumulating presents and place more weight on taking holiday images, sharing symbols of the season, or just staying home.”
Covid did for Dear Smartphone what Keywords could never accomplish. During 2020 there was a cultural reckoning with smartphones and digital devices. We all became more aware of how we are connected at the hip by them.
In 2020 staying safe, sane, and sage required us to manage our devices with more insight.
March 3rd, began a new era of questions and postings, on topics ranging from the transmission of germs to the transmission of social information.
Equity and Access
At the beginning of the Covid virus, it became apparent that people were turning to the Internet, but not everyone had access. As schools shut down, students from less affluent households lacked the ability to attend online classes. So, voices were raised about digital equity and access. Older people had similar concerns. Many lacked high speed access as well as the knowledge of how to find friends and classes online or trust the grocery order.
Further into March and April, those blessed with Internet access complained that being online all day made them grouchy and tired. Readers began to query about helping kids moderate digital time and develop other interests. There were equal queries about supporting older people, and getting them up to speed with apps, online payments and Apple watches.
Not surprisingly, the dual topics of digital etiquette and digital mental health rose to the top this year as readers spent more and more time on their devices. Someone asked “Is my smartphone making me sick?
Zoom, Ablaze, More….
Dear Smartphone offered commentary on using Zoom, Snapchat, Robinhood, TikTok, and the now defunct Quibi. Questions about Zoom, not surprisingly, led the pack. One column, which led to a graphic Instagram post, asked whether it is safe to ‘Zoom Zoom’ in the car (the answer is No No unless parked).
In August and September, there was a telecomm pivot as California forest fires blazed close to home. Dear Smartphone advised readers of the emergency links published in local papers. There was a reminder that there are no telecom safety nets. Landline phones can fail at the central office, cordless phones depend on electricity or batteries, and mobile phones need the relay towers to be intact.
It is noteworthy to consider what did not take place in 2020, the blazes that did not happen. 2020 did not turn out to be the year of privacy. Before the year began, safety protocols were supposed to be set in place for data and sharing, but they flew out the window with the pandemic. In order to get tested for the virus or help monitor the spread, smartphone users opted to provide location and social data. Even more worrisome, some phones had operating systems that defaulted to Bluetooth and GPS for the sake of Covid tracing.
2020 also cancelled the idea that you could protect kids from phones until a certain age. It became clear that digital devices were integrated into their daily lives, like seeds inside a fruit. Although we are not there yet, children need to be schooled in digital literacy- think of it like a driver’s license, you guide young people with instruction and supervision until they know the rules of the road, engage safely, and are responsible out and about.
Looking OldeR, Looking Forward…
At the other end of the age spectrum, 2020 also made it clear that older people need to have digital tools to interact and stay connected. Voice activated devices could be their key for transformational changes in keeping social, ordering goods, online classes, and banking. Today, Siri and Alexa provide some assistance, but being nimbler with phones could be an unrealized asset to help older generations stay cognitively active and alert.
2021 opens the next chapter for Dear Smartphone and its readers. The pandemic will wind down and we will settle into healthier and gainful relationships with each other as well as with our devices. If 2020 was the year in which everything, including Covid went viral, 2021 will be the year in which we learn to harbor digital immunities.