In the ‘90s, no nerd-debate was more contentious than that over the “best” computer operating system. Were you Windows, or were you Mac, or were you Linux? Rifts formed in communities, hateful epithets were hurled and friendships were destroyed. It was the geek equivalent of the abortion rights debate.
This war is still being fought, but its once-blazing fires have been reduced to ever-smouldering coals. Why? Because there’s something better to fight about, and this time it’s in your pants.
Today, the fight is over phones. Especially smartphones. We defend, with venom, not only our chosen operating system, but also our chosen hardware manufacturer, and even our chosen service provider. Was a similar phone war waged when push-button began supplanting rotary? Probably not? Nor was the battle as fierce when mobile phones just made calls and sent text messages. It’s the “smart” in our smartphones that seems to have really set this quarrel ablaze, and maybe with good reason.
In 2009, famed Dilbert creator Scott Adams wrote one of my all-time favourite blog entries, wherein he claimed that we are already cyborgs, and that our smartphones are, in essence, a sort of exobrain.
Your regular brain uses your exobrain to outsource part of its memory, and perform other functions, such as GPS navigation, or searching the Internet. If you’re anything like me, your exobrain is with you 24-hours a day. It’s my only telephone device, and I even sleep next to it because it’s my alarm clock.
This really resonated with me. I think about how many phone numbers I had memorised before I had a mobile phone. Sure, I wrote many down, but I had dozens stored in my head. Now? Maybe… five? And I don’t even know if all of those count, because some are family members who haven’t changed their numbers since I was a kid. The last five times I visited Los Angeles I didn’t look at a map once. I just paired my phone to my rental car via Bluetooth and listened to the turn-by-turn directions. The fact alone that we now have constant access to online dictionaries, encyclopaedias, music recognition apps, hell, and everything else that the internet can provide is a very serious augmentation in knowledge and function, even if we don’t then store what we learn in our meat-brains.
I don’t want to get sidetracked talking about whether this is good or bad for human evolution — that’s another question for another day — my point is just how incredibly personal these devices are to us. It’s no wonder this debate is hotter than the Windows vs Mac war of olde. I spend a lot of time with my computer, but I definitely spend a lot more time with my phone. Even if I don’t use it as heavily (I don’t write long documents or edit tons of video), it’s always near me, and therefore I am always connected to that host of information and extra-sensory perception (GPS and communications, for example). While this augmentation is wonderful in many ways, it has also created a level of dependency. If I hadlost my phone while in Los Angeles, I would have had no idea where I was, and I would not have known anybody’s phone number there. Yes, I realise I could go to an internet café to solve these problems, but you get my point: without access to technology, specifically the internet, I would have been paddleless in a very poopy creek.
Because we have invested so much of ourselves in these devices and rely on them so heavily, we want to believe that we have chosen the “right” one. The “best” one. We see them as an extension of ourselves, and, at least subconsciously, we know they are extensions of our brains. Naturally, we don’t want to think that we have chosen stupid brain-extensions for ourselves. Each of us wants to believe that the exobrain we have selected for our self is the smartest, fastest, most capable, “best” exobrain there is. This is where “fanboyism” begins to creep in.
Fanboys (and, of course, fangirls), those who believe their device/brand/OS/whatever is so clearly the “best”, exhibit brand loyalty at a fever pitch approaching religious zealotry. This is a natural follow, of course, because the very concept of “best” is entirely subjective and therefore necessitates belief. There cannot be any one “best” smartphone any more than there can be one “best” beer or potato. But these are not mere beers or potatoes, they’re our exobrains. They’re a part of us (even if they’re removable), so it’s no wonder that this gets extra personal. We see people with their different exobrains, and they are trying to be faster, smarter and more capable than our exobrains! There are two divergent paths from here.
Some people say, “Wow, that’s a really nice exobrain. I really like my exobrain a lot, but I wish it had that feature.” Or they may even say, “Daaaamn that exobrain is awesome! My exobrain is so slow and janky. I totally wish I had your exobrain. I can’t wait to upgrade to something like that!” This is the path of, shall we say, most people. These are pretty reasonable thoughts and reactions.
The fanboy’s path looks a lot different. It is filled with defences and counter-attacks. Upon being shown a feature in someone else’s exobrain, which does not exist in the Fanboy’s exobrain, the response is more likely to be along the lines of, “That’s stupid. I would never use that.” Or they may divert the conversation away from their exobrain’s perceived weakness and redirect it toward one of its strengths. “So? Can your exobrain do this?” They are also more likely to defend, attack, flame and troll in comments, forums, and even status updates, canonising their own exobrain while deriding the exobrains chosen by others.
Well, so what? Other than excessive shit-talking and just generally being super obnoxious, does it do any harm? Possibly.
Innovation is fuelled not merely by competition but also by customer demand. Generally, the need fanboys and fangirls have to believe their exobrain is the “best” seems to lead them away from being critical enough of their own devices. It’s rare to hear a fanboy admit that there is anything wrong with his device until his device’s parent company announces a soon-coming update that will patch that hole (think notifications on iOS or copy/paste on Android). When people demand less, they get less. This sort of consumer complacency leads to corporate complacency. If a company knows, regardless of what they put out, that people will line up for it and buy it, this decreases their motivation to push the envelope (which requires a lot of time and money spent on R&D). They will still have motivation from competing companies, but they know they have a certain number of devotees they can fall back on, and that gives them a sort of a cushion (and it may be a rather large one). When companies kick back on cushions, innovation slows and consumers lose out.
What is interesting about smartphones is that people who have never before exhibited the characteristics of fanboyism are sliding down that path. It’s not just for geeks anymore! Or one could argue that because so many people are now carrying cutting-edge technology in their pockets — previously the domain of geeks, more or less exclusively — that now the world is just much geekier? It seems like every other week some friend on Facebook or Twitter posts, “I need a new phone. What should I get?” After just a few comments the thread usually devolves into a morass of iPhone/Android/Windows Phone stroking/bashing. These were once reasonable men and women. Sad. Very sad.
At the end of the day, it’s hard to admit your faults and the faults of your exobrain or acknowledge where others may surpass you. If we can just breathe and get our egos out of the way, however, we can love our own exobrains AND respect the exobrains of others. My primary exobrain is an Android device. I put a lot of weight on customisation, and that’s one of the reasons I chose it. In general, it’s a great device for my needs. That said, I think iPhones are awesome and they have some features I totally covet. Windows Phone 7 has some tasty stuff I wish my phone had, too. Would I ever leave Android? Of course. If Google fails to keep up with the rest of the pack, why wouldn’t I? I’m not a stockholder. I have no more fealty to Google than I do to brands of toenail clippers. Well, I haven’t purchased any apps for my toenail clippers… yet.
The point is there is no “best” device. Now or ever. It’s a myth that companies create and fanboys/fangirls buy into. A critical eye and a little humility will ensure not only that you really do have the best device for who you are and your specific needs, it will also motivate companies to strive to produce the most incredible exobrains possible, and that is something I think we all very much want to see.