I was listening to the radio the other day and heard a professor talking about how the increased amount of time that people spend using their phones these days seems to be undercutting creativity. Apparently, people become most creative when they are most bored and smart phones reduce the amount of boredom we experience. What struck me about this discussion, however, was that it is no longer appropriate to talk about the impact phones have on our lives when talking about smart phones.
Remember that scene in one of the Crocodile Dundee movies when a mugger pulled out a switchblade. Dundee's girlfriend shrieked, "He's got a knife." Without missing a beat, Dundee said, "That's not a knife, THAT'S a knife," as he pulled out a significantly larger knife from behind his back. In that case, the jump in size of his knife compared to the switchblade completely changed the context of the encounter with the mugger. Well, smart phones are to phones as Dundee's knife is to the mugger's switchblade-maybe even more so.
Talking about smart phones as if they were phones is a problem. A "phone" is a social construct that includes characteristics that are very different than the social construct of a smart phone. Phones represent a communications device that can intrude into our personal space. But smart phones are tools that help enhance what we are doing in our personal space, by giving us information we need for a conversation or even finding someone in a crowded room we are trying to meet.
Phones are not the only social constructs of the past that are losing relevance in the present. The notion of "being presidential" also falls prey to the evolution of communication technology. In the past year or so, President Obama has come under criticism for being "unpresidential" or "demeaning the Office of the President." These are politically loaded terms, of course, with mostly critics levying them at the president. But, like phones, the modern construct of "being presidential" is different than its historical roots.
Last week the President took questions from three YouTube stars. GloZell Green, a YouTube "star" who calls herself "The Mother of the Internet," made a minor mistake during her interview with Obama when she called Michelle Obama the "First Wife." And she used some colorful language, which elicited a smile from the Obama. Was that unpresidential? And when Obama smacked down Republicans in Congress during the State of the Union, some called that unpresidential. (You may call that unpresidential, but would never say such a thing.) How about Obama's appearance on Zach Galifianakis's Between Two Ferns? Many of his critics said that demeaned the presidency, too.
Balderdash! Perhaps in the days of Richard Nixon, such informalities by the president would have been less than presidential, but times have changed. Not only did Nixon show us other, more serious ways to demean the Office of the President, but social media has changed the relationship between the President and the people. Social media has brought the two closer together; made the presidency more transparent in fact (ahead of efforts to do it by design). Today, a president who does not engage with the people via social media (with all its warts and traps) is not acting presidential. The modern definition of "being presidential" now includes being accessible to ordinary (and sometimes eccentric) people. That is just how it is. Deal with it.
If you are stuck on old notions of "being presidential" or of phones, you will inevitably find the way President Obama engages with the public and the way people use smart phones to be out of synch with your (antiquated) expectations. The world is changing around us in dramatic ways. And as technology changes how we do things and, even, what we are able to do, our preconceived notions about how the world is supposed to work must change, too.