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December 16, 2008

Filed under: culture»internet

All of Us Sidekicks

On Friday, someone named Aaron Swartz pointed out the obvious: that user-friendly smartphones had existed before a certain computer company entered the market, but were ignored for cultural reasons.

But, of course, neither minorities nor schoolchildren rule the world, so the Sidekick has been written out of history. 2007 was the first time anyone had thought to give a smartphone a decent UI, or a web browser, or an over-the-air application store. Well, at least it was the first time anyone thought to tell white people.
Shockingly (or not), hipster gadget bloggers like Joel Johnson overreacted, posturing like they'd been accused of Klan membership for owning an iPhone. There's no reason to reprint his rant, since it's just embarrassing (particularly that Johnson has room to accuse anyone of being "mouthbreathingly turtlenecked"), but I did find this graf interesting:
Sociologically and culturally it was a trend of note. While I'm positive that consumer electronic choice often breaks down differently over cultural and economic lines, phones are one of the few items that we commonly can observe on the street. But to presume that there is some sort aspect of ignorance by "white people" in passing the Sidekick by -- especially when "white people" almost certainly means "working adults" -- is exactly the sort of goofy injection of race into an argument that drives me crazy.
In other words, Johnson recognizes that there are different class issues (and make no mistake, Swartz's point is really more about class than race) related to technology adoption--and then he goes ahead and dismisses those issues anyway, preferring to get hung up on the phrase "white people" and insist that only the features he finds useful (as an upper/middle class, white hipster) are the ones that count "holistically" in a great smartphone.

Now, no-one's going to argue that tech blogs are a source of enlightened social discourse. But I think there is a deeper issue here that we--let's flatter ourselves as fairly cutting-edge folks--could stand to examine, and that's how class informs both the technology we use and how we use it.

Take SMS/MMS, for example. I hate getting SMS, personally. I grew up at a time when none of my friends had cell phones, but we were always within 30 feet of a computer with e-mail access. I never used text messages on my old phone, and now I have a phone that does e-mail, so I don't use it now. All I see when I get an SMS is $.10 extra on my phone bill and a technology that's a bit kludgy and error-prone. The iPhone doesn't even really support MMS--a fact that's led a lot of fans to dismiss the technology out of hand.

But of course, some really exciting stuff is being done with SMS. Systems like FrontlineSMS, which give activists powerful tools for organizing and communicating, and the Obama campaign's announcement database are fascinating solutions built on top of it. And even if that weren't the case, it's still snobbish of me to look down on SMS. After all, what is Twitter but SMS blogging--in other words, SMS/MMS for rich white people?

This is one of the reasons that I love reading blogs like Afrigadget: it's a way to get outside of my comfort zone and see people fixing problems using technology that I would have wrongly ignored as "unsophisticated" or clumsy. And perhaps they are, but here's the thing: they're also cheap, widespread, and egalitarian, not just outside the US but inside as well. As someone whose job is to get news and information out to different audiences using technology, it's good to keep principles of resource-constraint in mind. Even tech-savvy people can find themselves in a situation where a text message--or similarly unglamourous medium--is the most effective way to make a query or get an announcement.

The digital divide isn't just physical or economic. It's also a factor of class culture, particularly since the people who are getting the venture capital funding are from the upper levels of that culture. They're the people who don't think MMS has any particular use, who have shiny smartphones with really nice web browsers, who see a future in rich Internet applications and high-bandwidth multimedia. As Dan Lyons wrote while attending one Web 2.0 conference:

My first reaction was that in the greater scheme of things (economy in free fall, war in Iraq, global warming, energy crisis, not to mention the old reliables like cancer and poverty and AIDS, etc.) this challenge of finding a good restaurant seems like a fairly trivial and unimportant problem for our big geek brains to be trying to solve. If I were funding these guys I might go home scratching my head about what those kids are doing with all of my millions. Maybe there is a point to what they're doing, but honestly, what great problem are these companies trying to solve? Sitting there watching this spectacle - watching these guys unable to simply explain what they do and and how they are going to make a business out of it - it was staggering to think that someone has entrusted these people with very large sums of money. But someone has. I weep for those people.
Unlike Lyons, I don't weep for the money men, the venture capitalists, or the eager young startups. My sympathy is with the rest of us. Because eventually, a lot of us are going to end up on the wrong end of the curve. And when we do, I'd like to think that there's going to be more waiting for us than the scorn of the in-crowd at BBG and Gizmodo.

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