Most of us now carry a phone which has a better memory and more brainpower than we do. I often feel like my smart phone’s slow-witted, slightly amnesiac maiden aunt. I am superior to my phone only because I command the off switch - and who knows how long this will last?
We all gawped as its owner considerately tucked the object under his chair so that no one would stub their toes on it or trip over it. At the first tea break, this fabled machine and this man (who we would now call an “early adopter”) was immediately the centre of an awed cluster of onlookers. I remember thinking that I would never be well-enough off to afford such a machine or the extraordinary per-minute cost of using one.
Fairly soon after my brief 1980-something introduction to computing, and with vague dreams of becoming a writer, I bought my own computer. It was an Amiga 500. It had a black and white display and had such a small memory that it couldn’t hold a full software programme. At some point in the course of writing it would grind to halt and ask me to insert a disk bearing part two of the word-processing programme I used. Each disk was 51/4 inches square, had a hole in the centre like an L.P. (remember those?) and held less than 2 megabytes of data. Compared to my old portable typewriter however, the machine was a miracle. No more clots of Whitex or painstaking two-fingered retyping to make corrections. No messy carbon paper to make a single copy of a document.
Thirty-odd years later, I own a smart phone which combines, and far outstrips, the abilities of these two early pieces of technology. My old mobile phone used to seem pretty clever simply because it didn’t need to be plugged into a jack in the wall. Now, it seems as antiquated as the car-battery-sized phone or the Amiga computer. In fact, most of us now carry around with us a phone which has a better memory and more brainpower than we do. I often feel like my smart phone’s slow-witted, slightly amnesiac maiden aunt. I am superior to my phone only because I command the off switch - and who knows how long this will last?
Unless you are living in some low-tech outpost of the 21st century, you will know that smart phones rely for their functionality on software called “applications” and abbreviated to “apps”. Most apps are free or very cheap and they are as varied as human imagination and ingenuity can make them. Some are pedestrian but very helpful workhorses like word processors, calculators, calendars, and to-do lists. Others replicate the function of everyday objects. There are apps which create a torch beam and will flash an S.O.S in Morse code. There are apps which reverse the phone’s camera to create a mirror: just the other day I saw a young man gazing into his phone while adjusting the cant of his gelled hair. Some apps are simply games or are designed for the specialised demands of engineers, astrologists and stockbrokers. There are apps for meditation, mood tracking and photo editing.
Other apps are rather nasty, and much nastier than the “Nasty Sounds” app which produces burping, vomiting and farting noises, including a farted version of Jingle Bells. This app has been downloaded a mere million times to date, but that’s probably because there are so many other fart-producing apps available. Some apps seem to be designed with stalkers in mind. The appropriately named “Creepy” app for example, aggregates data from a victim’s Flickr and Twitter accounts, combines this with GPS information, and makes their current location known to whoever has the app on their phone. ”Baby Shaker” (which has now been removed from Apple’s iStore) may have been the nastiest app of all. It was a game which featured an image of a baby wrapped in a blanket. The aim of the game? To shake your phone - and thus the baby - until it died. Players earned extra points for the speed with which they killed the infant.
I am hoping for the invention of a number of more wholesome and useful apps.
The Supermarket Wizard app for example. This app would identify the fastest check-out queue and advise if a product labelled “bagel” is really a bagel, or just a bread roll with a hole in it.
It would also warn if you are about to run into an ex-husband or a garrulous neighbour in the store. This would allow you to avoid the aisle they are in, or deploy the handy Mad Dog app as you approach. This app would produce the sound of a snarling pit-bull terrier at heart-stopping decibels.
The Taste of Your Own Medicine app would detect business and government departments which have automated phone answering systems, and then autodial their phones on an endless loop.
At the very top of my wish-list though, is the Fat Chance app which would produce a 1000-word column at the press of the hash key.