Smartphone Paradise Lost

If you do misplace your smartphone, stay calm.
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I lost my cell phone last week, and immediately went into a pronounced tailspin. In a hurry to make an appointment, I must have left the phone -- an iPhone 5 Black 32GB -- on the top of the car as I pulled out of the driveway. Within minutes, I realized that the phone wasn't where I usually put it. I doubled back in the vain hope that the phone would turn up. It did not.

The sense of loss was particularly acute because I had not downloaded the crucial app for such circumstances, "Find My iPhone." What a great and comforting asset this app could have been; with a tap or two, I would have been able to locate the device (everyone else in my office with an iPhone seemed to have it). The lack of this single application added to my sense of ignominy, and was a lesson in keeping up with the pace of new features. Fortunately, I did have insurance, and for $199 the replacement arrived overnight. With the assistance of colleagues and efficiency at Verizon, I was able to recover all my contacts, email, and calendars. Even my suspended phone number was restored.

This frenetic episode lasted barely more than a day. But the experience of losing a handy device that until then I pretty much took for granted felt like a big deal. My intense reaction provided a valuable personal insight into how attached I had become to the phone, even if I am not one of the tens of millions who text, check Twitter, or take pictures all day long -- among the many activities on my iPhone 5 I very rarely use. The variety of smartphones -- Apple's iOS, Google's Android, RIM's Blackberry OS, Samsung, Microsoft's Window Phone, among others -- and the apps available for them offer almost limitless uses, to the point that the role of mobile devices is a national pastime, with the prospect that virtually the entire population will eventually have them in some form. A Pew Research Center survey in 2012 found that 46 percent of American adults own a smartphone, up from 33 percent in 2011. At that rate, the figure must be well over half of Americans are now carrying a phone that has as many features as desktop computers and tablets, plus their core function as a telephone. The indicators are also that the age of first-time smartphone users is dropping as low as middle school.

It has probably been true for several years, but I am increasingly aware that in the elevator of my midtown New York office building, on the crowded surrounding streets of Broadway and Eighth Avenue and in the subway and bus, the smartphone is pervasive, particularly among younger adults, whose heads-down focus on the screen, the scrolling motion for the latest message, and their dexterity with keyboards is a dominant image. There is a reflex to check the phone constantly, especially when you are moving from one place to another (hence the streets, the elevator and in transport). A 2011 study, cited on WebMD from the journal Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, described the ways checking becomes habitual to the point where it can be characterized as addictive. "The average user checks his or her smartphone 35 times a day," the study found, "for about 30 seconds each time," usually for e-mails, social media connections, and news updates.

As a pre baby-boomer, I am certainly not of the generations that have grown up in the digital age. And yet the extent of my vulnerable response to losing the phone surprised me. I am very glad that I have a well-equipped smartphone again, and I am determined to be more careful about where and how I carry it with me. But a phone, ultimately, should be regarded as a useful connector to people we want to reach and information that we rely on to manage our lives. If you do lose your smartphone, stay calm. There is always another phone -- for a fee, of course -- to take its place.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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