Honey, I shrunk the phones

In praise of the tiny phone

I’ve never had much trouble crying. When a friend sends me a sweet text with even a hint of a compliment, there’s a good chance I’ll shed a few tears. I can’t watch Bojack Horseman’s “Free Churro” or “Time’s Arrow” episodes without sobbing into my blanket. When I call my friends for advice or comfort, they can usually hear my sobs before picking up the phone. I’m soft as hell, and that’s okay, but it wasn’t easy to accept—I don’t think I could’ve done it without my Nana Dee.

When I went to see Coco in theaters for the first time, the child sitting a few seats down from me shouted “ARE YOU CRYING?!” as Imelda sang “La Llorona” to Miguel for the first time, hitting me right in the heart as I recalled the rare spurts of vulnerability my nana showed throughout the years. Infrequent as they were, those tiny cracks in her otherwise flawless armor—embroidered flowers and all—were subtle reminders that even the strongest titans sometimes fall.

I try to keep that in mind whenever I’m feeling exposed, but it’s harder now that she’s gone and I can’t call her when I’m feeling down. I miss hearing the strength and conviction in her voice reassuring me that eventually, I’ll be standing tall again. Luckily, though, I saved a few voicemails she left me over the years, so I can still, in a way, give her a ring to hear her voice.

I only have three of them, but they each show a different side of my nana. The first, from 2017, is her joyfully telling me she read my first article for Wired; the second is her singing me Happy Birthday; and the last is her venting to me about how much she hated her iPhone and asking me to look into a better option for her.

Sorry I missed your call, as usual this damn phone doesn’t ring when it’s supposed to. Maybe next month I’ll be able to afford a new one. So if you have a chance, see what I can find, something that’s simple. Simple simple simple. But I can text you and send pictures. Have a good one, I know it’s going to be fantastic. Keep it up, good work. Love you, mijito.

My gut reaction when I first listened to that voicemail, not realizing by that time the following year she’d be spending her last few months in a hospital bed, was frustration. I told her she wouldn’t like an iPhone—which she only got out of jealousy when her sister upgraded—and the weekly calls to disable her phone’s flashlight and fix the volume confirmed that. Still, I tried to do some digging to see if maybe, just maybe, there might be a phone with a good camera that wouldn’t leave her feeling helpless with every technical difficulty. Unfortunately, there wasn’t, and she spent her last days cursing that damn LG phone she traded in her iPhone for (despite my warnings) that never seemed to work right.

Sure, many of her grievances stemmed from her unfamiliarity with iOS and Android, but I can’t listen to that voicemail without sympathizing. Every time I upgrade my phone, there’s usually a brief honeymoon period where I’m convinced I’ve found the perfect phone for me, followed by months of “it’s fine, but…” Since picking up the iPhone 12 Mini last week, I’ve been thinking more about that voicemail from my nana, and how she did something I’ve glossed over for years: assessed what our phones are actually for before making any decisions.

Despite the increasing popularity and insistence on making every flagship phone too dang big, my small-to-moderately-sized hands could never quite get used to them. I tried PopSockets to relieve myself of cramped hands, but never fully adjusted. The longer I tried to fumble my iPhone X around in my hands as I worked through my Pocket queue or browsed Reddit, the sillier it felt making so many adjustments in my habits just to suit a phone size I never really bought into.

That’s changed with the iPhone 12 Mini, which aims to bring the flagship experience to a smaller form factor with as few sacrifices as possible. Its smaller battery and lack of a third camera lens might be disappointing, but it’s the first phone I’ve had in years that’s comfortable enough for one-handed use. As Dieter Bohn points out in his review for The Verge, it feels like it was designed for us, not despite us:

For me, the reason to prefer the iPhone 12 Mini is hard to state in words, but I’ll give it a shot. With every phone, you can tell what it was designed around. There’s some key feature that everything else has to contend with, that sets the hardware narrative. For many years now, that feature was the screen. Making it big, bright, beautiful, and bezel-less was the big thing driving phone design, and all other considerations were secondary.

The 12 Mini feels like the first iPhone in a long time with a different goal. It was designed around the human hand and real pockets. It is an object that doesn’t aim to be judged against other smartphones (which are mostly big now), but to be judged simply as an object you need to hold. You judge a spatula or can opener or whatever by whether it’s easy to grip, by whether it fits in your hand. It’s about time we got back to judging smartphones that way, too.

When you look at the reasons to prefer a larger screen—they’re better for watching videos, the battery lasts longer, you can see more content at once—you get it, big phones give you more of everything. It makes sense for devices capable of doing everything: we can record and edit videos without putting our phone down, blitz through our emails on our commute to work, plan out our days via to-do lists and calendars, and log every bit of our day if we so choose. That all sounds great, but the more we ask of our phones, the more adaptations they’re going to require from us. 

Ten years ago, the prospect of being able to do anything you needed with a device that fit in your pocket seemed promising. Now, with so many apps vying for our attention (many with detrimental effects to our well-being), that idea feels exhausting. Perhaps there’s comfort to be found in devices that do less.

Take the Kindle lineup, for example. From the basic Kindle up to the overpriced Oasis, they all serve the same function: you can read any book you choose, and carry them all with you in a device you’ll barely feel in your bag. There are differences, though, like lighting that automatically adjusts to your environment, a groove on the back for better grip, and, yes, a bigger screen. Those last two go in tandem, though: sure, the screen is bigger and that means you can see more text, but without that groove on the back, it’d be pretty tricky to hold for more than a few minutes. And where the Oasis’s bigger screen offers a larger stage for the same stream of ideas and stories, a bigger phone screen promises a more jumbled feed of disjointed remarks from a pool of voices, none of which can ever fully grab your attention before you start scrolling again. One encourages you to focus more on a singular piece and shapes itself around that, while the other makes promises of more, more, more, without any assistance in carrying that increased load.

It shouldn’t take getting a new device, like a smaller phone or more ergonomic e-reader, to have something that doesn’t ask us to contort our bodies just to get a good handle on them. Maybe, instead, we can shift the expectations we have of each gadget we use, and tweak our settings and habits around that. Smartphone pinky wouldn’t be as much of a concern if we took Twitter and the temptation of doomscrolling off our tiny screens. Our batteries would probably last longer if we stuck to watching YouTube videos on our laptops and TVs where we can see more anyway.

You don’t have to totally cut these things out, though. For instance, if your hands start hurting after too much time on Instagram, maybe increase the font size to make it harder to get through your feed if that inconvenience will help you walk away. Using YouTube or Instagram in a browser rather than the app makes the experience just frustrating enough to cut down screen time in either one. These hurdles won’t make your phone any smaller or easier to hold, but they’re enough to make you question if a particular activity is really best suited for your phone’s unwieldy body.

Your smartphone needs probably can’t be whittled down to something as simple as my nana’s, but after so many years of watching our phones be able to do more, it’s about time we start thinking about what our phones should actually be for. It’s nice to have an all-encompassing, pocketable device that follows us wherever we go, but maybe we don’t have to go to it for everything we do. 

📚 Good Reads:

Gen Z is judging you for not archiving your Instagrams (Mel): We all have embarrassing stains on our digital brands. Luckily my scene kid phase was wiped away with the old MySpace, and there’s no trace of it on any computer I’m still hanging onto. My poetry phase, however, lived on Instagram until last year when I frantically went to delete the corniest of my posts before reentering the dating world. Had I remembered that Instagram’s Archive feature existed, I probably would’ve opted for that instead. Who doesn’t enjoy a night of roasting your former self? 

The iOS Covid App Ecosystem Has Become a Privacy Minefield (Wired): Contact tracing is a powerful tool in following the spread of COVID-19, but it’s raised red flags for privacy advocates. Andy Greenbery reports for Wired that nearly 500 Covid-related apps harness personal data ranging from location to microphone access and even totally unrelated things like Apple Music data. The piece notes that none of these things may be particularly nefarious, but it’s a powerful demonstration of how quickly and easily our data can slip through our hands.  

Netflix is testing a linear-style TV channel in France (Engadget): Back in high school, my dad set us each up with an original Xbox loaded with XBMC (now Kodi). It was cool having our entire library of movies and TV shows at our fingertips pre-Netflix and Hulu. But my favorite feature was this plugin that let you dip into someone else’s stream of any given TV show, like being able to watch a 24/7 marathon of Scrubs without having to watch in order or pick the episodes yourself. It ruled, and I hope this makes its way to my neck of the woods. 

🌐 Just Browsing:

🕵🏼‍♂️ Motherboard reports on how personal location data is fed from seemingly harmless apps like prayer apps and Craigslist clients to the U.S. military. 🎳 How escape rooms evolved during the pandemic. 🎧 A touching episode of the Know Your Enemy podcast on How to Be Depressed. 🧠 How to worry more mindfully. 🔥 I will never stop talking about Hades, and this piece on its use of eroticism is a delight.  💅🏼 You absolutely must read this interview with the manicurist responsible for Carmela Soprano’s pink and white acrylic nails. 🎤 Drakeo the Ruler is ready to talk. 🌏 Stopping emissions won’t be enough to fight climate change. 🖤 How the pandemic has amplified reflections on missed opportunities. 

💕 And now, here’s something we hope you’ll really like:

If you haven’t seen this video of Prince performing "Kiss" live, you must. If you have, watch it again; you won't regret it. 

As always, if you have any questions, feedback, or just want to say hello, feel free to drop me a line on Twitter.

My thanks to Medea Giordano for editing this issue.