In Praise of Single Function Devices

I’ve been wearing a watch recently.  It’s nice—it tells me the time.  I’ve also been carrying a pocket calendar.  It has dates with space to put in appointments and a few blank pages for notes.  I also have a phone I’ve been using.  It has internet access if I absolutely need it, but a painful pared down version—it is not “smart.”  I text now only for critical messages, my phone’s non-QWERT keyboard is too cumbersome.

Shortly before Christmas my iPhone broke, so I pulled an old phone from my drawer that somehow resurrected, and I have been using it ever since.  Since my iPhone was my phone and calendar I’ve had to fill those functions with other things and somehow in the process I rediscovered the joys of single function devices.

The trend these days has been toward the multifunctional.  The iPhone and iPad and Kindle have led the way in all of this, with their multitude of apps.  What they lead to is a kind of electronic Swiss Army knife—a handy tool that can do a lot of things, but just as I discovered as a boy, it is often handier to simply carry one good blade.  Before long all of the nail files and scissors and fish cleaners just get in the way. The same is true, I would argue, of electronic multifunction tools like the iPhone and Kindle (particularly the “Fire”).  They all have their place, and I’m not suggesting you get rid of yours because I’m sure they make your life wonderful, but I am saying that for me, I’ve come to appreciate the absence of the multifunctional.

I like knowing the time without being reminded to check my email.  I like writing in my calendar and flipping through its pages.  I like very much to sit down in the evening with a book that will do nothing but allow itself to be read, put down, and read again.

The lure of the multifunctional comes with the promise of simplicity, of more time, of ease.  But I have found none of these to be the case.  My iPhone only coddled my message checking anxiety and increased my need for ever more functions.  By separating the tasks into different tools I find myself a bit calmer, more focused and collected.

Perhaps I’ll get other multifunctional devices along the way—they are hard to avoid.  But I hope that I will remember to put them in the drawer as much as possible, and carry just a watch and a calendar, a backpack with a good book, notepaper and a pen.  An iPhone may be able to do the work of those many things in a pocket sized device, but somehow, it doesn’t let me travel lighter.

About Ragan Sutterfield

Ragan Sutterfield is a writer and Episcopal seminarian sojourning from his native Arkansas in Alexandria, Virginia. He is the author of Cultivating Reality: How the Soil Might Save Us, Farming as a Spiritual Discipline and a contributor to the book Sacred Acts: How churches are working to protect the Earth’s climate. Ragan’s articles and essays have appeared in a variety of magazines including Triathlete, The Oxford American, and Books & Culture. He works to live the good life with his wife Emily and daughter Lillian.


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