published Tuesday, March 12th, 2013

David Cook: Can you hear me now?

Not long ago, Matt Brown got a new phone.

He’d had an iPhone. Before that, a Crack ... I mean, Blackberry.

But his new phone? He pulls it out of his pocket in public and heads turn. Teenagers point and gasp. Women faint.

“It’s a flip phone,” Brown said.

Hide the children. Oh, the horror.

“Text and calls and that’s it,” he said. “Not even a camera on it.”

Brown is a voice texting in the wilderness, a man who has lived the hyper-connected life and come out the other side. Neither Luddite nor senior citizen, Brown, a hip 26 years old, once was as high-speed-connected as any of us.

“In the morning. In the evening. Mid-day,” he said. Watching movies. Playing games. Pornography. Facebook. Wikipedia. Email. More email.

“The whole DNA of the phone is conditioned to give you what you want right now,” he said.

So what the flip happened?

“It infects your life,” he said.

Brown’s smartphone became his idol. Or iDol. He found himself paying more attention to his phone than any other aspect of his life. His faith. His relationships. His inner self.

“Jesus says to love our neighbors as ourselves. But this smartphone teaches us to love ourselves, first and foremost. To worship ourselves,” Brown said.

“It is like a religion. With symbols and all the trappings of devotion.”

So Brown stopped worshipping. Found a used Motorola W315 on e-bay, plunked down $20 and, a few days later, said goodbye to his smartphone and hello to his dumb one.

And like a lost dog coming back home, all these good things have returned to Brown’s life: He reads more, writes more, prays, plays music, has conversations that are lengthy, thoughtful and in-depth.

“The most productive month in a year,” he said.

In a time when Apples are no longer fruits, Brown understands the balance between the dark side of technology and the light.

It can be villainous like Darth Vader: Technology bewitches us away from the practice of being still, alone and quiet. It makes us punch-drunk on finding a quick fix to our pain, anxiety and boredom. Gratification. Instantly, or else.

However.

Modern tech can also be the most promising, world-changing, revolutionary thing on the block.

On the morning we met for coffee at Niedlov’s, Brown and I then walked the 50 yards down Main Street to CoLab, where one of the coolest pieces of modern technology sits unassumingly on a front table.

The 3-D printer.

“Want to see it?” the CoLab folks asked.

Oh, did we. And you should too. This Saturday, on the fourth floor of the downtown Chattanooga library, there’s a 3D printing festival, like a coming-out party for the hottest invention in America.

Seeing one felt like witnessing the first time Edison lit the bulb: You realize it’s going to change everything.

Using a little spool of plastic — kind of like the wire for your weed-eater — the printer builds objects from the ground up. Like a mason laying a brick wall. From nothing to something.

Poised to cause unknowably huge changes in engineering, medicine and manufacturing, the 3D printer can create cars, human ears, handguns, a new toilet bowl scrubber since your last one broke.

And it’s the size of a box of doughnuts. Costs less than four new tires.

For us, the CoLab folks printed a little plastic five-link key chain. (Coffee pots take longer. I imagined the printer yawning. Ho hum). And Brown, his flip phone in his pocket, loved it.

“That is so cool,” he said.

What’s cool about Brown (who works for locally-based cloud software developer Skuid) is his ability to embrace new technology while also being aware of the danger it can possess.

“The most important thing is not to do it mindlessly,” Brown said. “If you use technology to humanize, and not dehumanize, then it’s being used rightly.”

Funny how a guy with a dumb phone can be so smart.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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