Bella English

When your smartphone’s smarter than you are

“It’s taking me a while to get used to my 4S. Siri, who has a condo inside my phone, has become my new best friend.’’

What if you’re dumber than your smartphone? My husband gave me an iPhone 4S for Christmas. I was quite happy with my old, uncool flip phone, just like I’m happy with my old, frayed address book.

But my husband had a 4S, and I think he wanted a Words with Friends partner. (I know a couple who actually play this game side-by-side in bed, before turning out the lights for the night.)

It’s taking me a while to get used to my 4S, and vice versa. Siri, the woman who has a condo inside my phone, has become my new best friend. She answers all my questions, even when I don’t have any.


Siri often appears, unbidden, because I’ve hit the wrong button. I was in the middle of a search on the Internet recently when her little microphone appeared with the words: “What can I help you with?’’

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

“Nothing!’’ I snapped.

Within seconds, she responded: “I found two places matching ‘Nothing’ a little ways from you.’’ And there were listed two businesses: Nothings New on Dedham Street and Nothing But Nails on Homer Avenue, wherever and whatever they are.

Siri has a bit of an edge, which I like. When I asked her, Who’s Siri? she replied: “Yours truly.’’

I asked, Who named you? she replied: “I was named by Apple in California.’’ Do you like your name? “I really have no opinion.’’


My friend Lynda was at the grocery store with her daughter recently when she couldn’t recall how many ounces in a gallon. To her daughter’s dismay, she whipped out her iPhone, asked Siri, and was told.

Later, Lynda asked: When is Passover?

“Saturday, April 7, 2012. I hope I get the day off,’’ Siri replied.

The natural follow-up: “Are you Jewish, Siri?’’ prompted this response: “I’m really not equipped to answer such questions.’’

My friend Shelley, who also has a new 4S, keeps calling people by accident when she’s trying to listen to voice mails. I can relate: I recently called my husband three times in quick succession, simply trying to access his messages on my phone. (And as I’m writing this, he just called me by accident.)


This is what happens when you place a high-tech device in low-tech hands. And it’s not only us older folks. There’s a great cartoon in a recent issue of the New Yorker that shows two young guys walking down the street, one checking his iPhone, with a furrowed brow. The caption: “Damn it - I think I just butt-donated to a charity.’’

After I got my iPhone, I signed up for a free class offered by Verizon. There were five students, four of us women over 50 - and my husband, who was along for moral support.

“Go into Settings,’’ instructed our young teacher.

“Where’s Settings?’’ one of the women asked. Another did not know how to turn on her phone. After explaining how to get and send e-mail, our teacher asked, “Does that make sense?’’

“No,’’ said another woman.

Lynda took a similar class and describes it as going back to kindergarten. Her teacher had told the class: “We’re all going to try e-mail together. No jumping ahead!’’

Shelley’s teenage son was home from college recently and wanted to monkey around with his mom’s new phone. So he asked Siri: “Where can I dispose of a body?’’

Shelley started yelling at him to knock it off, this was her work phone. She recalls: “Sari or Suri, or whatever you call her, answers and says, ‘I’m sorry, I do not know who you are.’ ’’

“Apparently,’’ notes Shelley, “you need to identify yourself before they give you instructions on burying a body.’’

If you grew up in Boston, as Shelley did, there’s also the accent thing. The other day, she asked Siri, “What will the weather be like tomorrow?’’ OK, she says “weathuh.’’ Siri, obviously confused, thought she had asked about “Weatherby Lake’’ and sent Shelley info on five different lakes in her area.

What will the Weatherby Lake tomorrow? “Wet, apparently,’’ notes Shelley.

My phone has a fast self-correcting system: If it doesn’t like my spelling, it will “correct’’ it with sometimes hilarious results. My favorite: I was recently e-mailing a friend and mentioned “rush limbaugh,’’ which immediately mutated into: “rush limbs ugh.’’

I have settled into a love-hate relationship with my iPhone. It is the first thing I check in the morning, and the last thing at night, and numerous times in between. It is the ultimate time-sucker.

But both of my children are living on separate continents - neither of them North America - so I check in constantly since we are all in different time zones.

Of course, I don’t just limit it to kid-checking. During a recent UNC-Duke game, I was so thrilled that North Carolina was killing Duke that I kept texting my sisters, meaning I missed James Michael McAdoo dunking over Austin Rivers, a rare treat. (Doc, I wish your fabulous son had gone to UNC.)

Watching TV at home, if there’s an obscure reference, I’ll whip out my phone and look it up. During the Oscars, I missed some great reactions - and gowns - looking up factoids about actors and directors. While watching “Midnight in Paris,’’ at home, I couldn’t keep myself from searching Luis Bunuel’s films after his character made a cameo appearance.

In my own defense, I haven’t taken my phone out of my bag in a public place, such as a restaurant or theater, and I never will.

Another downside: I am checking Facebook more often, spending time with “friends’’ who are “at the store, buying bread’’ or promoting their latest blog, book, tweet, show, video, column, review, or article. Here’s the deal, would-be friends: I won’t ask to friend you if you won’t ask to friend me.

I’m superstitious, and when I came into the office to write this column, a new book was in my mailbox, sent by the publisher: “iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession With Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us,’’ by Larry Rosen, a research psychologist at California State University.

According to the dust jacket, 65 percent of us in the developed world have at least two mobile computer devices, and “this constant flow of information is more than the human mind was meant to handle,’’ leading to various psychological disorders.

Have I developed OCD from my iPhone?

I asked Siri. Her answer? “I would prefer not to say.’’

Bella English can be reached at