Sometimes when your phone dies, it can feel like part of you dies with it. Text, e- mail, twitter, Instagram, Facebook, who are we really without that little red notification dot of someone asking us to pay attention to them? Our phones get us everywhere; literally, think about how lost you’d be without Google Maps or Wayes, or how lonely you’d feel without instant access to your music and podcasts, not to mention the calm feeling of scrolling through Instagram to appease your FOMO fears.
Do you remember life without a cellphones or the Internet? I do. I remember sending letters, writing school assignments on my dad’s electronic typewriter (I’m not that old, my parents have always been untrusting of new technology). I remember spending hours at the library to write a paper or just to research simple facts that today I could Google. I also remember the disposable camera, that winding and clicking noise of taking a new photo and then getting those photos developed only to realize your eyes are closed in almost all of them.
Which makes me wonder, what would happen if you lived without your phone today? So let’s imagine for some reason you don’t have a phone, but everyone else around you does, since it’s 2015. This is how I imagine one would survive today without their pocket computer.
Sending a Selfie
“Send me a pic,” your long distance crush asked you on your last phone date. “Okay,” you blush. Then you panic. How the—
So you pull out your disposable camera, snap a few photos. Maybe you ask your roommate to take a few, just to ensure that you’re in frame. Then you have to find a local hour photo place to get those shots developed. You look through the 36 pictures to find the best one. You put the picture inside the envelope – crap what’s his address? You call him using a payphone by the store. But he doesn’t pick up, because on his cellphone your payphone number comes up as “unknown” and that’s creepy. And let’s not even get into finding a stamp.
Going to a party
One of your friends told you in person, that they’re having a party this Saturday night. You can’t see the Facebook event, so you either ask people in person, or via landline, if they’re going. Saturday night rolls around, you can’t call an Uber because again, smart phone. So you look up a cab company in a phonebook, call the cab. Twenty minutes and twenty dollars later, you’re at this party. Turns out your friend meant NEXT Saturday. Now to find a payphone to call another cab…
Falling in Lust
You meet someone at a party and you really hit it off. They ask for your number. You say you don’t have a phone. Facebook? Yes, you’re on there, but not on a lot because, again, no phone. They add you on Facebook and falls in love with you because unlike most people, you don’t document every breath of your life. Success!
Trying to Prove a Friend Wrong in an Argument
You don’t believe that Brad Pitt is 51. There’s no way. He’s 45 max. Your friend says you’re wrong. Three hours later, when you’re finally by a computer. You look up Brad Pitt’s age and … really?!
I could go on and on. Life today would be difficult without your smartphone, to say the least. But at the same time, unplugging on occasion isn’t the worst thing in the world (see imaginary crush scenario above). When was the last time you saw a sunset and didn’t Instagram it? Or told a joke and didn’t find the need to tweet it? In the words of Ferris Bueller and probably your yearbook quote, “life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you might miss it.”
How to use a smartphone to make a 3d hologram
This quiz will tell you if you’re addicted to your smartphone
Easy to frighten the young: tell them what the world was like before mobile phones. Spirit them back to a life before midnight on 1 January 1985, when the first UK mobile call was made on a Transportable Vodafone VT1 that weighed 11lb; if you’d wanted one yourself, you’d have had to stump up around two grand. Be aware that what seems most shocking to you will not have the same impact on them; that well-worn recitation of the hour-long trudge along a dark country road in the rain to call the AA from a smelly phonebox that took coppers might still be vivid in your mind, but they’ll be drifting off, wondering how to circumvent Uber surge pricing when they’re pinging from club to club on Saturday night.
Tell them there was no Uber. Tell them that when you went out with your mates, you made cast-iron plans as much as three weeks in advance via numerous landline telephone calls, each of which was subject to sudden interruption from bill-obsessed parents or housemates eager to get on the blower themselves. Tell them that if your rendezvous fouled up, your options were limited: scrawl on the wall of bus stop or tube station (those whiteboards are a relatively recent innovation); traipse around town, forlornly peering into bars where your friends weren’t; leave touchingly hopeful messages with helpful but nosy mums (“If he does call, Mrs Arbuthnot, could you say I’m in the cafe opposite the cinema and there’s another showing at 9.30? Thank you very much. Yes, Dad’s much better, thank you”). And this is just for a casual night out: imagine if romance was in the offing.
If parental concern and sexual appetite – keeping tabs on your kids’ whereabouts on the one hand and forming and maintaining relationships on the other – have been two of the principal drivers of the mobile phone revolution, the field has long since broadened.
When mobiles began to become commonplace, the difference they made to our lives was stark and simple; we could communicate important information, often of a time-sensitive nature, without being either at home or work, and without relying on the availability of a free phone line. The annoyance they created – the mundane domestic detail loudly recounted on a packed bus, the wrong-footing sight of someone apparently jabbering to themselves as they walked down the street – was worth it. And pretty soon, we got turned on by the additional innovation of conveying that news in text form – no need even to speak to a human being!
But what is your phone doing now? As it’s the beginning of January, mine has just chirped to remind me to make another alfalfa and wheatgrass juice, though fortunately it has a mute button. The last alert I had was to let me know a very disappointing football result, thereby proving that being kept in the loop is not always all it’s cracked up to be. But like most people, apart from a dwindling band of smartphone refuseniks, I would find plenty more cheery diversion if I were to linger among the apps for a while – music, podcasts, social media, photographs, games. I might do a spot of work on a train, reorganise my diary, blitz my emails, tidy up my fiscal loose ends. It would only be when my train arrived that I would realise I hadn’t opened my book or gazed out of the window.
If the book I failed to open had been a novel set in the last few years, it would almost certainly have featured mobile technology, unless it was deliberately and self-consciously refusing to do so. If its plot was powered by any sort of intrigue – criminal, political, sexual – it would be unthinkable were the characters not to interact virtually, and probably, given the relative novelty of the device, crucially so.
Mobile phones have changed culture and continue to do so; not merely in the nature of the material produced, but as a means of distribution beyond the obvious. A perfectly named example: the compilation album entitled Music From Saharan Cellphones, on which the featured tracks have been transferred from mobile phone via Bluetooth in northern Mali, where music fans habitually and enthusiastically swap and spread music. It’s available in this country, headbendingly enough, on vinyl.
For music-mad residents of North Africa, sharing music by mobile telephony is a creative response to an obvious situation: a way to connect with culture being produced in sparsely populated areas without an established network of exchange. For me, in north London, it’s an exciting piece of eavesdropping: I’m unlikely to hear the music of Group Anmataff or Mdou Moctar otherwise.
Supplementary question: do I need to? Is my world widened by easy access to whatever my eye or ear might alight on or is it diluted, my attention weakened by an excess of possibilities? Do I become dismissive of what is near at hand, increasingly avid for exotica?
We know from repeated examples across the world the vital part that mobile phones have played in rapidly developing political situations, connecting protesters to one another and the outside world, documenting abuses and victories alike. We know how valuable they can be in tracking people; much was made in the recent podcast, Serial, of the limitations of the technology available to pin down someone’s location and account for their phone usage back in 1999, when the crime that was its subject was committed.
But there are times when we are also enslaved by innovation; where what seems to connect us can in fact separate us – from one another and from our own lived experience, a thought that struck me on New Year’s Eve, at a few minutes to 12, when everyone in my sitting room was – albeit briefly, for they are well mannered – engaged in some or other screen-based mission.
Is a concert a concert if you don’t Instagram it? Is an untweeted thought worth a fig? If you don’t log your gym session will your cardiovascular capacity really increase? A resounding yes to all three. And here’s a question we’ve all wanted to ask: all those people chatting happily away on the way into work every the morning. It’s 8am. It’s cold. We’re all tired. Nothing’s even happened yet. So who on earth are you talking to?