Recently, I have been reading a lot of articles by smartphone refuseniks. Many of these Luddites open with the caveat 'I am no Luddite', before lamenting on society's inability to switch off. I would agree with the first part. I too am no Luddite, like most people I am enamoured with the Internet and its endless data, the connections with people in faraway countries, the gratification of producing things that strangers 'like'. I do not see this as detrimental to society. And yet, I am a smartphone refusenik.
For me, the infinite nature of the Internet can feel a little overawing. The giant sucking information hole seems to nag at me, day and night, I think of something I want to know, and a moment later I know it. I am curious about absent friends, and so I look at their pictures. The marketing mantra there's an app for that alleviates petty concerns one after another. I no longer have to guesstimate how far I've run, puzzle over paper timetables, or read actual books - another app means another thing I don't have to think about. Carrying an ocean of facts means I don't have to remember anything - ever. I wonder how this can be considered a bad thing. Television was once considered the blight of conversationalists everywhere, now it's old school, staid, Mum and Dad's thing in the living room.
I have spent countless train journeys buried in my phone, never truly entertained but never bored. Sitting in waiting rooms is now an activity in itself, time to catch up on news, emails, and social media. There is no 'spare time' any more, only time to do something else. It seems we have slipped into a state of ceaseless action. Social etiquette is shifting, and while it may be irritating when someone starts fiddling with their phone in conversation, within a generation such behaviour may be perfectly acceptable. Likewise, browsing photographs of a friend's dinner may one day be considered a genuinely rewarding activity.
And so, I sold my iPhone and purchased a cheap Nokia. I needed to sever my link to the omniscient, omnipresent super robot in the clouds. The Internet is everywhere, and nowhere, a huge swirling mass of voices, looking for attention. I was considering this when I embarked on my first phone-less commute. Strangely, my brain did not slow down, if anything it sped up as it scrambled for input. A rolling mess of thoughts washed over me as I changed at Clapham Junction. I stood, arms by my side, staring at the purposeless sign declaring 'Britain's busiest station' - feeling the impotent urge to do something, anything, to fill the busy nothingness.
There was so much I wanted to know. I was considering buying a motorcycle, and wondered what I could get for my money. The Syrian crisis was on my mind, and I considered the rebels - were they really being subsumed into the Islamist cause? Then there were the things I wanted to say, my train was late and I wanted to make a wry remark on twitter, I wanted someone to endorse my comment. Commuting was awful and I wanted someone to agree, in real time. I yearned for validation. The fact that no one would care for my critique of public transport was inconsequential.
Smartphones also gifted me with the illusion of productivity. Quiet moments were no longer spent on anything as retrograde as daydreaming, I convinced myself that I needed to absorb everything, in a stab at self-improvement. Towards the end, I read a lot of articles on meditation, mindfulness, relaxation and sleep - I was intrigued by this area, there had to be a way to sift through the mind junk and I was determined to find it - ironically, I was reading about it on the very device that was contributing to my unease.
I have now abandoned my smartphone all together. It has been some weeks. Ok, not long, however the difference has been startling. I am forced to think more, distract myself more, I am forever trapped in the present moment. Rush-hour train journeys in London have taken on an ultra real hue, I can feel the people close to me, sense their personalities. The train is packed yet deathly silent. We are hemmed in like indentured workers bound for the New World. I notice everything, and it is not always a pleasant experience.
Still, the constant pounding of information has abated. In some ways, my journeys are more relaxing, my spare moments more 'spare' - they are mine once again. The smartphone was a punctuation mark, something to fill in the gaps. I now have those gaps back again, to do with as I please. It would of course be ridiculous to think that any of this makes me a better person, or that I have any qualms with technology (or its avid users). I have just had enough of consuming reams of data day and night - of carrying a pulsating information portal to the toilet and checking emails during my private function. I have had enough of documenting every banality, referencing trivia on a whim, remarking on the mundane. I have had enough of the constant barrage, beautiful as it can be, I have had enough. For now.
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