In Autumn 2008, a university friend was one of the ‘lucky’ early possessors of the first iPhone. I paid a passing interest as my friend was clearly proud of it - and made sure to give it the attention he felt it deserved - but with no desire of one of my own; the same way I might act when shown pictures of a colleague’s child.
Ten years, and various iterations of the iPhone later, I still do not have one. In my pocket, I carry a Nokia C2-01. I own it outright with a monthly cost of £7.50.
The reveal of this fact always elicits demands for an explanation. No, my ‘real’ phone is not broken. No, I am not making some kind of statement. No, it was not a response to a prior chronic over-reliance on technology. I don’t think it makes me cool. I have just never seen enough value in a smartphone.
Countless times I have been asked, ‘How do you survive in London without a smartphone?’ I admit that there have been times when this has been tricky. I have leeched on friends to figure out transport arrangements and, at its worst, I have had to commandeer their Uber rides, taking them in the opposite direction to their destination, doubling the cost of a fare, baffling the driver and maybe even resulting in their rating taking a hit (you know who you are and I’m still grateful). But, by and large I have been OK. Cycling around for the last four years, I’ve got to know the lay of the land fairly well, and if it’s a journey to a new place, I take full advantage of Google Maps (on a PC), scribbling down directions on a scrap of paper that I shove up my sleeve and then take out sporadically at traffic lights to remind me where I am going. Also, I’m not sure if anyone else sees these, but there’s quite a few physical maps on the street dotted around and bus stops map routes of all that serve it; it’s quite handy.
I am also quick to clarify that I am not some hardcore, man-in-the-woods, Luddite. Netflix, Twitter, email, the internet generally – used from the comfort of my home or office, I think are all worth my while. Occasionally, I’ll even enjoy a video of a person falling over or a dog pretending to be a person.
There is an expectation that I must be happier without a smartphone. Well, that’s impossible to tell. I don’t consider myself to be any happier than the average smartphone user. I spend train journeys listening to music, podcasts and staring out the window; I get bored. I’ve recently moved a little further out of London and for the time being, am commuting by train from Surrey into Waterloo. In the three weeks that I have been doing this, I have been exposed to the rolling guff that fills people’s screens. Countless photos taken in front of mirrors with midriffs exposed. Men and women of my parents’ generation playing Candy Crush. I saw one person watch a 10-minute video of a (cute) guy documenting his journey through preparing, cooking and consuming pancakes – as though he was some gonzo culinary Michael Palin. When I see this, I don’t feel like I’m missing much.
Closer to home, another deterrent was an ex-girlfriend in whom I witnessed a sad shift in the person pre- and post-smartphone. I don’t think she was unique; it’s not too much of a stretch to say that it fundamentally changes the fabric of how someone lives and experiences the world. Ideally, I’d hope to see a questioning rather than automatic adoption of new technology but it only seems that once something becomes a serious problem is it challenged and usage reduced.
There is an element of, the longer I leave it, the more my stubborn refusal to crossover grows. Recently, my resolve has been tested. I could never understand why no amount of time spent using a mobile phone could remove the continual look of perplexity and deep concentration on my Mum’s face when using one. But now I do and I feel myself going exactly the same way, in my 20s. The pace in the advent of new technology is outstripping my ability to intuitively use it and I’ve considered getting one just so I don’t slip too far behind. I fully acknowledge that a three year old can use a smartphone better than me. I dread the times when a stranger asks me to take a photo of them with their phone – it is far more than just pressing a button.
I wonder if I can life a long and full life without getting a smartphone. Probably not. Eventually, my phone will die and there will only be smartphones available to replace it – or some kind of wearable tech/implant hybrid that projects directly onto my retina. But I do quite like the thought.