My dad was the first in his office to buy a Palm Pilot, my grandmother the first in our family to own a mobile phone, a computer, an iPad and a Panasonic bread maker. In contrast, I was in the last batch of people converted to the smartphone, to social media and to the so-called 'digital era' in general. I was especially averse to smartphones, fearing a lifetime of pinging notifications and being pinned down by long discarded schoolmates. I hated stupid smartphones. That is until I started a relationship with someone who lived over 10,000 kilometres away. That was the moment that I went over to the dark side and purchased an iPhone...
What on earth would I have done without you, iPhone? You gave me the tools to maintain a close bond with someone living painfully far away. You allowed us to keep up momentum by giving us the means of sharing hours of conversation, music, laughter and mood swings, of exchanging snapshots of the weird, wonderful and downright dull moments of each other's day through photos, links and screen shots. You'll be glad to hear that I have now moved to that country 10,958 kilometres away and our messaging is now delightfully perfunctory. Be still, dear iPhone, thy work is done.
Or is it?
Smartphones are pretty darn good at uniting people. However, how do they fare under the pressure of having to unite larger groups of people when conflicting time zones and work schedules act as obstacles to meaningful or sustained conversation?
My mother, grandmother and younger brother are all UK-based. My older brother lives in Saudi Arabia, my dad in France and my mum's partner is currently based in Thailand. I hardly ever Skype anyone outside of the female contingent and we only see each other as a unit once a year. Yet whenever I talk about my family (cue 'misty eyes') I always emphasise how very close we are.
It would be inaccurate and overly simplistic to attribute this closeness to the smartphone era alone. I for one have always been a hopelessly family oriented person. Whilst I am neither friendless nor housebound, family has always been my common denominator in, well, everything. Having moved from France to the UK when I was an impossibly awkward pre-adolescent, family quickly became a safe space, a familiar zone set nicely apart from the weirdness of new schools and jargon (in my day everyone seemed particularly keen on things being 'safe' or 'sick'). Even once I was out of my awkward phase, once I had left home, was living abroad and traveling solo, family always remained at the epicentre.
Surely smartphones, despite all their snazziness, are incapable of preserving this warm family buzz: one person is always asleep while the other is breakfasting, another on a deadline when you want a lengthy chat, one sending enviable images of exotic locations whilst you're sat on a freezing bus to work...
The messages in our 'Family' WhatsApp group are totally incongruent. However, the biggest success of smartphones, and of WhatsApp in particular, is that it allows us to keep our finger on the pulse of the mundane. I can send a picture of a clothes shop in Montevideo called 'Tits' which will swiftly be followed by one of my brother training for the Dubai marathon or one of my younger brother's breakfast of Coco Pops and frozen milk. Images like these are hopelessly routine and of no interest whatsoever to any outsider. And that's exactly what's magical about them. Apps like WhatsApp allow us to recreate that intimacy, that same safe space I craved as an awkward teenager and help to ensure that, no matter how many different time zones decide to wreak havoc, my family can and always will remain at the epicentre.