I find myself infuriatingly attached to my smartphone. I pay it more attention than I pay my health, spend longer looking at it every week than I probably do looking at a book (shameful I know), and enter a state of sheer panic in those few horrifying moments when I think it’s somehow escaped my line of sight or grasp long enough to be stolen – only for it to turn up moments later in the depths of my permanently overloaded handbag.
I started writing this post just over a week ago. Ironically, the next night I managed to lose my iPhone somewhere in the gutter at Tottenham Court Road while juggling a McDonalds, playing the responsible adult for a somewhat wobbly colleague, and trying to navigate my way on to a night bus at 2am.
The next morning I woke up with not only a stinking headache, but a very expensive hangover.
And then the realisation struck that in losing this little black box, I’d entered the Bermuda Triangle of communication. My instant, all-knowing, city guide, navigator, workstation, timepiece and magical music box was no more. My initial feeling was a sort of multi-layered despair; despair at having been silly enough to lose it, despair at having to head out to work with no way of checking my day ahead or letting anyone know I was late, but, more than that, despair that I felt so useless without it in my hand.
It got me thinking even more about the unerring reliance on technology – and in particular, smart phones – that I and so many people in my life have. About how much the way we communicate has changed, and how I feel about it, my own frustrations at the way I’ve adapted to the change, and its impact on my relationships.
As I sit in a restaurant with friends, I look at a carefully laid table; plate, fork, knife, side plate, wine glass, iPhone. I find myself thinking about how rude it is to check facebook at the dinner table. And yet, as I await my starter, I scroll through titbits of life shared by people I care little about, barely know, or think of with disdain – titbits much less interesting than those being shared by those I’m sitting with; those I care about. Is the constipated baby of a girl I barely knew (or liked) at school more interesting than the career struggles of the friend I’ve been close to for six years?
At the pub, my colleagues and I wind down after a hard week, intermittently nudging and caressing our little black boxes to see what our online world has been getting up to while we’ve been indulging in actual facetime.
I sit on a bus and stare at a group of heavily-made up, noisy teenage girls. Their inane chatter irritates me at first, then I remember that my friends and I were exactly the same – though probably louder and decidedly more northern – and smile. Then I think about how glad I am that our chatter wasn’t punctuated every three minutes by a domino-style drop of heads, swipe of fingers, lolling open of mouths, and instant dissection of a facebook status, tweet, or profile picture. I also think about how fortunate we were that our teenage lives weren’t broadcast across the web; that our social standing, emotional welfare, or delicate hormonal balance couldn’t be trashed at the nudge of a touch screen, the sharing of a photo, or an ill-timed tweet.
I started thinking even more about my online world as we were reunited after a week with a phone capable of little more than calls and texts. As I fell comfortably back into my routine of grasping for it at any moment of calm, boredom, or the few minutes between bus stops; expectant, hopeful, curious, or seeking an answer to a mundane question.
It turns out that losing my phone has made me realise what it was I really miss sometimes; unfiltered, unphotographed, undisturbed life. Proper, undiluted eye contact. The feeling of giving – and having – unwavering attention. Real focus and concentration on a task – any task. Learning and absorbing information in chunks that aren’t bite-sized and backlit.
I can’t remember the last time I made a meal or cake that looked remotely interesting or colourful that wasn’t immediately instagrammed and shared with a bunch of people whose interest in my life spans all of 6 seconds. I can’t remember the last time I saw something funny, had an interesting thought, or came up with a daft one-liner without thinking about how it would fit into 140 characters with maximum impact, to be shared with 600 people who will probably never read it as they flick mundanely through the last 200 tweets in their timeline.
Undoubtedly, my online world has brought me a wealth of good things. This blog has been an outlet for creativity and a saviour at times of frustration. Twitter has opened my eyes to what’s happening in the wider world, what I can do to make an impact, and shown me the kindness of strangers on many occasions. Blogs and news pages are a source of new knowledge and inspiration. And online dating has, well, provided me with endless comic material. (see here for further reference).
But it strikes me that sometimes my little black box is stifling. That I climb into it to avoid doing things that take real effort, time or concentration. I find myself frustrated at feeling like there aren’t enough hours in the day to do things I want to do; exercise, writing, cooking proper meals, or reading some of the dozens of books that are piled expectantly around my bedroom, corners tucked under after giving up a third of the way through. Yet I find the time to wander aimlessly around my little black box, sometimes for hours, most of the time wondering what on earth I’m doing there (much the same feeling as that of being in McDonalds at 2am on a Thursday night).
As I approach the celebration of a quarter of a century since I came kicking and and screaming into the world, I find myself thinking more about making each day count, and wondering about the person I’d be if I didn’t waste so much time and energy. About the fact that I want to look back on each year and feel like I’ve achieved something important, done something good, reached a goal, helped someone, created memories that will endure. And it strikes me that if you continue to do the same thing, you will get the same results.
So I hope to use this jaded ramble as a springboard to action. As a kid, I once had a pet guinea pig that we kept temporarily in a large cardboard box. I thought he looked sad in such a dreary box, and that he must miss being able to see outside. So I decided to take action and cut him some lovely windows and doors (see diagram below). Needless to say, my architectural adjustments got me into a somewhat sticky situation – and resulted in lots of frustration for my poor mother as she tried to coax him out from behind our sideboard. But I don’t doubt he had a lovely time enjoying his new found freedom and the fresh air.
So I’m doing the same for myself. My little black box feels in distinct need of some airholes; windows, even. To let in some fresh air and light; to give me a bit of clarity and focus. I hope to use it to make my twenty-fifth year one I will look back upon fondly through vivid memories, books read, fitness improved, prose written, and knowledge gained – rather than through my Facebook timeline.