Do you really need an iPhone?
28 / Apr / 2020
The illusion of technology in the modern age
I was once asked by a friend in a bar in Madrid, who was both too young and too old (and too drunk) to know better, what life was like before the internet. She looked up at me (she is rather smaller than me) with shiny eyes, like a disciple might gaze at an ancient guru who could tell of older, better times, when life was simpler and wiser. A time when we were still in touch with our souls and we hadn’t yet fallen from grace.
I laughed (what else could I do?) at the idea there was a line drawn between us, that she thought life for her was irrevocably different for her than it would ever be for me, because I had known what it was like to live not entirely surrounded by, submerged in technology.
But, as I tried to piece together something sensible to say while being acutely aware her friends were looking at me as if I was an ancient idiot, I realised, beneath the drunken sheen, there was a sincerity to her question we all feel at some point in our lives.
Evolution, not revolution
It is the temptation of every generation is to think everything they have is new, or arose just before they became aware of themselves. This is particularly the case in our current era. The shift in media from the printed to the aural and then the visual has led us to believe, because we are seeing or hearing things for the first time as opposed to merely reading or hearing about them, they are new, despite being only new to us.
Moreover, innovation, rather than continuity, is how products and ideas are sold to the public. Everything is presented as if it is entirely fresh, especially in its packaging, which emphasises sleekness and shiny newness. But the majority of innovations in the modern age are solely around communication, sharing, and miniaturisation, none of which are in themselves new concepts but merely an extension or acceleration of what we already had.
The true innovations were the recording of images and sound, electricity, the steam then internal combustion engine, wireless transmission, mass production via the assembly line, powered flight and the microchip. The majority of those had been introduced by the First World War, making them them more than 100 years old, while the microchip dates back to just after the Second World War.
Those were the things people thought couldn’t be done and were proved wrong, and paved the way for everything we have today.
Is it more than just convenience?
Take for example an Apple iPhone. I have one by me while I write this. It is an XS, one of the most advanced and reliable portable electronic communication devices one can imagine, or at least imaging owning as an everyday object. When I was a teenager and first went to work, it didn’t cross my mind such a thing would ever be available to the public, let alone be necessary (even though people were already talking about smart telephones, and PDAs were available).
Of course, I didn’t need an iPhone then, and I don’t now, not really. It’s not an essential item, it just makes things I could do already more convenient. Most of what is on the iPhone is designed to justify the cost of buying it and engender the notion we should carry it with us always. Otherwise we would quickly tire of it and leave it in a box.
(Just for your information, I wrote the first draft of this in a notebook. I used a cheap pen taken from a Hilton Hotel in Chicago. The ballpoint pen was invented in 1888, so I am told on Wikipedia. Of course, I could have used any printed encyclopaedia to learn that information, and I am sure, among the many volumes my father gave me from his voluminous collection, there there must be something on the history of the pen. The notebook, so I learn, was invented in the 14th or 15th century. Hemingway would, I am sure, appreciate that he could have started his wanderings at any time from the close of the Middle Ages, although not with a Moleskine.)
A glorified FiloFax
So what, apart from offering me an online electronic encyclopaedia within easy reach, does my iPhone XS do for me? Principally, it is a calendar, address book, notebook, email exchanger, telephone, music player, camera, map, to do list, and credit card holder/wallet, all rolled into one device that fits into most of my pockets. And it connects to the internet, which is how most apps work, covering social media and photo sharing. Video conferencing has recently been added, along with an ebook reader and a version of a measuring tape.
When I was younger, everyone who was serious about their life and wanted to show it had a FiloFax—a diary and organiser that was highly adaptable so that different modules could be added and removed to add or take away functions at will. My sister had one, and I have one now. I have two actually, one A4 and the other pocket sized, and they can be a calendar, notebook, to do list, address book, map, ruler, and credit card holder/wallet.
The advantage of the personal organiser is that paper is a much more versatile surface than a touch screen. You can write how and where you like, erase and replace with ease, pop in drawings, create any kind of structure for note taking and create cross links between information with the utmost of ease. Moreover, you have a permanent record, if you so choose, of the evolution of what you have been working on, so you can always go back to previous versions, without fretting over whether you saved it.
When I was younger, I took a Walkman music cassette player everywhere I went, and later added a mobile phone to, presumably, another pocket. I took a camera when I wanted to.
So all that is left the iPhone can do that I couldn’t in the early 90s was to send and receive emails and access the internet.
The curse of modern life
Email is for course ‘electronic mail’. Need I say more? The only advantages of email over actual mail are convenience and speed of transmission (if you discount the cost of a stamp as it was then versus the cost of a phone and the monthly subscription to have it connected to a network). But who can really say, if they experienced life beforehand, that their lives have really been enhanced by email? I could, and probably should, do all of my communication via the phone.
It would be quicker, more straightforward and lead to fewer misunderstandings, plus it would confine that aspect of my work to defined portions of the day, rather than letting it spill over into every damn moment, as it does when it’s on my phone. Indeed, companies are looking into banning internal emails, because they are spending huge amounts of money on permanently storing messages that will never be read again. And I am sure, if we used it more, the postal service would get much better again for sending documents.
And what about accessing the internet (and social media) via a phone? We connect to it, all of us, incessantly, day in day out, wherever we are, whomever we are with, whether we need to or not. But it has not made us more clever. We do not know more, rather we know less, retain less.
Our eyes have become mirrors, forever illuminated by the flickering light from our devices. Our brains are merely the polished inside of a dead-end of the information superhighway; a place for data to collect, coagulate, stagnate and become a miasma of nothing, detached from all reference points, a clump of unconnected information with no beginning and end, and no direction.
As a result, we remember nothing, our eyes and minds flickering from one shiny window to another, with only vague ideas floating around our heads. The iPhone encourages dithering and vacillating, the not making of plans. We should be meeting someone. Who? Just leave the house and send a text on the way. Let’s meet at the coffee shop. What do you want? I don’t know. I don’t know anything anymore.
Can I live without it?
At the beginning of the year, I spent two weeks without my iPhone after it was lost. And after an initial withdrawal, I quickly got over not having it.
I made arrangements before I left home, I checked things in advance, and when I was outside, I looked around more, took in my surroundings, and connected with the world. I was more present, both for myself and for others. I was happier, and less bothered by the news and online nonsense.
And then a replacement iPhone arrived. I grabbed it like a greedy child and filled it up with data. I gazed it at its shiny screen, happy to have it back. But then I looked at it and realised I didn’t want to go back to how I was before, mindlessly using the phone as a replacement for thinking, especially when on my own.
I have removed most of the apps, stripping it back to its core functions. And now I turn it off when I go to bed and leave it in another room. I said earlier I don’t need it, not really. Of course I don’t, but still, it does make life a whole lot more convenient.
L. A. Davenport