It’s time to restore our phone/life balance
‘Nomophobia’ – stress at being separated from your mobile – is a word of the year
On honeymoon last month, I went cold turkey. And after the sweats, nausea and anxiety had subsided, I found that life without being surgically attached to my phone wasn’t all that bad.
As it languished at the bottom of my bag, I rediscovered the joy of uninterrupted conversation with my beloved, not caring about trivial messages, and the cheap thrill of map-reading – smugly navigating the west coast of Ireland without once relying on satnav.
Returning home, I vowed to remain on “honeymoon mode”, setting limits for my daily social media usage and Whatsappery (25 minutes) and leaving my handset blinking in the kitchen overnight – along with my halo, naturally.
So when, this week, mass panic ensued as millions of O2 customers, myself included, found ourselves disconnected thanks to a “software outage”, I was unruffled.
Admittedly, I initially thought the problem lay with my iphone, circa 2013. After five minutes of turning it off and on again, and attempting to connect to Southern railway’s Wi-fi on my way into work (turns out it’s even less reliable than their timetable. Surprise!), I admitted defeat and looked up.
A funny thing – other commuters were looking up, too. I made eye contact with a woman who shrugged and smiled. A real human connection on public transport – very 2008. Instinctively, I reached to message my husband and tell him that 32 million people were now in on our secret. But I couldn’t. Never mind, we could talk about it at home later. How quaint.
Meanwhile, in the office, colleagues were making calls on their desk phones. No one was stealing glances at Facebook during meetings. Wasn’t this the proof that an enforced digital detox is just what we all need?
Then, I started to get emails from friends: “I can’t get through to my boss to tell him our meeting has been cancelled – argh!”; “I was meant to get a call from the hospital today.”
Others told tales of boring work dinners they could have wriggled out of, if only the message had got through they didn’t have to attend, and offices where the landlines had been ditched long-ago, leaving employees twiddling their thumbs. Oh well, everyone down the pub then? If you can find it without Google Maps, that is.
That’s where I finally came unstuck. Travelling to meet friends for a Christmas wreath-making course (cooler than it sounds) and frustratedly trying to snatch a few seconds of Wi-fi at each tube station to look up directions – I realised how easy it is to trivialise the role of smartphones in our lives.
Of course, it didn’t matter a jot that I couldn’t book an Uber home, order Deliveroo, or mindlessly scroll through Twitter. So what? But our phones have become so much more than that.
Imagine you’re the daughter who relies on Whatsapp to message her profoundly deaf mother, or the cancer sufferer who needs to have their family on speed-dial – both real examples, tweeted to O2 by upset customers this week.
When we say that smartphones are ingrained in our lives, most of us rarely think about the people for whom they offer a lifeline. For whom a day without data isn’t just an inconvenience, but a potential catastrophe.
What the outage has proved is that there’s no going back. Nor should there be. But it’s going to take time before we find something approaching a phone-life balance.
Because, let’s face it, we’re guinea pigs – the first iphone was only launched in 2007 and as recently as 2014, according to Ofcom, 40 per cent of us still considered our laptops first choice for going online, with just 22 per cent turning to their phone. Yet just four years later, “nomophobia” – stress associated with being separated from your mobile – has been named a word of the year by Cambridge Dictionary.
Smartphones have, and will, make our lives easier in increasingly profound ways, we just haven’t worked them all out yet.
Years ago, I saw a documentary about the opening of the M1 in 1959. It was a shambles. The future had arrived, but we didn’t know how to use it – there were no speed limits, no lights and no barriers. Cars weren’t used to being driven for so long at top speeds, and 100 burnt out in the first 10 miles of the motorway on its first day.
It seems absurd to us now. And so will mobile meltdowns like this week’s. Although, as a few wags online have pointed out, O2’s entire communications network might have been out, but they were still able to send many customers their bills. Some things never change.
Mobile madness: it’s easy to trivialise the role of phones in life