Why we can’t leave our phones alone

I was walking down Cannon Street with my colleague Jess, we were chit-chatting about our new boss’s imminent downfall – while avoiding a thicket of phone-carrying pedestrians.
phone
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“My God, what’s happened to us?” I said, weaving past a distracted walker. “When did we become a city of zombies?”

Jess was holding her own phone. “When? About the same time smartphones became a thing. Really, don’t worry about it.”

But I did worry about it. I worried about many things: Trump, the economy, the Lords blocking Brexit (I used to worry about climate change, but I’m over that now – just like everyone else).

I said, “So what, this is normal now? Is that what you’re saying?”

“Sorry?”

She’d been looking into her phone.

“Oh, for goodness sake.”

“I’m joking. I heard you. And to answer your question, yes, it is normal now.”

The evenness of Jess’s tone suggested acceptance. This was clearly something she’d boxed-off as a non-problem. The last time we discussed smartphones she was just as brisk. It’s just how we live, she said; what’s the point in complaining? By raising a gentle objection I’d cast myself as a heretic – worse, as yesterday’s man. Nonetheless, I understood where she was coming from. I didn’t agree, but I got it. As it happens I don’t have a problem with smartphones themselves, just their overuse. Whatever, Jess said. And that was pretty much where we’d left it.

Jess may have thought me dramatic but I still consider smartphone overuse a major societal problem. This overuse comes in many forms (selfies at the dinner table is a particular horror) but I want to zoom in on smartphones in the street – specifically, smartphones in the hands of shuffling, semi-present pedestrians. The reason being I think I have a profound insight to share. I believe I have it all figured it out.

Yes, I know why we walk around looking into our phone. It’s simple really – it’s because we’re all addicted to the Internet.

This isn’t necessarily news. I myself can’t keep my eyes off my screens for more than a few minutes at a time. Our phones have become a part of us; we’re cyborgs in all but name – happy and willing machine-people on the lookout for the next update, add-on or upgrade (think about it: when was the last time you met someone who didn’t own a smartphone?) We shouldn’t be surprised really, after all the Western World is hyper-connected, and tech is cheap. As a result, we are now a specced-up species.

Our forbears would consider this strange, but we don’t mind at all – because phones are marvelous. They provide everything. When we’re lonely they provide company; when we’re bored they provide distraction. We are never lost or adrift; never off the grid – we are ever traceable and always contactable. Nothing is irretrievable. Our phones are also a vital outlet. When we fire our feelings into the vortex of social media we know we are being watched. The hope that someone cares is ever present; those stars and likes are pinpricks of joy. The ebb and flow of information is dazzling, all-consuming – breathlessly liberating.

It seems odd now, but we used to worry about spending too much time online. In 2002 I read an article about ‘Internet addiction’. The sombre piece, featuring detox centres for young net-addled citizens, warned of an incoming crisis: the Web was going to ruin the youth. ‘Something had to be done’, however quite what was never clear. Beyond the usual bland advice (‘take up a hobby’, ‘go for a walk’) the writer had no answers.

Nevertheless, it was a grave issue that had to be addressed or at the very least, discussed. It all seemed terribly pressing. And yet here we all are, over a decade later, wired up to the ying-yang and loving it.

You don’t read about Internet addiction anymore, of course. That’s because we’re all junkies. What was once viewed as a problem is now everyday business.

With the concept of connectivity in mind you can see how boring it is to simply walk down the road. When our phones are glued to our hands, it’s difficult to look away (even for a matter of minutes). These days being alone with our brain feels like an inconvenience. We no longer daydream, no longer ponder, the internal void has become something to erase – to fear, even. Consequently, the mere act of walking – where it is just you and your mind – feels like an empty experience.

Jess looked at me askew. “I’m not sure I agree with you there,” she said.

“Of course, that’s because you’re one of the addicts. Don’t take that the wrong way, Jessica – I’m one too.”

As we neared the office she turned to face me.

“I get where you’re coming from,” she said. “But is it really so bad?”

I thought about it for a moment; when I responded, however, Jess was looking into her iPhone.

“Sorry, just a minute, it’s Gabby, she’s sent me an urgent message.”

“Ha, how ironic. Smartphones have ruined conversation. Isn’t that a problem?”

“Quiet.”

Again, a single word ended the matter. Perhaps Jess was right, maybe it was fine. It’s probably too early to tell. I’ll ask my grandchildren, if I ever have any. I’m sure they’ll have figured it all out by then – provided discussion still exists. Even if it doesn’t, I’m sure we’ll be connected in some way.

About the author:

Marcello is a London born writer and small cog in a large corporate machine. He writes about relationships, low-grade office machinations, and life in the capital. His first novel novel Marcello: Love in the City is out now – you can buy it here.

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