What Was Life Like Before Smartphones?
The ancients tell of a time when we weren’t all connected.
One of the reasons creative people in the public eye are paid so well is the number of mind-numbing media events they have to endure where they are asked the same questions over and over and attempt to answer as if it is the first time the thought has ever occurred to them. If you have seen any of the voluminous press coverage creator Charlie Brooker has participated in for the new season of his show “Black Mirror” you will note the commonalities; you can’t blame Charlie Brooker for that, there are only so many ways you can respond to “the future looks grim, huh?” That said, here is something that stood out to me:
In 30 years’ time there will be a drama series set in 2016. Characters will be on their phones and the viewers will look at it like we do with Mad Men and smoking: “Look at them! They’re all on their phones in meetings! Well, of course, they didn’t know about the thumb cancer those things give you…” Having said that, I remember life before smartphones, and it was fucking boring. The most exciting thing you could do was get a cover for your phone, or play Snake. I don’t think we’ll replace them until we get in-eye contact lenses that do the same thing; so we can stare at people while we’re ignoring them. We should try and make people more interesting than phones.
Fine, yes, sure, let’s make people more interesting. (I mean, good luck: Talking to other people is agony and each time you do it you die a little inside.) But back up a second there:
I remember life before smartphones, and it was fucking boring.
Do you remember life before smartphones? Of course you do. Even if you accept the idea that time has slowed down to such an extent that what we used to measure as days now count as years there is no one who is reading this sentence who does not recall life before smartphones. Even if you were one of the people who bought the very first iPhone — and whatever your feelings about Apple, when we talk about the smartphone era what we really mean is the moment when every early-adopting asshole was so smug and intolerable about their iPhone that the rest of us decided either to conform by buying one ourselves or show how we weren’t susceptible to advertising and peer pressure by buying a different consumer product that did something similar — you did it less than a decade ago.
So cast your memory back to that time before smartphones. (You probably had a flip phone, like Adele in that video.) What do you mostly remember? Were you anxious? Did you dread looking at your phone to see what was on it? Did you dread not being able to look at your phone to see what was on it? Were you jittery and irritated if for some reason you couldn’t use your phone and were forced to be alone with your own thoughts? Did you find it difficult sustaining focus on a single thing for more than a minute?
I think if you reflect honestly on that era you will have to answer that not only were any of those things not a prominent part of your personality, but also their absence offered a degree of equanimity which you would today perceive as impossible to deal with. Back before smartphones you were considerably less apprehensive than you are in the present. What we are now being sold subconsciously is the idea that the lack of constant agitation was somehow mundane.
Life before smartphones was boring because you didn’t feel crazy all the time. It was boring because you could still believe that what happened next might be okay. It was boring because you could look beyond what was in your hand and what you saw there was ambiguous enough that you needed to determine its shape on your own, rather than passively accepting whatever was presented to you. Life before smartphones was boring to the extent that your brain had to do actual work back then, and there is nothing your brain hates more than doing actual work. Your lazy brain is trying to trick you into thinking things were worse when you forced it to exercise all the time. Don’t believe your brain! Life now is boring, your brain is just confusing you with fear so that you won’t make a big deal about it.
Listen: At any second your brain is going to tell you that you should click away, that I am just some Luddite who hates the future because he is afraid of progress, but that is your brain trying to keep you from putting it back on the treadmill. Do not listen to your brain. Write this down before you forget, before your brain convinces you that you should go check out something else, before oh why bother you left right around the time I brought up iPhones, didn’t you? I’m all alone here with my stupid, head-hurting brain. How can I punish it for all the pain it’s causing me? I know, I’ll go look at Twitter!