or: How I Never Stopped Worrying and Haven’t Come to Love the Bomb
It was never a decision until it was. It wasn’t about anything until it was about a whole bunch of anachronistic personal concerns.
In 2009 I withdrew a refurbished nokia E71x from its uniformly brown box, having just purchased it for one hundred dollars at an excess cargo store. I did not know then that it would be my communicative conduit for the entire next decade, nor that it would eventually become a kind of symbolic totem. A physical extension of futile concerns directed at Consumer Data Privacy, Corporate Ecosystem Control, Global Manufacturing Ethics, and Guided User Experience.
Seems like a lot of connections to have for something that still boasts about its blazing fast 3G every time it is turned on.
When its temporary plastic screen protector was still intact, my phone would not have looked too out of place. In 2010 the handheld personal computing revolution was still in its relative infancy, and the iPhone was the undoubted leader of the charge. However, it was still just enough of a status symbol that the various X, Plus, Pro and Max designations were unneeded to secure it above the filthy digits of the average consumer. Android was also in early days, infamous for being the dark-horse choice of those already exasperated with the ubiquity of apple’s broad marketing.
There was not an absolute consensus is the thing. No sea of shiny rectangles. There were cobalt blue sliders clicking open to reveal their secreted keyboards, next to chunky grey flip phones. Emojis were still emoticons and text messages were one hundred and sixty characters long.
I don’t position this as some sort of lost paradise, the navel gazing, nostalgia tinted, halcyon days of a bygone youth.
It’s just somewhere I never left.
It wasn’t intentional at first, since the nokia was easy to continue having. It never broke and it never slowed down under an onslaught of obsolescence-minded updates. Freshly graduated and frugally minded it was a non-decision to just keep it until it ceased functioning.
That wouldn’t happen, and I kept on keeping it. Even when friends would offer an old (yet vastly newer) phone, I would give them a hopefully graceful refusal. It became an active, continuing “lifestyle choice.” Maybe it was a kind of techno-luddite elitism, or a resistance to change for the sake of it. I honestly didn’t think about it all that much at first. It just was my phone. I had a phone, and it did all the things I wanted a phone to do. Nearly all the things a phone could do.
Those are no longer the same thing. The nokia is now so far into being technologically deficient that there are minor social consequences to keeping it. Its inability to display emojis was disastrous for a message received with the intention of being preceded by a winky face. This simple pictorial aimed to lift the emotional tone on its broad shoulders but was instead neatly excised, allowing the brutal truth of the text to land unsoftened. Similarly, a friend once messaged that he would not be able to make it to the previously planned games night, followed by a picture of his newborn son. Pictures also do not display, meaning my return message of “Oh, that’s unfortunate,” was perhaps the incorrect sort of response.
There is a literal disconnect between my existence and the app-focused striving of every business, from banks to parking garages. I have never ubered an uber or insta’d a gram. I would say this is similar to being of a different era, but grandparents worldwide have proven proficient enough at leveraging social media to share pictures. I’m offline the moment I step out of my apartment, which precludes me from checking my feed when waiting in line, or from retrieving a fact to bolster an argument. I’ll sit awkwardly across from someone checking their notifications, unable to even politely pretend to do the same convincingly for more than a moment.
Even the basic structure of modern communication has moved past me. I still treat texts as if they were an email. Formatted paragraphs that tick away at the now ornamental character counter. The messages I receive back come fast and thick, understandable since the interface of the other person is that of a bubbly chat window. Heaven forefend that two of these ping-pong conversations happen at once as they march into my sole inbox as a mess of unthreaded messages.
So many little difficulties and literally no barriers to having it replaced for “free.” Still, it was my phone for the decade. And as twentytwenty begins it remains so. How is my dogged insistence against an upgrade any different from the cyclical process of finding a new cultural boogeyman? Isn’t any excuse I make in favour of keeping it just another rationalization from a too-earlily ossified mind, justifying a bone-rattling fear of change as actually just being prudent, thank-you-very-much?
Perhaps so. I certainly feel at odds with the mechanics of the modern internet—old man yells at cloud computing. Like Netflix’s insistence on shuffling the icons and order of shows in “My List.” Or when it tries to autoplay the next episode but I want to digest it for a hot second and hang out with the credits, so I sigh and find the setting to turn that off, but then it still zoops the ending of a show into an stupidly small box and tries to autoplay a trailer for another thing. And all this even though tuca and bertie still has jokes to tell. It’s a netflix original™, they have to know there is still a joke. Don’t take that joke from me!
And (hear the sound of a wooden box that once held soap being dragged into position over asphalt), let’s take a moment to yell about how the same feeling crackles at corporations. They cloak themselves in whimsy while advancing their monetary interests at all (underpaid human) cost. amazon’s sanitized to the point of parody commercials about a delivery driver bringing joy via hand presented Christmas gifts contrasts comically against the grim reality of warehouse injury and carefully deniable courier disasters. The likely contents of that package are a NIMBY’s top tech gift, an amazon ring! You know, the ring that has poor cybersecurity since it’s not there to be useful but to collect data that amazon can sell to cops.
These frustrations kind of map onto what the smartphone is too. They are carefully engineered to increase engagement, the subject of millions of dollars of design and flow consultation. Creating patterns among users and then harvesting them as grist for a machine designed to turn information into advertising. It’s an accepted reality, a trade off among a certain generation, and not considered at all by the next.
But it still unavoidably irks me. This might be is what it is like to see social upheaval, and to be ill equipped to deal with it. (At least my dislike is directed upward at the tech monarchy rather than at oh, say…gender nonconformists.) I know that were I to start anew with a modern device, I’d struggle against its inherent design maybe only for a short while. Likely it would not be too long before I gained competency with typing on a touchscreen, and most of the bloatware and tracking could be uprooted with a rootkit. However it would still feel like a demotion.
Purposely built, single use, equipment is what I have a great affinity for. GPSes, shoes, mp3 players, backpacks and monitors; all things I want designed for durability and usability. And that’s something I’ve found in my phone. It does its limited tasks, and has done so for ten years. I still like it.
I’m no stranger at clinging to maybe meaningless crusades, (not eating meat, trying to get traditionally published, not causing a rube goldberg of suffering at every step of my consumerism), and so, in the dawn of the new decade, I’m still carrying this phone with me.
I don’t know long it will be viable, or what I’m going to do next, but for the time being—as my common refrain goes to those first marvelling at its anachronism—at least my battery lasts for a week.