Okay I’ll get it out of the way. I don’t have a smart phone. There I’ve said it. My penance is the embarrassment I feel admitting it, and that’s plenty.
Lacking a smart phone is not just a minor social fail, like being a teetotaller, not having a partner, or not being able to drive (hey at least I can drive). It is a failure far more drastic, marking you as fundamentally irrelevant to modern culture.
If you don’t have a car, you’re saving the environment. If you’re a renter, you can drop everything and hike through Mongolia for a few years without worrying whether the tenants are trashing your place. If you don’t have a smart phone you’re just pathetic – unless you’re over seventy and then you’re excused.
A dumb mobile phone is outdated while totally lacking vintage charm. While smaller than a smart phone, it manages to be the telecommunications equivalent of those big clunky computer monitors. Even checking it is embarrassing because you can only be checking two things: text messages and the time. Better not to take it out at all.
Nor does it work as a badge of honour that marks me as a struggling garret-dwelling artistic type. Many homeless people have smart phones, and good on them, as without a stable base it’s their only way of being plugged in.
I like to think not having a smart phone is a form of rebellion. But no-one cares about my tragic mid-life refusal to conform. No-one cares about anything. They are too busy looking at those tiny screens. While they all seem terribly serious and absorbed, everyone knows that everyone else is playing Temple Run, checking out potential sexual partners on Tinder or Grindr, or scrolling their friends’ selfies on SnapChat.
There’s been plenty of hand wringing about how the once-collective public space has been parcelled into thousands of tiny little mind spaces – why can’t iPhones be we-Phones? Being in a crowd feels weird these days, as if everything’s a bit virtual because the people around you are in parallel worlds unknown to you. They’re all off on their own unique trajectory (too often unfortunately into the path of oncoming traffic if the stats can be trusted).
You notice this lack much more when you don’t have your own personal brain extension to retreat to. You notice and you miss the collective ‘we’ even though that might be the most fragile of webs, like three people waiting for a train at a lonely suburban station. You feel the mental absence of those around you and you want to draw them back into the vaguest of curiosities about who you are.
That public loss is why, when bus or train drivers introduce themselves over their microphones and make corny jokes, everyone seems to enjoy it. One driver did this on the Gardenvale line going into the city on an overcast Sunday afternoon. As soon as his friendly ocker tones ruptured the dull anonymity of the carriage it felt like being on a country train going to some mystery location. ‘We’re expecting to reach our destination,’ he told us, ‘when the train reaches Flinders Street. Have a lovely trip.’ He was never going to get a gig on Saturday Night Live, but he made the whole carriage grin. For a few short minutes we were as one.
Smart phones don’t always successfully keep their owners plugged in. I’ve made the mistake of assuming that my smart phone owning friends would be reading their emails twenty-four hours a day. I’ve cancelled things at the last minute only to receive desperate calls that have put decades-long friendships at risk (‘I’ve just spent half an hour riding here from Collingwood – where the hell are you?’)
Then again I benefit from the giant well of knowledge that is other people’s smart phones. Walking through North Melbourne one day and hopelessly lost, I asked a labourer at a building site for directions, and he got out his iPhone. You don’t really need your own when there are others’ to fall back on.
I already spend too long in front of computer screens as a freelance writer and editor. I’m not exactly deprived of Jack Russell crosses obligingly teaching babies how to crawl, or elephants shedding tears when freed from decades in chains. I even have a PVR where I can store and watch as much television trash as I want. I don’t need yet another screen.
It’s just so uncool not to have a smart phone. But contrarian that I am, the more uncool it is the more stubbornly I’ll hold out against the cultural pressure, like someone who only gets away with not vaccinating their kids because most other parents do. One day, they’ll probably be a legal requirement. Till then, I’ll remain a digital dag.