Seven Things That Were Better Before Smartphones
Illustration by Mr Stephan Schmitz
Ahead of Apple’s new iPhone unveiling, we look back to simpler, more spontaneous times, before our all-seeing, all-knowing devices took over our lives.
A major camera upgrade? The first fully waterproof iPhone? Coloured handsets? As rumours swirl about what new features and functionality Apple will put at our fingertips with the unveiling of the iPhone 7 tomorrow in San Francisco, it is surely time to take stock of how totally enslaved we’ve become to our smartphones.
In the space of a few short years, they have come to dominate our lives, and it is now hard to envisage existing without them. Anxious when they’re out of reach or out of battery, we instinctively react whenever they make a noise. The question is: are we using smartphones, or are they using us? We don’t want you to think we’re paranoid Luddites – so here are some reminders of what life was like before we became hostages to our handsets.
We didn’t behave like laboratory rats
A 1950s study in behavioural psychology demonstrated that laboratory rats experienced increased levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure, after receiving unexpected rewards for pushing a lever in their cages. Even though the rewards eventually stopped, the rats became addicted to the lever. Our brains now behave in the same way when we find ourselves compulsively checking whether a Facebook post, Instagram picture or tweet has been liked — and it’s thanks to the smartphone.
We engaged with the world around us
We have but a limited time on this mortal coil and it is therefore incumbent on us to take as much of it in as possible. This can be achieved by the simple expedient of looking around, although very few of us now choose to do so. The next time you find yourself on a busy street in a city centre, try standing still and counting how long it takes before somebody walks into you because they are too busy looking at their smartphones. And don’t even get me started on Pokémon Go.
We had conversations
That’s right, we talked to each other, sometimes maintaining the thrust and parry of meaningful communication for whole minutes, even hours. Not any more. Now, all it takes for a conversation, however serious, interesting or important, to come to a shuddering halt is a WhatsApp or iMessage notification to ping, bleep or chirrup (whatever your preference).
We could argue for hours
Once upon a time, it was possible for conversations about seemingly insignificant facts to develop into heated debates, which might then transmogrify into raging arguments. This was a bygone age in which the knowledge we carried around in our brains really mattered; a more innocent time before all of history was made instantly available by accessing Google and Wikipedia — and before everyone who entered a pub quiz became a cheat.
We worked less
The always-on world of email has made slaves of us all — not only slaves to our devices but to the people who employ us. The average user unlocks his phone more than 80 times a day, with the email inbox being just as addictive as social media, and a good deal more stressful. Checking work emails out of office hours and, worse, during our holidays, means that we end up working 13 months a year — for no extra money.
We could read maps
And even if we couldn’t, taking a wrong turn might lead to an unexpected discovery or adventure. Now, rather than relying on those impossible to hold and fold maps of yore, we prefer to place our faith in a disembodied voice linked to a satellite that is tracking our every movement — even though it leads to rising stress levels as we realise how much battery life that voice-satellite combo is draining from our precious devices, and how thoroughly lost we’ll be when it’s gone.
We didn’t feel the need to record everything
Go to any music festival, gig or sporting event these days and the sea of glowing rectangles will betray how few people are genuinely experiencing what they’ve presumably paid good money to see. Instead, they prefer to witness second-hand, peering up at their smartphones rather than drinking in what’s unfolding before them, all in the name of trying to record for posterity the fact they were there via badly taken photographs and video clips that nobody will ever see.