Mobile phones basically haven't progressed since the Nokia 1110

It's the pinnacle of phones. Why try harder, asks Jacob Strauss.

There is a woman looking at me. I see her in the corner of my eye as I browse through t-shirts in a clothes shop. A glance over to her tells me that it’s not me but the thing in my hand that is inviting this attention. Her tone is of callous sarcasm; “nice phone”.

I may not be used to hearing this from complete strangers, but the general sentiment of this comment is often directed at me and my Nokia 1100. People regularly offer remarks when they see the strange old-fashioned device, usually something along the lines of how this isn’t the ‘90s anymore.

Like most phones from that early era of mobile technology, the Nokia 1100 does not have many of the features that we expect from something that fits in our pockets today. It doesn’t have a camera, access to the internet, a music player, a GPS, a touch screen or even a colour screen. But while smartphones boast all of these things and much more, I still think that the classic Nokia represented the peak in development of mobile phones.

The universally recognisable Nokia 3210, released in 1999, was the first mobile not to have a visible external aerial on the handset. This feat of technology may seem unimpressive now, but it created a phone that was actually “mobile”. We now had a pocket-sized device with which we could make phone calls and send text messages. Since this day – the golden age of mobile phones – all other technological advances have only really equipped the archetypal Nokia model with unessential extras.

The classic Nokia may not be able to do everything a modern phone can, but it does what it does very well. Firstly, they are incredibly reliable. When smartphones crash, they crash hard. A friend recently spent a whole day trying to bring his new Nokia Lumia back to life after it decided to stop working, but even after two separate trips through the washing machine and countless drops onto hard surfaces, my Nokia is still in a perfect working condition.

On top of this, classic Nokias have amazing battery lives (I charge mine about once a week), all the necessary apps (Calculator, stopwatch, alarm clock and reminders. You don’t need any others), and, for entertainment, Nokias offer the best game there is: Snake.

That list may appear small in comparison to what a smartphone offers, but I can’t see how much, if anything, the mind-blowing technology that has been piled into our phones has done to improve our lives. In fact, they’re worse than nothing: smartphones have an actively negative influence.

Smartphones make communication and entertainment so easy that real-life social interaction becomes the hard option and thus declines. And, as we can all testify, even when a smartphone-owner is reluctantly drawn from the virtual world into a social situation, their attention is constantly sucked back by beeping alerts and flashing lights.

Despite this dependence, outside the dark recesses of today’s youth, there aren’t many who would argue that their smartphone constitutes a necessity for life. When I present my argument against the superiority of the smartphone to people, their response is generally something like “but it just makes life easier, doesn’t it?” This, to some extent, I can see. Why carry around a camera, an iPod and a phone when you could own one device that operates all these functions? Who needs to own and know how to read maps when you have something in your pocket that will direct you anywhere? What could be more useful than having the internet – the entire accumulation of human knowledge – at one’s finger tips at all times?

So yes, maybe smartphones do indeed make life easier. But how easy do we want life to be? The day when we can fulfil all human activities – eat, sleep, earn, shop, reproduce and excrete – without leaving our high-tech toilet chair is not a day towards which we strive. Without some challenges, there isn’t much left.

Azaz, on Syria's northern border with Turkey. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Syria's broken people: how Assad destroyed a nation

 Whoever leads the country after this conflict comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins, but a ravaged people, too. 

For a moment, the residents of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya dreamed of a better future. After living under siege for more than two years, civilians from these two Shia villages in the rebel-held Idlib province of north-western Syria were finally allowed to leave earlier this month.

Buses arrived to evacuate them to regime-held areas in Aleppo province, snaking through hostile territory. They eventually stopped at an agreed crossover point, between regime- and rebel-held areas in the Rashideen district of western Aleppo.

These journeys are long: it can take hours, sometimes days, to travel just a few miles. Checkpoints, angry negotiations and deep distrust between opposing factions (even when they are apparently on the same side) ensure that such transfers are never as efficient as they should be.

As families waited at the Rashideen checkpoint, with some disembarking to stretch their legs or to let their children play outside, a powerful car bomb exploded. More than 126 civilians were killed in the blast – the deadliest attack of its kind in more than a year.

The fatalities included 60 children. The act was made all the more unconscionable by the way that they were deliberately targeted. A truck ostensibly providing humanitarian relief parked beside the buses and began distributing sweets and ice cream, causing the children to swarm towards it. Then  it exploded.

One of the most striking features of this conflict is its seemingly endless capacity to spiral into greater depravity. Both sides have butchered and brutalised one another in a fashion that would make the Marquis de Sade recoil. At times, it can seem as if each side is competing with the other to adopt more sadistic and cruel methods. When they do, it is ordinary civilians who invariably pay the biggest price.

Even children have not been spared from the privations of this vicious war, as the events in Rashideen demonstrate. Last August, it was the image of Omran Daqneesh, the stunned and bloodied five-year-old boy in the back of an ambulance, which epitomised the suffering of another besieged group: the mainly Sunni residents of eastern Aleppo, encircled by government forces.

To characterise the Syrian conflict as wholly sectarian is reductionist, but factional infighting has become one of its defining elements. The imprimatur of sectarianism is leaving indelible marks across the Levant, tearing the region apart.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, set the tone for this when the uprising first began in 2011. To undermine the protest movement, he characterised the opposition as Sunni extremists who were driven by sectarian hatred (Assad is from the minority Alawite community; a heterodox Shia sect).

His unaccountable loyalist militia, the shabiha (“ghosts”), brutalised the opposition not just physically but also with sectarian slurs, introducing a caustic and corrosive mood to the uprising. This pathology has continued to metastasise ever since.

The current policy of displacing besieged residents has further enhanced the sectarian aspects of this war. For years, the Syrian regime has used siege warfare to bring rebel areas under control. Once the inhabitants have been worn down, the government moves them to rebel-held areas, away from its sphere of control. In this way, President Assad has consolidated control over important and strategic areas closer to home while edging disloyal elements further away.

Occasionally, new residents are brought in to repopulate evacuated areas, typically from minorities more inclined to support the government. What is taking place is a slow demographic recalibration, in which errant Sunnis are moved to the periphery and loyalist minorities are moved closer to the core.

These transfers are now so common in Syria that a dedicated fleet of green buses is used in the process, and has become an iconic image of this conflict. The buses catch the eye and are used for moving besieged people. Their sanctity is not to be violated. In a conflict that has ignored almost every norm, this one had lasted – albeit with occasional violations – until the assault in Rashideen.

There are moments when important leaders appear to transcend the divide. Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric who rose to prominence after leading a militia against British troops in Basra after the 2003 invasion, recently called for Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

In doing so, Sadr became one of only a few prominent Shia leaders to publicly acknowledge Assad’s bloodshed. His comments came after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib earlier this month, which claimed more than 80 lives.

Statements such as Sadr’s have huge symbolic value, but are easily forgotten in the aftermath of the next atrocity. Speaking to the American broadcaster NBC last October, General David Petraeus summed up the mood of many military planners in Washington when he concluded that Syria may have passed the point of no return. “Syria may not be able to be put back together,” he said. “Humpty Dumpty has fallen and again I’m not sure you can piece it back together.”

His comments came even before the most tumultuous events of the past six months, which have included the fall of Aleppo, the emergence of a more empowered jihadist coalition (composed principally of al-Qaeda members), the use of chemical weapons and now the Rashideen bus bombing.

Petraeus’s remarks were prescient. As a result of the cycle of bitter vengeance and retribution, often fuelled by deep sectarian suspicion, the Syrian Civil War will continue its descent into chaos. When Assad first unleashed the shabiha to quash the protest movement, the militia warned the opposition: “Assad, or we burn the country.”

In this respect, at least, it has kept its word. Whoever leads the country after this conflict finally comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins but a ravaged people, too. 

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

0800 7318496