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.

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times