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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The conflict in Yemen is a civil war by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood