Who wears a watch now? There’s a Luddite stubbornness to their persistence when the smartphone has taken over their main function. And yet there they are – racked up in jewellers, gleaming aspirationally in full-page magazine ads, and sitting on my own wrist, although for a long time I didn’t bother.
A few years after I got my first mobile phone, I drifted away from watch-wearing without really noticing. The battery ran down, and I meant to take it in to be fixed, but somehow the inconvenience of being watchless never outpaced the inconvenience of the errand, since I could always check the time on my phone.
Other items have gone the same way. I don’t have a camera any more. I don’t have a calculator. No house phone. I haven’t bought a map in more than a decade. My bedside radio-alarm clock never got replaced – now I just use the iPlayer app while my phone charges overnight. I still breezily assume that newspapers will come to hand when I need to wrap a broken glass for the bin, even though I pick one up once a month at most and usually leave it on a train. My collection of CDs and LPs sits in a cupboard, untouched and unadded to.
There’s a picture that goes viral once in a while showing a man surrounded by clunky electronic devices, and the caption: “20 years later and all of these things fit in your pocket.” The vibe is very much “wow-technology-is-amazing”, but my feeling is increasingly one of loss. Part of that is the nostalgia that comes with being old enough to see everything you took for granted slide into anachronism (my mental image of a telephone remains beige and rotary, like the first one I ever learned to use). But part of it is a genuine suspicion that things might be worse this way.
My watch made a comeback when I finally realised that a quick timecheck on my phone meant nothing of the sort. Routinely, I would find myself opening Twitter once the phone was in my hand, then re-pocketing it having started six arguments with strangers – but with no idea what the time was. Wearing a watch hasn’t made me immune to distraction, but at least it’s killed off one of the enabling fictions that supported my raging social media habit. For the same reason, I moved away from using the e-reader on my phone and back to print books a while ago.
The smartphone is the ultimate multitasker, but really it only has one purpose: to absorb your attention and hold it for as long as possible, guiding you through a twitchy series of “engagements”. You need it for work, so it’s impossible to close out the personal when you should be focusing on the professional; you need it for your private life, so the work phone call can always slide past your defences.
There is no partition, just an attentional morass. When you’re on your phone, you’re always sort of doing five different things, and none of them the one you intended.
I’m not the only person looking for small bulwarks against the tyranny of my phone. The Swatch Group reported a 70 per cent increase in profit in the first half of 2018, driven not only by luxury timepieces (which, by the logic of conspicuous consumption, one would expect to become more valuable the less useful they are) but also by its middle-market and low-end products. The Ordnance Survey announced a 7 per cent rise in sales of paper maps last year – hardly a great comeback, but certainly against expected trends. My local Sainsbury’s is selling vinyl now, which must be galling for all the record shops that sank: if only they’d diversified into olives and hung in there!
There’s a benefit to being single-purpose, after all. There’s also a benefit to being shareable in the old-fashioned sense. “Share” is the perennial injunction of the smartphone, but they only really encourage you to share with the people who aren’t with you. You can’t lend someone the great book you read on Kindle, or the amazing song you heard on Spotify. You can send them a link, sure; but without the ceremony of handing on a physical artefact, that’s just one more thing that needs clicking, and in all likelihood will never get clicked. You can’t rummage through someone else’s newspaper when they get all their news via social media.
My taste and principles have been formed by the objects around me. My parents bought the Observer at the weekend (then a broadsheet), and as a child I wrestled through it even though the span of the paper was wider than my arms, just because it was there. I read my grandma’s Daily Mail as well, and my aunt’s copies of Chat magazine. There is no such useful temptation for my children: I read the news on my phone, which no one else is allowed to touch because it also contains all my bitchy WhatsApp conversations. [Haven’t you got the New Statesman in the house? – Ed.]
The end result is that, thanks to our phones, we all have lives that are both intensely public and semi-secret – not by our own design, simply because that’s how technology directs us. In the London Review of Books recently, Jenny Turner wrote about how her own son preferred “‘shitposting’ what I’m told are called ‘dank memes’”, to engaging with the kind of culture – music, books – that defined her own youth. “This scares me sometimes,” she wrote. To which perhaps the only reasonable answer is: well, it should.
Your smartphone can connect you to anyone, anywhere. The corollary is that it disconnects you, little by little, from the people and things in your immediate environment. When I’m most preoccupied by my phone, I have the feeling sometimes that I’m a ghost in my own life, standing between two realms, unable to have substance in either. There’s something nice, then, about feeling my watch on my wrist: a tether to keep me where I am, for a little while at least.
This article appears in the 15 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Return of the Irish question