This summer, I bought a new phone. It arrived just before I went on holiday. One beautiful Greek morning, the phone’s alarm, which I had optimistically set the night before, woke me up. I silenced its electronic trills and went back to sleep.
When I woke again, I went to grab the phone, certain I had shoved it under my pillow, but it wasn’t there. I seized the pillow, sure it would appear underneath like some conjuror’s trick — one moment not under the cup, the next there — only for the phone to soar out of the pillowcase and bellyflop on to the tiled floor.
The delay after dropping it, before I faced the damage, was vertiginous. Like the pause before giving a speech, I leaned into it, extending it, as if it could go on for ever. Then, taking a breath, I picked my phone up.
It had smashed, inevitably. iPhone screens are impossibly, pointlessly delicate. Its newness and utility vanished on impact.
It was no longer a device, it was an object. I felt foolish to be bothered by something suddenly so slight.
I am of a generation whose digital psyche grew early. Aged 11, I would go home after school and bag my spot at the family computer, waiting for the internet to dial up so I could chat on MSN messenger to the same friends I had said goodbye to hours earlier. By 13, I had Facebook. Those times at the computer after school had a check-in, check-out process.
I was either online, or offline. Once, after a misdeed I won’t write about here, my parents banned me from Facebook for several months. Then, I was unerringly offline. Now, I am off Facebook out of choice.
But that sense of being timed out seems impossible to recreate. It’s harder to control screen time now. Rather than sharing one computer with my allocated hour of use, now I have different, unlimited relationships with varying screens.
Having a smartphone is a constant online: a constant assumption that I will be nearby, that I will respond to notifications, that urgent — or considered to be urgent — matters will receive a reply within hours.
I play the game, because I too make the same assumption of others.
I’m not dependent. I can step away. Yet the little pull at my stomach when I saw my broken screen wasn’t just monetary grief at the unknown price it would take to fix it. A sense of immediacy, of connectedness had been taken.
The Spanish novelist Javier Marías writes on a typewriter.
He doesn’t use the internet and communicates by letter. In Dark Back of Time, which I read on the same holiday, glass splinters from my iPhone mixing with sand in my bag, Marías writes about lacking the “journalistic inclination” to scavenge online in order to find out more about something or someone. He is satisfied that he needn’t know.
It’s a wistful idea — something he gets away with by being an acclaimed writer who was born in 1951. I was born more than 40 years later. But his writing, which winds sentences across pages, dancing like the mind from one thing to the next until you forget where you began, reminds me of a digital mindset.
I found myself on my phone recently with a tremor of dread that came from something I’d read 20 seconds earlier, without being able to remember its source. In order to locate it, I had to retrace my steps, flipping back between apps until I worked it out. A Maríasian moment, yet one he will never have experienced.
I think of that now when phones are criticised, when younger generations are dismissed for being too absorbed in their internet worlds. We are criticising old behaviours seen in new guises, not the tools themselves. Data didn’t exploit itself on Facebook, people did.
I often think of my phone flippantly. It’s not my phone, but my bloody phone. My bloody phone that runs out of battery too quickly, that reminds me of people’s birthdays who I haven’t seen in years, however many times I change the settings. At times when I’m anxious, I feel my phone like a weight. It’s a portal to infinite misreadings. But the anxiety remains, with or without a phone.
It fills the nearest cracks. The connection a phone gives me: the particular online humour, the ability to talk to friends and make new ones, the writerly whimsy of curating a social media profile, of being in control of small worlds that you can disappear from entirely at the click of a lock button — all that far outweighs what it can antagonise.
There was a strange relief that came a little after I had sent my phone tumbling. The gashes on its screen made it difficult to read, so it sat at the bottom of my bag. That had always been the plan — I was on holiday after all — but suddenly it was enforced. I didn’t have to push my phone away; it had done it itself.
But when I got it fixed on my return, relief arrived then too. I had my bloody phone back.
Rebecca Watson is assistant arts editor at the FT. Her novel ‘little scratch’ is published in July