Today, Putin signed a bill in Russia that will make smoking in public places illegal. It is estimated that around 40% of Russians smoke and it is a habit that has obviously had an extreme impact upon the health of the population. For us in the United Kingdom, having had the smoking ban for years now, this might seem to be a very late move to tackle a national addiction. But, I have noticed, quickly filling the void in our own smug, smokeless hands, there has been growing another, replacement addiction—one that seems to carry all the benefits of cigarettes without the health warning. Smart phones! Which over 50% of the British population use, and, like the greed spirit, No Face, in Spirited Away, we have let in and now will not go away.
I am aware that iPhones have been around for the last six years, but I am a chronically late starter: I couldn’t read until I was eight, couldn’t successfully ride a bike until I was eighteen and I hadn’t kissed anyone until I was nineteen. So it makes sense that I’m pretty behind when it comes to responses to iPhones. But a family hand me down found its way to me at Christmas and I, who have to spend 20 minutes mulling over the extravagance of a 33p jam doughnut, found myself the unlikely owner of a contraption that almost has more functions than my sewing machine.
The first thing that I became aware of was how it made me feel hugely self-conscious every time I took it out. Realising you don’t have change to give to a homeless person when you have an iPhone in your hand is like Scrooge kicking the rabbit singing Christmas carols into the snow (The Muppets Christmas Carol—it was as Dickens meant to write it…) You want to go into a lengthy apology and explanation but they’re cold and you’re keeping them waiting so all you can do is say sorry and stare at your cursed glowing screen. But you cannot hate it. Because iPhones are like cigarettes and insipiently creep into your life until you realise you cannot cope without them. This is said as a never-smoker and never-intend-to, so my comparison cigarettes are the wondrous ones that allow you to leave terrible conversations, or take someone you fancy away or meet new people. The cigarettes of the 50’s. The cigarettes that have left me, non-smoker, with the struggling conversation, with no cool cat way to meet new people: ‘Hey! You’re wearing a jumper…with stripes!…’ Weirdly not a winner. The cigarettes that have meant I have had to use the toilet excuse so many times it looks like I have a problem. But no more! Why? Because I have a phone which can serve as a companion, escape route and torch.
I was recently at an acting audition where everyone had to torturously stay and wait for the result. In the past I would have had to sit talking desperately to everyone in a state of feigned nonchalance and tension. It would usually end with me making some sort of weird admission. Last time, I told the assembled company of strangers that every action in my life had only been motivated by fancying someone (not entirely true) and then, in an attempt to lean casually on my arm, slipped down the sofa. And then I didn’t get in. But not so this time! I had ‘boring emails’ to get on with and could sit alone with my glowing freedom key until I found out the result. I didn’t get in – but I didn’t have to speak to anyone and I
got to sit alone like Clint Eastwood chewing a cheroot, if the cheroot let him read his emails – and that alone felt like a triumph.
Just as smoking caught on because of all the lifestyles it came to accompany, iPhones are becoming equally central to the frenetic lives of city dwellers who are plagued by the perpetual need for activity. I was born in London and as such I run down escalators and walk purposefully in the tube even if I have nowhere important to go. Having nothing to do in London drives me mad. If I’m not travelling somewhere I need to be achieving something. Cigarettes increase your heart rate while the nicotine triggers a release of dopamine in your brain. So they create a limbo of apparent relaxation and bodily exertion. The iPhone has a similarly paralysing effect. Like a cat grabbed by the scruff of the neck, it makes me go limp as I look contentedly into the screen full of work and potential activity. It is the opiate, telling you not to worry about your future because, look, you can read all these emails. Or, as is often the case, just re-read a few you already sent. And when you can’t do that you can listen to music—because jeeze louise it can do that too.
I have never had anything portable that plays music that isn’t a musical instrument. I tried carrying my accordion around before I had a case but I had to look exceptionally humourless so that people wouldn’t shout ‘Edith Piaf’ at me. However, now I can do anything I want with my face because everyone takes having headphones to be the norm. And every flash of the tube or flight of a bird becomes a deeply meaningful Werner Herzog scene. Babysitting a six-year-old who has run out of conversation? Whack out the tunes on your phone! Now the lack of discussion is cloaked by some cheery Swedish folk and you’ve found your way into an Ingmar Berman film.
[I’m still learning how to use it. There was a phase when I hadn’t realised that my mum’s current number was still saved in the phone as ‘my phone’—I’d see it ringing and freak out. What the hell was the phone going to tell me? That I’d been using it wrong? Is this where iPhone technology has taken us? Where the phone regulates its users? I’d believe it. Damn it, there’s a blue dot on the phone that always knows where you are in the world! It can do anything.]
The iPhone feels like it is in its honeymoon stages, like cigarettes in the 50’s. Everyone is doing it. It helps us work, it provides breaks and it seems like a Good Thing. We haven’t had posters with doctors telling us how good iPhones are for our health, but Mitchell and Webb essentially did the equivalent. I just wonder if iPhones might go through similar cigarette stages. Perhaps all the gazing and clutching at these little screens will turn out not to be good for us. We won’t be able to do it around children, we’ll have to gather in groups to do it outside or maybe it will be more extreme, and iPhone users will be forced – Swedish style – to carry out their tasks in ventilated glass boxes. Perhaps there is something sinister about being totally trackable; unhealthy in having multiple streams of communication available at all times; something blinding about a mini screen that drags us away from looking around, and has us perpetually bent down.
An iPhone-less future is blocked out by the glare of the screen—which is pretty much all I can see through now. It seems somewhat unfathomable now to picture a life without them and if it came down to it and they had to go, I think we’d find ourselves in a far more dependent position than the Russians and their cigarettes. No one has seemed that inclined to question them much because we’re all still too blown away by just how handy they are. But I feel that a time of enquiry will come, and it will be then that we’ll have to learn how to use A to Z’s again. But for now, I’m hooked, and still not over the novelty of lighting it up.