Broken Telephone: Life Without a Smartphone

Reading Time: 6 minutes

By Kristal Ng (16S07C)

The first thing I hear when I tell people that I don’t have a smartphone is usually, “How do you live like that?” followed by a fascinated “Can I see?” before I display my retro Nokia. It’s already an upgrade from a $25 Nokia 108, to a $38 Nokia 215. Other than its push-button typing, legendary feature games (Snake – remember that?) and of course its unbreakable casing, there isn’t really much that my phone can do other than call and text. Since my parents had decided against my getting a smartphone from the get-go, fearing that it would become a distraction, I have never owned a smartphone before.

Nokia 215 on the left, Nokia 108 on the right

Do I ever fear missing out? Of course. There’s always a pang of envy when I hear my classmates laughing about that joke someone made on Whatsapp, or when they complain about their ongoing Snapchat war, or when they take a photo of a beautiful sunset. I can only hope to stare at it long enough so that it becomes imprinted in my mind. It is that feeling that they are all a part of something I could never be in.

After all, smartphones are key gateways to the huge online community called social media.  Poet Charles Bukowski once wrote that online media was where “everybody will know everything about everybody else long before they meet them”. Research suggests that the image that you portray online or over social media is usually a hyper-idealised version, and is therefore not a true reflection of who you are. But I beg to differ.  I believe that the person we reveal on screen is not our “ideal self” but rather a small portion of our “real self”. As phones are incredibly mobile, they manage to capture parts of a person’s life that even I never even imagine to ask about, reveal certain aspects of their personality that were kept hidden. In fact, I know many people who are “online extroverts” – those who are really active on Whatsapp, yet speak very little face to face. While my friends are undoubtedly honest and sincere in their interactions with me, I can’t help but feel jealous of smartphone-users who are privy to the parts of people’s lives that they show on screen. Somehow, this gives them an advantage in terms of conversation-starting and bonding as a whole since they arguably have more personal experiences with other people. Whatsapp facilitates this sort of relationship because the moment a thought flashes into your head, you can just type it out and hit send, even if it’s fragmented and choppy and half-formed.

Texting on the other hand takes more effort especially on my part, to decipher the series of one-sentence messages, and then painstakingly tap out a reply. It’s normal, in fact, for my SMSes to take 10 minutes to type out – and for long messages I often resort to email (wow, who uses that anymore?). Often, it’s these lapses in response that can easily cause a conversation to stutter and short out and in the end, what I feel is a big disconnect, that loss of a potentially intimate relationship.

At the same time, I’m not the only one struggling with the problem of disconnect. From what I’ve seen, living with a smartphone creates an almost compulsive habit of constantly occupying yourself with something – be it checking your 1209437532 WhatsApp messages, or scrolling through your instagram feed – many of my friends seem to get itchy fingers whenever they have free time, automatically reaching for their phones whenever a conversation stalls. This makes it doubly difficult for someone like me (with literally nothing to look at) to initiate or even sustain any kind of conversation. It feels awkward, rude even, to interrupt someone who is on their phone simply to talk. In some circumstances, using the smartphone to watch videos or collectively scroll through Instagram feeds seems to replace conversation completely, leaving me at a loss as to how I can respond and reciprocate. Perhaps it is because I do not know how to appreciate such activities and/or because I simply have no interest in them, but I do feel saddened by the fact that the few precious moments we have together are interrupted by “technoference”.

The scariest part is that ‘technoference’ is routine and everyday. Consider the ubiquitousness of smartphones nowadays. Consider how many people will take out their phones midway through meals. Consider how many of us walk around with our heads down, screens pointed up. Because everyone is doing it, many of these intrusions and interruptions are taken for granted as background noise, hardly worth any notice.  It takes the effort of both parties to build rapport, for sure; our class WhatsApp group is named “Please SMS Kristal” for the sole purpose of ensuring that at least one person in the class will remember to inform me of the newest updates and happenings. Yet, me being late to a certain event because I only knew of the venue 2 minutes before it started (and this after frantically calling several classmates), or me failing to bring a certain worksheet for class, is still a common occurrence. Even after all that trouble, I still worry about being a burden to my classmates simply because they have the added responsibility of keeping me in the loop (and using up their data to email me), so I make it a point to regularly ask if there is anything new for me to know.  

Despite its struggles, being without a smartphone is a liberating thing.

Because of its limited connective and entertainment capabilities, my brick phone leaves me free to get lost in my thoughts: daydreaming was one of the first things I learned to do. It is still amusing to me that most of my best creative writing ideas come when I’m on the MRT without a good book to read and I play games with myself to pass the time: that girl smiling at her phone screen must have just received a text from her boyfriend. The auntie sitting in the reserved seat hugging 2 watermelons must be having her grandkids over for dinner tonight. That boy with headphones tapping out an imaginary drum beat (and the only one to return my gaze) must think I’m a weirdo to be staring at random strangers on the train.

I am free to get lost in myself. It’s nice to not have to care about social capital; not receiving the jio for your CCA’s dinner date is sometimes a welcome reprieve when all you want to do is curl up on the couch and watch Daredevil. It gives me a chance to ‘drop out of contact’ with my friends and catch up on some alone time. That way, it makes me value the actual time we do spend together even more. Because I am spending time discovering myself and not browsing through their hourly life updates on Twitter or Instagram, conversations with them are sometimes more meaningful since I don’t merely discuss what I’ve seen on social media. Instead I want to know what they feel about current issues, what motivates them, where they see themselves when they are older – a depth you don’t get from trawling someone’s Facebook wall.

I am free to get lost – literally. Google Maps doesn’t exist in my phone, and I am not constantly bugged by the notifications telling me that there is something I need to do, somewhere I need to be. To be able to navigate around on my own, to notice street signs, to let myself wander around until I figure out where I am, trains me to be resourceful and independent – I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who carries an MRT map tucked in her wallet – and it takes a certain amount of courage (read: desperation) to approach a random uncle half asleep on a void deck bench at 9pm at night to ask for directions to East Coast Park. But the best part about not having to rely on any app is the detours you get to make. Half the time I end up somewhere more interesting,  more exciting than i originally planned, perhaps something I would not get to experience if I had a smartphone guiding me to the most efficient route.

Many of my friends ask if I would switch to having a smartphone if I had a choice, and after some deliberation it’s still a no. Perhaps I’ve gotten so used to not having so many applications on my phone that getting one that did would really be too much of a distraction. Perhaps having a “dumb” phone is simply more practical for clumsy and accident-prone me – a $38 Nokia is way easier to replace than a $200 iPhone. Perhaps it’s because I’ve learned that living without a smartphone has forced me to be more aware of myself and the environment around me; forced me to acknowledge where I am, who I’m with, and what I’m doing, even when it’s boring, even when it’s lonely. Life could be so much more colorful, more precious, without a smartphone; but ultimately, it’s not about giving up technology, it’s about embracing life.

Author’s Note: This topic was touched on by Raffles Press a few years ago, but given a recent and unexpected increase in the need of technology in our lives, it’s worth another look at, hence this article.

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