Our relationship started off a bit awkwardly. I was sitting at the edge the foreshore at Glebe in Sydney one evening with a friend. When out of the blue he popped the question. He asked me if I wanted an iPhone? I had been pretty cynical of smart phones. I had only just come to terms with having a mobile phone at all. I had resisted until I was 25. But my phone-less searches for a home in Sydney were proving fruitless. So after losing some of my freedoms, and gaining some convenience only a few years earlier, I wasn’t sure if I was really in need of a device that incorporated so much stuff that you took everywhere with you.
He explained that his brother got a job overseas and left him with a phone with half the contract plan paid off, but he needed someone to take his phone and pay off the rest of his contract. So I thought about it. My cheap Nokia had made phone calls sound like conversation in long tunnels or underwater. And then there was the time I was cycling a “shortcut” through a bushland, and found myself completely lost at dusk. I called my sister and with her map on her phone she helped me find civilisation. It all seemed to be adding up towards taking the phone. So I considered the rare earth metals, and the poor people who had suffered in its making, and promised to myself that I would keep for as long as I could.
So here I am 10 years later, with the same iPhone 4 my friend gave to me except now it’s a phone with history. It has been on some solo cycle tours with me, including the time I camped alone near the road to tooms lake. I freaked out when the wind started to howl, then I heard gun shots, a car drove past and stopped 50 metres away, I heard a gate open up and they spent the next few hours sporadically shooting. I really struggled to convince my shaking knees that they were just roos shooters. And yes, I got my good old phone out, and being in a reception dead zone, I recorded myself at my most scared and tired. And no, I have no idea where this footage is and may well have been deleted when I became myself again.
I also took my phone around the world with me, on my solo trip to make my documentary. In Bern, Switzerland, I didn’t have credit for the phone, but I had already put in my friends address, and the phone showed me on a grey grid, where a map would normally be (if I had credit) where I was and my destination. I followed the bike paths that led me in the direction of the red dot, and I eventually found my way as the blue dot edged closer to the red one – much more fun that being given exact directions.
And yes, I have wasted time on my phone. I succumbed to scrolling and such mindless searches for meaningful contact in an image oriented attention deficit world. However, it has been useful as well. While I had the opal app, I loved having transport info at my fingertips. And it has also been great for sending messages to people overseas, when I had WhatsApp. But I can no longer use these.
As the years have gone on, I have been told not to update my phone as it will crash the system. And in the meantime, my phone has lost functionality as apps start to ask for requirements that are beyond my phone. And then people tell me that I should get a new phone, rather than people questioning the fact a phone that could potentially function fine, cannot because of software requirements of app developers. That the expectation is that no one will have such an old phone is so strong they stop to care about us.
This doesn’t seem sustainable to me! Whether we call it planned obselence or just runaway technological changes, we need to sometimes stop and ask ourselves what does this mean for the future. Do we plan on keeping phones for only a few years at a time? Do we even develop relationships with the things we own anymore? Do we have histories together that make us attached or is everything just recorded in clouds and only the images and memes matter?
Everything seemed to be flipped on its head when I was watching “Fight for planet A” and Craig Reucassel picked up an iPhone 4 and referred to it as a museum piece. It felt like the environmental movement has just stabbed itself in the guts, and while it was spewing out recycling and improved shower heads, it had forgotten to explore the real ethics of consumption and waste. I was made to feel strange for holding onto a phone for more than 5 years. Strange because I didn’t want to recycle it, and get something new.
So next week I’m getting a new phone as part of a new job. I literally can’t book a seat in my office or authenticate my login without a new phone. I feel a little bit sad that my old phone can’t do the job. I also feel sad for the environmental destruction, and the human rights abuses that occur around the making of phones. I also feel sad that it is something we’ve accepted as the price of “progress”. That we have no attachment to objects as they pass through the hands of the population like pictures in a newsfeed, giving us some fleeting moments of fulfilment, and then forgotten….
For so many years, I’d tried to be anti-materialistic, but I’ve come to realise that there was something worse than materialism and that’s when we consume energy and materials without holding any value in them, only the services they bring use (is that material abuse?), which make them easier to replace and throw in the recycling bin.
P.S. If anyone still has charger cables for iPhone 4s (for the skinny long one socket), I’m in need of some extras 🙂