Sarah Irving

I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic

Why I’m not getting a smartphone (for as long as possible)

One of the few irritations of an absolutely amazing two years on Edinburgh University’s Arab World Studies MSc has been the background pressure to get a smartphone. Or an iPad. Or some other piece of (preferably heavily branded) over-hyped technology.

There is a certain irony to this, as I probably use IT more effectively than my smartphone-owning classmates (and, indeed, teachers). I have this blog, and guest blog for other sites with global reaches; I have a Twitter feed with a good RT rating and a respectable number of followers; I run reasonably effective Facebook pages for two of my books.

So I’m not technologically illiterate, and I’m not an anarcho-primitivist. But I don’t buy tech tat, and I don’t get excited about every new Apple product that hits the market. Interestingly, some of the people who do seem to spend a lot of time using technology ineffectively – setting up FB groups and Twitter accounts which they then fail to use properly and which therefore have no impact. In the end, despite the glitz, IT is just bits of metal and plastic, and if you don’t use it properly it’s nothing more than expensive bric-a-brac.

Partly not getting one is a matter of simple practicality. I can’t afford expensive phones and tablets, and I don’t like the feeling of carrying round an expensive object that risks getting broken or nicked. So I don’t. But there are also some bigger, more important reasons which I don’t buy (into) that stuff.

One: pretty much by definition, the more a device does, the more energy it consumes. Better energy efficiency may mean that this isn’t a straight-line increase, but it still applies to at least some extent, hence headlines about how a smartphone often uses as much energy as a fridge. I’ve heard a lot of smartphone owners commenting/complaining that their devices need to be recharged daily, whereas my elderly mobile can hold out for several days at a time of texting and occasional calls before it needs charging up. And it’s not just a matter of expense. In case you haven’t noticed, there are issues like peak oil and climate change related to our energy consumption. Does the ability to play games and check emails on the bus/in the back row of lectures really warrant the additional energy use?

Two: name me an electronics brand whose products aren’t made in disgusting sweatshops in China and other ‘developing’ countries, where people work long hours for shit pay in dangerous conditions. Where some are even driven to suicide. Where some of those workers are children. Is your ability to waste your time on yet another gadget really worth that measure of human pain. Really?

Three: the world is getting very exercised about the war in Syria right now, which is as it should be. But when did we last hear anything about the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo? The death toll in Syria is perhaps 100,000, which is appalling. But something like 6 MILLION have died in Congo in the last decade, and one of the main drivers of that conflict is the quest for the rare metals needed to produce miniaturised electronics – like smartphones and iPads. So, there’s another way in which your gadget increases the overall sum of human misery. And if the rare metals don’t come from Congo, perhaps they come from Malaysia or Brazil, where scientists have warned of the rising dangers of toxic and radioactive waste coming from processing plants.

Four: what kind of horrible culture do we live in where everyone is expected to be available, online, all the time? The last thing I want is a phone that follows me with email and news headlines and Twitter and Facebook. When is a person supposed to think, to contemplate, to notice and experience the world and other human beings? It’s been driving me nuts for years when a meet a friend for lunch or a coffee and they whip out their phone, check every text and break off to take calls. It’s bad manners, and it implies an underlying disrespect for basic face-to-face communication. And it gets worse and worse as the stream of information available through mobile devices gets faster and fatter.

Five: so much of what happens on mobile devices is about consumption, not production or creation. My husband pointed this out to me when he acquired a tablet some months ago, but has found himself using it only rarely because he feels that it transforms him into a passive consumer, only able to interact or produce by using a cumbersome onscreen keyboard. The point was reinforced by a twitter exchange with an online friend who fancied a mini-iPad. I suggested (jokingly) a pad of paper and a pencil. He was surprised; he wouldn’t be writing anything on it.
True, you can buy keyboards for most tablets, but the fact that they have to be bought separately rather underlines that they are seen very much as a secondary aspect of the function. First and foremost, one is meant to use this device to consume, to be passive, to take on corporate messages and to absorb the modern version of ‘bread and circuses’, the time-wasting ‘opiates of the masses’ that keep us diverted from things that really matter.

14 comments on “Why I’m not getting a smartphone (for as long as possible)

  1. rupertbu2013
    September 3, 2013

    Oh thank you! :-)

  2. mlynxqualey
    September 3, 2013

    Interesting on 5. I also have an elderly mobile that does me just fine & no tablet-type thingie, and yet I get on with technology reasonably well.

    • Sarah Irving
      September 3, 2013

      Thanks! I think you rather demonstrate one of my points – that you have no distracting gimmicky gadgets, and yet run what is probably the world’s foremost English-language blog on Arabic literature. There is a difference between *owning* bits of technology, and *using* technology effectively.

  3. Justin Hellings (@JHellings)
    September 3, 2013

    A few months ago, I bricked my Android phone while trying to customise it. (Yeah, I know, geek.) I resorted to using one of the “feature” phone handsets that I had lying around the house. It was wonderfully freeing. It was half the weight of my smartphone and I charged it every 5 days rather than every 2. When you take in to account the different mass of the battery, that probably means I quartered my phone power consumption.

    Eventually, I figured out how to recover my smart-phone and started using it again. That was a huge relief because my lack of organisation really came to the fore without it. Having a single online diary that I can update and read from any internet connected device is very enabling, and having a small smartphone means I can carry that internet connection around with me all the time.

    That doesn’t mean I have to use it all the time. I almost never turn on data connectivity (although it automatically connects to my home wifi.) The major lesson I learnt from my few weeks of “feature” phone use was to turn off all the notifications other than text and calls. That way I deal with other media at times of my choosing and I assume that if someone is using one of those media to contact me then the matter is not time-sensitive. I do use my phone to respond to emails and tweets.

    For anyone who feels compelled to buy a smart-phone, it’s easy to get a second hand one. You may have to put up with minor scratches and/or replace the battery. (I am not well informed on whether the heavy metals in batteries come from conflict zones.) If you are going to demand your rights as a consumer to damn well buy a shiny new gadget then you should at least know about the Fariphone…

    • Sarah Irving
      September 3, 2013

      You are enough of a geek, sweetheart, that I had to mentally translate the first line of your comment into language I could comprehend. Now I’ve done that, I’m grateful for the excellent points. Of course, there are people like you who are thoughtful users of smartphones (etc) and who consider how they use them and why, and thus keep them under some kind of control. And who know about second-hand purchasing, and apparently excellent initiatives like Fairphone. The problem, of course, is that most people don’t – they buy the shiniest object waved in front of them, like a magpie or a baby, and are entranced by it – until the next bauble comes along.

  4. Justin Hellings (@JHellings)
    September 3, 2013

    Sadly true, sigh.

  5. Rose Bridger
    September 4, 2013

    Wonderful article. I’m with you on holding out against getting a smartphone, tabletty thing. My ancient mobile fulfils the purpose of making calls, and regularly raises a laugh, its kinda retro. For anything creative online I need at least one large computer screen. At home I spoil myself with two. I like the mouse and keyboard and jabbing at a screen seems infantile. Apparently when v. young children become accustomed to these devices, they attempt to handle other flat surfaces in the same way, expecting a picture to enlarge for example!

  6. Nicola Slater
    October 29, 2013

    Hi Sarah, I’ve just seen this in Ethical Consumer. Love it! Would like to reproduce it in the community magazine I produce. Would that be ok? Will obvioulsly give full credit and let you see a draft before it goes to print. If you’re free to get in touch email me and I’ll give you more details about the magazine. I’ve also been in touch with EC to ask their permission too. Thanks.

  7. Sam Attard
    March 24, 2018

    I’ve been without a mobile phone (of any kind) for over 5 years now and every time someone wants to know why, I point them to this brilliantly articulated article. Thank you Sarah!

  8. Sam Attard
    March 24, 2018

    I’ve been without a mobile phone (of any kind) for over 5 years now and every time someone wants to know why, I point them to this brilliantly articulated article. Thank you Sarah!

  9. maudrobinson
    May 25, 2021

    I’ve been pointed here from the website of Sam Attard – thank you!! Very nice to read an article which so articulately expresses everything I feel about smartphones. Someone at my work more or less forced an iPhone on me. It sat in its very smart box for several months, as he sent sporadic emails asking if I was finding it wonderful. I finally handed it back to him, unused, and it hasn’t been mentioned since :-)

    • Sam Attard
      July 22, 2021

      Woo, I’m glad I managed to point you here. I’m not sure about Sarah (?) but I am still without a smartphone (or any phone for that matter) and I still love it! I’ve heard of others who are the same – i.e. when I let people know I have no phone I sometimes get a response of, ‘oh, I know someone else the same’.

  10. maudrobinson
    May 25, 2021

    I shared this post on FB and a friend commented “The article dates from 2013. I wonder if the author is still without a smartphone?” I’d be curious to know too, if you’re willing to say.

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