Friday 25 April 2014

Handy no more

Last weekend I hit what felt like the lowest point yet of my Year Abroad. Thanks to a bizarre idiosyncrasy of (usually highly dependable) German design which places bicycle baskets on the back of one’s cycle, allowing one’s belongings to fall out along the road unbeknownst to the cyclist in front, my mobile phone fell to its peril as I negotiated the cobblestones of my street during my journey home from the supermarket. I rushed to the Apple Store, tears streaming down my face, clutching to the hope that the divine intervention of a hallowed ‘genius’ there might be able to resurrect it. My hopes were dashed, and alas, my beloved iPhone is no more. And so is my permanently-connected, eternally-online existence. How would I cope?

In the short term, by bawling on the shoulders of my unsuspecting flatmates, who were kind enough first of all to supply vast quantities of Milka and Haribo to ease the pain, and then a provisional device to stave me over in the interim before I sorted out a replacement.

The following couple of days were torturous. Stripped of my usual What’s App chats, Facebook feeds, Instragram images and Snapchat selfies, I felt completely cut off from the rest of the world. While I used to rush out of work to meet friends for drinks (usually arranged during the course of the day through lengthy text exchanges), I now found myself jumping on my laptop to check, via Facebook, Twitter and email accounts, that nothing drastic had occurred during my day’s hiatus from social networks. Being wrenched apart from my online presence was almost unbearable; it felt discomforting, distressing even, to think that my friends were carrying on their digital exchanges whilst I no longer had access to them.

Then, after a few days, I developed a heightened sensitivity to the extent to which mobiles seem to dominate the society I live in. During my lunch break, I realised that the colleagues I had previously felt I was engaging in conversation were at the same time carrying on digital discussions with other friends elsewhere. During the interval of a theatre production where I was seated on the end of a row of teenage schoolchildren, their only verbal exchanges related to a particular video shared on Facebook, and they were otherwise totally absorbed by catching up on the activity they had missed during the first half of the show. As I walked past a well-known tourist attraction, I couldn’t help but laugh at people pulling ridiculous faces as they attempted to frame the perfect selfie with the sight in the background. Perhaps most shocking of all was a visit to a cathedral, where a huge banner outside instructed worshippers to ‘check in’ on Facebook. Would God look favourably upon all those who ‘like’ churchgoers’ status updates? Might one’s mere virtual presence one day suffice to fulfil our religious duty, rather than turning up in the flesh (as it were) to Mass? As ridiculous as it sounds, I fear that we might be heading this way.

As I approach the end of my second week without what Germans aptly call a ‘Handy’, I’m beginning to wonder if having a smartphone really is so useful after all. Granted, I have to invest more effort to keep in touch with my friends. But a thoughtfully composed message means far more than thoughtless streams of conversation in which phrases such as ‘lol guess what’ and ‘hahaha’ tend to predominate. I’ve been forced to phone people to whom I would normally send an impersonal text, and my relationships are feeling so much better for it. Oddly enough, it feels like being digitally cut off has brought me closer than ever before to my friends.

Will I get a new phone? Hypocritical as it sounds I no doubt will, for the benefits that being easily reached brings. Although being phoneless has been somewhat liberating, in our hyper-connected world it is becoming more and more difficult to get by without being able to tap into this connectivity. But I’ll try not to forget what my experience of living without a phone has taught me, and above all remember that no matter how developed the digital world becomes, no digital experience can surpass that of real human contact. As I sat crying at the kitchen table, lamenting the loss of my mobile, my flatmate’s loving hug went so much further than an emoticon ever could have done. It might be more convenient to send a smiley at times, but never, ever should it replace the real thing.

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