Let’s face it, we’re all in an illicit relationship at this point in time, and it’s borderline problematic if not all-out toxic. In an era where contact has turned into a transgression, we obsessively tap our touchscreen phones, ostensibly reaching out to the world while actually zoning out of it. The orchestra of little pings and trills that announce incoming messages or notifications is annoying, and yet it’s impossible to imagine that sound being silenced in a world where so much has already been taken from us.
Sweet Cell o’Mine
My first mobile phone was a secondhand purchase: a stark Nokia 1100, with a luminous display and a handy torch. I’d bought it off a quiet chap who was a programmer at a garage office where I worked as a copywriter. The first thing I did when I bought the contraption was to set the ringtone to Sweet Child o’Mine by Guns N’ Roses. What a thrill! When it rang out loud in the office, where tabs were kept on every staple pin requisitioned and sugar crystal consumed, I felt positively revolutionary. Worried heads looked up from clattering keyboards – “Who is this wild child?” they thought in unison. I coolly answered the call, assuring my mother I would pick up the dhania on the way home, but in a hushed tone that implied danger and intrigue.
There has been a string of phones since then, like a litany of loves half-remembered. The corporate BlackBerry, with its members-only messenger club. A line of trusty Nokia phones, one with some connection to Asha Bhosle I never quite managed to figure out. A nondescript Motorola. And in recent years, a succession of sleek Samsung cells, whose camera capabilities seem to dim the moment I lay hands on them.
So when we select phones, we’re really buying cameras. Which sets the stage for that brand with occult powers over its followers: Apple. As someone who still tries to beat out the last of the remaining ketchup in a bottle before discarding it, the device is too conscience-troubling. (Somehow, the laptop is an extravagance I can rationalise using a vague ‘but-it’s-for-work’ argument.) And then there’s the Google phone, which takes pictures that are so heavenly, I sometimes scandalise my puritanical streak by fantasising about it.
In an era where contact has turned into a transgression, we tap our touchscreen phones, ostensibly reaching out to the world while actually zoning out of it
There is a masochistic pleasure in taking pictures on a phone that is actively out to ruin your artistic reputation. Backgrounds darken unexpectedly. Flowers wither. Faces crumple. It must be the settings, you tell yourself, compensating for mediocre pictures with perky captions on social media. What a psychological minefield! But nothing reveals more about the human need for renewal than the freakish frequency with which we hit the refresh button on our phones. I find myself willing good news into existence by constantly refreshing my news feed – and then questioning my mental well-being as I do so. Carpal tunnel is a phrase that runs through my mind so often, I think it’s developed tendinitis.
Imaginary illnesses aside, there’s a fallout of this phoney behaviour that is far more worrying. Does anyone else look for the scroll button on a physical newspaper from time to time? Or the little ‘x’ button on the top when someone speaks about Elon Musk, intermittent fasting or Mercury conjuncting Venus? No? Only me, then.
On a particularly productive recent day, I managed to delete 9,000 WhatsApp images from my groaning phone. (Will that make it work faster? she asks hopefully.) That’s two years’ worth of images, from festive meals to music concerts, with a recent surge in lockdown cooking from overachiever friends. Deciding what to keep and what to let go of has been a lesson in attachment/detachment of Buddhist proportions. There’s no way one can hit delete on some faces, for instance, just like it’s impossible to keep all those random travel shots forever. Yes, one could possibly transfer everything onto one’s computer (note to self: commit to learning about the mobile cloud), but then that’s so prosaic. Working through years of memories at top speed – saving here, deleting there – is a kind of perverse pleasure that is difficult to explain. Beats hitting the refresh button every three minutes.
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From HT Brunch, November 24, 2019
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