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The agony of dying gadgets

To survive as a technophobe in the 21st century, you must depend on the kindness of strangers

29 November 2014

9:00 AM

29 November 2014

9:00 AM

It’s hard, being a technophobe today. The condition is defined as ‘a fear, dislike or avoidance of new technology’, which in slow-moving times — involving a popular shift from the fountain pen to the rollerball, say — should be manageable, but electronic change is coming so fast now that one is rarely without an encroaching sense of panic.

We technophobes are often compelled to use technology, of course, and we can certainly sniff the magic of its portal into a world of limitless information. And so we pick up rudimentary skills, painstakingly and with a grudging suspicion, and our second-greatest fear becomes that this old, now-familiar technology will suddenly break down. When it does, our feelings contain the crude ingredients of grief: nostalgia, anger, abandonment and terror.

My personal meltdown began, recently, with the malfunctioning of the Blackberry Curve, a mobile telephone supplied to me many years ago by the office where I then worked. I remember the pure sulkiness with which I originally took delivery of the Blackberry, because it meant abandoning my battered Nokia, a chunky, simple-minded silver brick that had seen me through interesting times. The Nokia contained text messages that my husband had sent me on the morning of our wedding, but after I abandoned it the battery drained, the charger was lost, and the messages were locked forever inside its corroding electronic heart, perhaps never to be recovered. I still have the body of the Nokia, though: I’m sentimental like that.

In those days, circa 2008, Blackberry was the name to reckon with. Madonna was an avowed fan: she and Guy Ritchie slept with their Blackberries under their pillows, at a time when such an intimate attachment to a phone struck many people as unusual. The Blackberry permitted me to read emails and texts, but if you asked it to open something from the internet, it laboured at the task for a while and then — like a drunk struggling with a pair of lace-up boots before slumping helplessly back on a bed — sent up the message ‘too large to load’.


I put up with this until recently, when its navigation button froze and I could no longer reach any emails or texts at all. In a peculiarly 21st-century torment, I saw the texts piling up, each one a notification of inaccessible information. I imagined the puzzled senders, bemused by my rudeness: near-instant contact is no longer a privilege, but an expectation. Nonetheless, I staggered on in this mode for a little while — occasionally, without warning, the button would spring into life, and I could catch a brief, poignant glimpse of missed opportunities and people I now had to apologise to — until I realised that the Curve and I had no future together. It still woke me up with its burbling alarm, sometimes at odd times, until I yanked its battery out.

I won’t bore you with the details of the multiple trips to the Vodafone shop to find a new phone, the mystifying array of potential deals, or the unhappy discovery that I had signed up for one kind of contract but been officially registered for another: a situation that all the Vodafone employees agreed was a terrible shame, but which seemed as complex to resolve as an ancient land rights dispute between peoples with no history of the written word. In confusion and despair, I purchased a diminutive Samsung mobile for £10. It had a tiny memory, but a strong appetite for existential questioning: every time I switched it on it asked: ‘How are you today?’

In the midst of this my computer died. It was very old, and so heavy that it was a laptop in name only, unless one had the lap of Finn MacCool. It had long been ailing, noisily blasting waves of warm air out of its side, and its AC adapter was so roasting hot you could have fried an egg while charging the battery: I became certain that it was slyly slow-cooking some of my internal organs as I typed. I suppose I’m lucky that it clapped out before it burned the house down.

The visits to Vodafone became interspersed with fruitless trips to the electronics department of John Lewis in Oxford Street, which is where people who don’t know anything about computers go to buy computers. Even there, afloat in a dizzying sea of laptops and tablets with varying functions, weights and price points, I began to feel badly disoriented: I ached for the days of the fountain pen, or further back, to runes scratched in damp sand with the sharp end of a stick. After wandering around staring, I would catch the escalator downstairs and stumble back out into the street. Soon after that, I had a very bad run-in with a dysfunctional printer.

To survive today, technophobes must depend heavily on the kindness of strangers. There now exists a large and expanding service industry specifically designed to manage the anxiety of people like me, who secretly still believe that if they press the wrong button they could either wipe all their own data or launch a nuclear attack on Russia. The Carphone Warehouse boasts a ‘Geek Squad’, O2 has a brigade of ‘O2 Gurus’, and PC World has the ‘Knowhow’ team. If you’re ever lonely in a crowded city, get yourself a malfunctioning electronic device: you can put in whole days just meeting new people and chatting. Still, the equation between time saved by technology and time wasted upon it is becoming more questionable.

I’ve bought a new Blackberry now, a Q10, which came out only last year and is already considered something of a retro choice. Some people, particularly the army of iPhone devotees, snigger openly at Blackberries, but I like their miniature keyboards — and if they’re still good enough for Andy Murray, Barack Obama and Kim Kardashian, they’re good enough for me. The most patient Vodafone employee in England is helping me set it up, although there’s sometimes quite a queue. I’m going back to see him again today. We’re almost there.


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