Melanie McDonagh

Why is it so hard to live without a mobile phone?

Why is it so hard to live without a mobile phone?
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Last week, my mobile phone stopped working. No big deal you might think. If you can get emails on your computer, and you’ve got a landline and that old-fashioned thing, post, why, you’re not cut off, are you?

There are, of course, people who wilfully eschew their phones so as to be more in touch with the present moment… birds, clouds, flowers etc. And I’m hardly a junkie. I don’t do social media. I’m a grown-up, so I’m not on Snapchat. Not having a phone should have been fine. But as I discovered, I was quickly cut out of society.

First off, you can’t tell the time. Obviously, when you’ve got a phone you don’t need a watch. Or a clock. And it’s remarkable once you don’t have a phone how few places turn out to have clocks. I was on my way to a hospital appointment last week and I was, as ever, late; but it turns out that businesses don’t have prominent office clocks that passers-by can look at. I managed to see a clock only in a fashionable estate agent which had an enormous one. And if you ask people the time, well, it’s the well-known preliminary to a mugging.

When you do get to your appointment, your NHS digital wallet is on your phone. Just as well, really, that the Covid regulations have been relaxed and I’m not travelling anywhere. Because my Covid vaccination passport is on the phone too. When I was in Paris, so was the French equivalent which allows you to get into museums and cafés.

When I had my phone, I bought e-tickets for rail journeys which you swipe on readers. But it turns out that if you don’t have a printer, there’s no way you can get at your tickets. I called the company to ask whether I might get them from a station ticket machine instead but no, you’d have to buy new ones.

Naturally I did the sensible thing and bought a dear little travel clock and a perfectly lovely Timex wristwatch in a charity shop to solve the time problem. They were manual, so I felt a little smug and eco-friendly. In fact I was looking forward to hearing again that now-vanished sound of the passing of time… tick-tock. Trouble is, it turns out I have lost the knack of winding the stupid things up, and they’re now over-wound and not budging. I took them to Timpson, my favourite repair shop, and the man there looked at me pityingly. No love, can’t do these. Timex don’t do spare parts; it’s cheaper to buy a new watch. You’d pay £120-odd to have this done. As for the clock, that, apparently, has to go to a jeweller.

So, it was back to BT for my wake-up calls — do you remember that fun function on landlines, where you can get a reminder call by dialling *55*? I’m awaiting the bill for that with interest — supplemented by my daughter’s alarm on her phone.

Obviously, I wasn’t getting emails when I was on the move, nor receiving any texts, so I was missing out on work. But the most irritating practical effect was that I couldn’t pay for anything. I could still use my debit card in shops and draw out actual money if I could only find that rare facility, a cash machine. But any online purchases are out of bounds. My bank, the Allied Irish (GB), has a Verified by Visa function, which means you have to use a code to verify any online transactions. Except guess where the code gets sent to? I rang up the bank to ask them to verify my purchases some other way but it turns out that’s not possible. It’s all done by a computer and it must go to a mobile phone.

The transactions that I wasn’t able to make piled up: the fee for my son’s online university application (in desperation I sent cash to his tutor, which he thought was some kind of bribe) or credit for my daughter’s school lunches or her art supplies. ParentPay, a cashless payment system for schools, is Verified by Visa too.

There are advantages to not having a phone. There’s a curious sense of liberation about being unreachable. I’d forgotten how much the stupid phone had become an extension of me; how I jumped to attention when I got a text notification, how anxious I have become about the battery dying, about having it with me when I left the house. Now, between home and office, between one computer and another, I can’t be got at. That spares me being shouted at when people get angry. I haven’t missed that.

In old German fairy stories, giants were hard to kill because they kept their hearts away from their bodies, in trees and things. I get the impression our functions, our active selves, have been similarly delegated to a phone. Once you don’t have it, you fall off the social radar. Even toddlers in pushchairs know how to use a phone. It’s the universal childminder, companion, toy substitute, book substitute. Try taking one away from a two-year-old. Our phone really has become part of who we are. What happens when the whole system breaks down? One day, we may find out.

What do you mean
‘Wait, what do you mean I can’t take it with me?’