Howard Jacobson: ‘I don’t do social media, so why can’t I stop checking my phone?’

I recall my first mobile phone with a mixture of fondness and irritation. I bought it 20 years ago in Australia in preparation for the arduous trek from Perth to Broome in the far north-west. Broome was known to be a feral place. Superannuated pearl fishermen roamed the streets in cowboy boots. Six-foot goannas broke into kitchens to rummage through the rubbish. Brahminy kites patrolled the skies, waiting for whatever sidled poisonously out of the mangrove swamps. Temperatures reached a thousand degrees in the shade, only there was no shade. When you’re that remote, a mobile phone is a necessity. “Hello, is that air rescue? Helicopter me out of here. Now.”

It was a chunky Nokia cased in leather with a waterproof plastic window and a clip for hanging on your belt, alongside your crocodile knife and snake eviscerator. A phone was just a phone then. It sent a call and it received a call. Except that in Broome it did neither. No signal that far north. I wore it on my belt anyway, in case I needed to throw it at a goanna.

Since then, I have owned a dozen mobile phones, each a little more sophisticated than the last, though anyone under the age of 40 would laugh at what I call sophisticated. I send emails, I get texts, I visit the Guardian website to see how Donald Trump is managing with his six-word vocabulary and I keep up with the cricket. That’s it. I have no apps. I play no games. I don’t tweet or otherwise socially interconnect. I don’t photograph my lunch, and I don’t walk into traffic with my head buried in the screen. All of which, wouldn’t you say, makes me a low-level user. That being the case, what is the hold my phone exerts on me?

The extent of my dependency struck me the other evening as I was sitting on the terrace, drinking malbec, complimenting my wife on her best tagine yet (yes, yes, the metropolitan elite at play) and eyeing my phone. What for? I was expecting no call. There was no cricket being played. Trump was on a golf course. (Loser.) There was nothing in the whole wide world I needed to be informed about. Arched above me a beautiful late summer sky: once I would have looked up for hours, marvelling at how a charcoal cloud could turn into a gold one. Ranged before me a sumptuous supper: once I would have tried distinguishing taste from taste, herb from herb, spice from spice. Once I would have smiled at my companion.

Finis. Life is now shrunk to waiting for a little red light to flash. I am one of the damned and I don’t even have an app.

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