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2016 was the year that… we became far too obsessed with our phones

Walk down any London street and the majority of people passing are engrossed in their phones; heads down, oblivious to all else, about to walk straight into you. As the dehumanising effects of our phones continues to grow, we ask has our obsession...

by James Anderson
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27 December 2016, 7:50am

In the 1980s, Japanese tourists in London were renowned for photographing every-single-thing-they-possibly-could, however seemingly banal it might be. Big expensive cameras would be collectively whipped out, tripods set up, lenses attached and adjusted and click-click-click they went.

Our Japanese friends' need for photographic documentation of every aspect of their trip from start to finish, was at the time seen by those more familiar with the Capital as eccentric, comical, bizarre. Typical Brits in those days were much less bothered about capturing daily antics with a camera. Taking photos was an activity mostly reserved for special occasions, like birthdays or weddings - the amateurish results duly shoved into a photo album and generally forgotten about. Sometimes, however, the Japanese penchant for London life through a lens could prove lucrative to predatory trendies: in the mid-80s, a punkish female friend and I would hop on a train from up North to "that London", to earn considerable sums of money parading our garish cockatoo hairdos and mis-matched charity shop attire up and down the then-fashionable King's Road. We would charge tourists - Japanese mostly, but others from far-flung parts of the world, too - £1.00 per photo of ourselves. It was a win-win situation: the tourists gained genuine evidence of some 'Crazy London Punks!' to show the folks back home (and, no doubt, piss themselves laughing at), while we could live on contentedly, sound in the knowledge that we could afford to buy more hairspray next week.

Nowadays, we are all like 1980s' Japanese tourists in London. But we don't need the cumbersome cameras and awkward apparatus of yesteryear, of course, because we have our clever little smart phones to facilitate each whim and every necessity of modern life. That's a good thing, isn't it?

Not necessarily.

I was as excitable as the next person when I got my first ever mobile phone. It was given to me in the year 2000 by my then boss, while working at a new-fangled dot.com company which seemed to have tons of money to pay me and some equally bewildered friends - a stylist, a photographer and two buyers - to faff about in a fancy office in Covent Garden, with the intention of flogging young and directional British fashion, amid a flurry of related editorial content, to newly emerging online shoppers.

The company not surprisingly only lasted a year or two, but I kept the phone, a Nokia, after we had all been made redundant and tossed from Cyberpsace back into the real world. Because I am Dyspraxic and extremely inept with any kind of contraption or gadget, I never bothered to look for a different kind of phone, or shop around for a 'better deal' - despite being urged to by all 'n' sundry to do so. I just got another Nokia, then another, then another as the years went by. Its functions were basic, which suited me fine. This carried on until 2014, when to my dismay Orange, now known as EE, suddenly texted me to tell me I had to upgrade because in two weeks' time my old fashioned Nokia was going to be killed off - or words to that effect. Sure enough, fourteen days later it simply stopped working. So, I was compelled to join the rest of the world and get an iPhone, any related anxiety softened somewhat by the promise of cheaper monthly bills and access to a brave new world.

After a few awkward weeks, feebly attempting to get the hang of this sleek sarnie of plastic, metal and glass - which absolutely everyone else seemed to find so easy to use - I finally sort-of semi-sussed it out, through gritted teeth, though from the depths of my bag or pocket my phone kept accidentally trying to facetime random people - a plumber who'd fixed my shower back in 2009, for example. And I somehow kept switching on the in-built torch, then not knowing how to make it go away and causing the battery to run out. I surpressed the urge to smash the little fucker to smithereens when it wouldn't seem to do what I wanted it to. At least I had finally joined the 21st Century, albeit as a telephonic-Johnny Come Lately.

For the past two years I've tried to go along with it all, this culture of Us And Our Love Affair With Our Phones, but my interaction is half hearted. I've read the reports about people camping outside Apple to get their sticky mitts on some new version of the same old shit and I wondered why they needed it so desperately? More disconcerting was gradually discovering how hugely irritated and impatient people become if you express any level of disinterest in this mass cult of constant communication, curation, connectedness and competitiveness: I've had arguments with friends and work colleagues about why I don't regularly check my emails on my phone - I just can't be arsed. I've been scoffed at for not wanting to listen to music via my phone when using public transport - I like eavesdropping on other people's conversations too much (unless its overhearing some jobsworth bore, on their phone, banging on about 'emailing Sandra from H.R about the spreadsheets...'). I've been harrangued for not using Google maps while out and about - getting a bit lost now and then is no big deal. I've been scolded endless times for not answering my phone - because it's often nestling in my bag and I don't hear it ringing.

I'm a rubbish Luddite, which I realise is not very exciting. But my instinctive unease about the dehumanising effects of our phones continues to grow. You walk down any street in London nowadays and the majority of people passing by are engrossed in some phone-y activity; heads down, oblivious to all else, about to walk straight into you. There is much less eye contact occurring than there used to be, much less curiosity about and noticing-of-things going on immediately around you. In the supermarket, I feel sorry for the person working on the checkout. As if the job isn't already robotic and boring enough, many customers are now chatting into their phones while shoving their groceries into recycled shopper bags - adorned with smug slogans that promote a fairer world - while entirely blanking the human serving them. You go to a gig - and notice that for a lot of fans it is not so much a chance to interact with the efforts of their musical idols, or mingle with some potentially like-minded people, but instead a night of getting tired arms from holding a phone in the air to capture wobbly footage, later uploaded on social media complete with horrible, distorted sound. At a funeral earlier this year I was startled at how many people were fiddling about with their phones at such a sad occasion; I hoped the family of the young man who had died didn't notice this disrespectful lack of engagement. I saw a clip on the internet recently, dramatically announcing the world's first underwater nightclub - possibly a hoax, but I didn't bother to check as I knew I would never want to go there, anyway. Mainly because the punters - who wore elaborate headgear and oxygen tanks to enable them to breathe - weren't indulging in any of the debauched and giddy frolics one might typically associate with a night out, but instead all peering through their visors at their phones, barely aware than anyone else was there. It looked really fucking boring. No less tedious is the ubiquity of the phone at 21st Century fashion shows. While I understand that taking non stop photos or filming the models on the runway is now the norm - as opposed to simply looking with, you know, your eyes, to properly scrutinise the fruits of designers' efforts - it suggests not so much a love of fashion, but an egotistical need to be seen in public engaged in the process of documenting fashion. And the very same people who do this so fervently and rigidly tend to be the first to leap from their seats and leg it to the next unveiling of a new collection, without even bothering to applaud the conclusion of the show they are already at, which is vile. Arguably, the designer ultimately benefits from the ensuing publicity once these photos and clips are uploaded to endless blogs and sites. But I've asked quite a lot of designers how they feel about their ideas and toils being represented in this way, and by and large they despair at the ubiquitous out of focus and poorly composed representations of their work splattered all over the online world. It's not a good look.

Increasingly, I find in more everyday social situations friends feel distracted, twitchy, not-quite-there - unable to disconnect from their phones. Repeatedly checking texts, seeing how many likes they've got on Instagram, tweeting quips for the benefit of their online mates they've never even met, uploading a photo of their lunch - why? - or suddenly answering or making a call mid-way through a conversation. Can it be a coincidence that so many people apparently now suffer from some strand of mental illness?

I've done some of this shit, too. But I'm trying to curtail it before my brain finally fries from the constant sense of trying to be everywhere all at once. I've been switching my phone off sometimes, especially while working, and it feels weirdly liberating. My lifelong inability to concentrate has slightly improved and it's a massive relief to not feel bombarded and invaded so much of the time by messages and calls, all of which can usually be dealt with later.

I would never want to return to the world we had before mobile phones - those red phone boxes used to stink of piss and often got vandalised, meaning the phone often didn't actually work. And if you were ever running late to meet someone there was no way of letting them know. By contrast, it can be super convenient to be able to contact someone anywhere, at any time. Being able to take photos with a phone can also be a wonderful thing - far removed from the laughable and inconvenient past, when a roll of film from a camera would have to be dropped off at your local branch of Boots to be developed and printed, all of which might take days.

Despite this, my confused and neggy phone vibes reached a zenith recently, on a cold October morning, in morning rush hour traffic in good old London Town. As the number 68 bus rumbled across Waterloo bridge I suddenly spotted something startling, through the window. A very scruffy looking man, possibly pissed, had climbed over the railings of the bridge and was tilting himself forwards, holding on to the railing with one hand, wobbling precariously over the murky River Thames below. A suicide about to take place? I quickly looked around the bus - had I imagined this, or was it real? The dozen or so fellow passengers on the upstairs deck were oblivious, either looking at or talking to people on their phones. As the bus proceeded, I looked back, craning to see, and sure enough he was still there - still teetering on the edge. I also noticed various other people, dressed in their office wear, marching past him along the pavement, apparently not seeing him, looking the other way, or simply distracted by being On The Phone.

In a panic, I rummaged in my bag and pulled out mine. Momentarily clocking that it had been trying yet again to facetime some poor sod, I punched in 999 and blurted out what I'd seen to the police. I was assured I had done the right thing by reporting this and further assured there would be an immediate response to this situation. A few minutes passed, by which time I had got off the bus, feeling extremely perturbed, the police rang me back to tell me they had found him, he hadn't jumped, he was okay.

Afterwards, I wondered if the stranger on the bridge owned a phone and, if so, did he not feel able to call anyone to ask for help? And I was glad that I did and that I could.

Credits


Fashion Director Charlotte Stockdale
Photography and styling models