Belfast Telegraph

Gail Walker: We are too busy on our smartphones to appreciate simple joys in world around us

Modern society is just so connected now that we risk losing sight of what should be important to us, writes Gail Walker

Smartphones are the communications equivalent of the gassy vape cigarette
Smartphones are the communications equivalent of the gassy vape cigarette
Gail Walker

By Gail Walker

In the run-up to Christmas, many glossy magazine gift guides advised that this year's must-have new accessory would be the "dumbphone".

That's right. The dumbphone. In other words, all those phones we used way, way back in the Noughties. Phones that you used to make phone calls, or send very slow texts, or, if it was very swish, enjoy a furtive game of Snake at work.

Dumbphones were, the lifestyle editors told us, bold, kitsch, nostalgic and ironic.

And, suddenly, I began to miss my old fliptop phone. I loved that. Flipping open that clamshell (if I remember the correct term) made one feel a little bit dynamic, a little bit futuristic, as if you were on the Starship Enterprise.

And then, most joyous of all, the click of the fliptop when you ended the phone call. The finality of it. No swiping or smudging, but a satisfying clip.

Do smartphones do that? Yes, they are all about access and availability, but what about making one feel empowered and in charge of the call?

I don't think so. Smartphones are the communications equivalent of the gassy vape cigarette. They look like they are as cool and sexy as the original and, in fact, they may be more functional, but also more stressful and much less chic. Like the ciggies, less Humphrey Bogart and more Ben Stiller.

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Nope, smartphones make you feel bad, stupid and vain. It is the head of the cult forbidding you to stop, think and talk. There is only one way to inner happiness and it's in 5G.

It used to be that the one thing you expected to find in a cafe - apart from coffee and a barista showing off - was the drone of gossip exchanged, or debate under way. But now it's more like a meeting of Trappist monks, everyone with heads bowed, serious looks on their faces, with the odd young recruit asking staff "what's the Wi-Fi password?"

I am no better than anyone else. Too often my smartphone is clasped in my paw, checking emails, jumping between Facebook and Twitter.

Sadly, it has filled in all the lacunae in our lives. Before, we had large chunks of time where we weren't being bombarded with information or entertained by nonsense.

Remember the old-fashioned bank, with its queues on a Friday afternoon? Back then, these were officially "bad", a waste of our valuable time. And yet, really, was it so horrible?

Now, I'd love a long wait in a queue with nothing, absolutely nothing, distracting me from the sheer blessed boredom of it all. No phone request to rate the bank's service today. No breaking news about reaction to the PM's latest speech. No last-minute offers, or a friendship request from US Marine officer Hiram N Firam on a cruiser in the Pacific.

Just peace, perfect peace. At its best, there was a kind of "all-in-this-together" Blitz spirit. At its worst, a chance to look - really look - at some people's horrible footwear choices.

And in between all of that... boredom could waft you away to mull over how you might best help someone in a fix. Or relive a special moment with loved ones, recalling the exchange of conversation. Or think about the advice one of your dear departed might give you right now, hearing their voice clear as a bell in your head again.

Or - just imagine - actually exchanging pleasantries with the stranger standing next to you.

In other words, engaging with things that aren't made up of pixels. That aren't by definition "elsewhere", but right in front of our eyes. That's not to say we should all join the Amish and throw our phones in the Lagan. There is comfort to be had from always being able to get in touch with family and friends. Also, information that years ago you would have had to spend hours physically researching is at your fingertips in nanoseconds. Just what was the B-side of David Soul's Don't Give Up On Us, Baby?

So, it's time to choose the dumbphone - even just as a metaphor for how we live. That means choosing to say "Hello". To knock the neighbours' doors. Wheel out the bins for that elderly chap in the street.

Put a copy of the Bel Tel through someone's letterbox if they're not fit to go out. Chat at the supermarket. Give the thumbs-up for real to other drivers at the lights.

Say "Evening" to people you meet out with the dogs, "Thanks" to the bus driver or train conductor.

There is that acronym "LOL" which means "laugh out loud". It is all over the internet and never has there been so little "laughing out loud" being done.

It's almost a rule now that the more "LOL" you see, the less laughing there is, because the LOL does it for us. We don't even have to laugh for real.

Similarly, many of us think "liking" other people's expressions of sorrow for tragedies is the same as actually being empathetic ourselves.

The so-called emoticons - little cartoons of frowny or smiley faces - are all we have to show responses to profound moments of human exchange.

A child dies in a mine? Frowny or double-teary face. Children are rescued? Party confetti.

Liking someone's teary-face (hitting the little heart, or thumbs-up button) registers as "sympathy", but, in fact, it's simply lazy, quite offensive and "going through the motions" of sympathy - the worst kind of rotten behaviour, the sort we would never indulge in, in real life.


No, I'm not. You're on your own, chum. It's 4.30am and I need to sleep.

But on it goes, our lives undermined by our own phones.

Right down to bedtime, when the brain is exhausted by it all, but somehow we just have to have one more quick glance at the wonderful lives being lived by other people in other places.

One more opportunity to be depressed by the successes other are having in every sphere of human existence. Those lucky people who are brighter, fitter, wealthier, more confident, less nervous and better looking than we are.

And all of them telling lies. "Brilliant", "humbled", "honoured", "so happy"... nope. None of it is true.

They are all just talking to themselves in the dark, exactly the way we are.

Hoping someone else believes the fibs each of us tells.

We're so connected to everything, we risk losing sight of the really important. There has to be a better way to live.

Belfast Telegraph


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