Smartphones tell us what to do, where to go and let us play Angry Birds. And when we need them the most, they run out of batteryby Sam Leith / February 23, 2011 / Leave a comment
For want of a nail, we’re told, the kingdom was lost. Wise words, those. I find myself more and more interested in the way that apparently insignificant problems propagate. Let’s say, for instance, that the page-turn on a digital reader is just one fraction of a second slower than you’d like. An individual reader will get used to it. But if five or ten million people bought that device, and read 100 books each on them, generations’ worth of human time would vanish forever into those tiny digital interstices.
I am, as you may have guessed, one of those people who frequently lies awake at night, jaw clenched, blinking into the darkness because he read somewhere that by the time he dies he will have spent 38.5 days brushing his teeth. And now, a fear that has so far been largely subliminal has come galloping out of the old unconscious to cough its pilchardy breath in my face.
Slightly less than 24 hours after passing its MOT, my bastard car expired with a dyspeptic “pop,” an eiderdown of white smoke pouring from the bonnet. And so my heavily pregnant fiancée, 18-month-old daughter and self were stranded at the side of the A4000 in cold drizzle, trucks thundering past, cursing our luck. Miles, as it happened, from the house in which we were supposed to be feeding my mum’s cats.
My partner and our offspring went off in a taxi while I waited for the tow truck. But over the course of the afternoon, my grim journey by tow truck to garage to taxi gained another layer of tension. By teatime, both my phone and my other half’s were running out of battery. And when either died, we would no longer merely be inconvenienced: we would have no way of finding each other short of hoping to bump into the other while Christmas shopping on Oxford Street sometime in the next decade.
There is that missing nail. Though smartphones may have changed the lives of many of us for the better, they have also added a dangerous dependency. You now move from charging opportunity to charging opportunity like a junkie in a strange city in which you don’t know how to score.
Many of us use these gizmos as nanny, navigator and filing clerk. We rely on them to amuse us, to guide us through city streets, and to store not only contact details for our nearest and dearest, but where and when we’re supposed to be next. And far and away the most popular smartphone—though I daresay it’s not alone in this—has a battery that, if it leaves the house fully charged in the morning, has every chance of conking out before you return at night.
If the fear of death is part of our psychic background hum, fear of phone death now serves as its parodic proxy in day-to-day life. All around us, there are people with this anxiety niggling away at them. How long since my last charge? How long till my next? The anxiety comes with guilt. If you hadn’t hidden in the loo playing Angry Birds for the second half of that meeting, you’d still have a nearly full battery.
First the battery bar turns red, and a pop-up warning appears. Then fear bites. Will it make it? You fumble for a pen, using what you imagine to be the phone’s last minutes to transfer numbers out of the bowels of its memory and onto the back of your hand. An incoming “courtesy call” from your bank sucks the battery life like an ISA-flogging vampire. Yet on it soldiers—that red sliver in the battery bar, last of its lifeblood, thin as a baby’s fingernail. Hope—riotous, irresponsible hope—takes hold.
Finally, whatever you’re doing snaps out and reverts to the home screen. A circling flower, waving goodbye. Then darkness. And you are well and truly sunk. Soon, you will be one of the few Britons in the last two decades to have tried to use a phone box to make a call rather than, say, have a pee.
For any one of us this is an occasional, usually trivial, inconvenience. But multiply it per user. Across the world, how many missed connections, ruined evenings, anxious parents and grovelling apologies have those marginal hours of battery life—enough for optimism, not enough for certainty—cost? How many taxis circling with their occupant trying to remember what the club his friends were going on to was called? And, for scallywags, how many adulterous meetings or shirked panics at work has the “dead iPhone” bought?
I’m quite serious. Smartphones haven’t just shaped our lives by being handy. They have shaped them at least as powerfully—perhaps even more so—by the ways in which they aren’t handy. Whole rhythms and cycles of existence are now built around something as arbitrary as the battery life of a phone. Curse you, Steve Jobs. And curse you, my car.