Given how indispensable a modern smartphone can be for someone who spends a great deal of time online, could losing or breaking one produce a psychological reaction that is essentially a form of grief?
In the past, I’ve often scoffed at people who seem to live entirely through their smartphone. I have openly mocked the people who queue through the night to get the latest versions. I have smugly rolled my eyes at people who constantly check their phones for updates and alerts in social situations. I have expressed frustration about people who can’t seem to do anything in any context without taking and posting a picture of themselves doing it. I have enthusiastically agreed with people berating those who obsessively film any live event they’re at, rather than watching the damn thing. I am one of those people who sees his phone as a useful device, nothing more.
Or so I thought.
Yesterday, my phone broke. One second it was working (I’d just used it to take a photo of a particularly undesirable apple), and the next it was just … gone. There was a very slender fracture in the screen, but that’s all it took to render the whole thing unusable. It was a newer model that I’d only had for three months, and now it had been snatched away by cruel fate.
The loss of my phone caused me to experience some worryingly vivid emotional responses; it seemed I was experiencing the five stages of grief, also known as the Kübler-Ross model. I’ve written before about how grief is a very complex process. Also, the five stages idea is far from a proven occurrence. Nevertheless, my reactions conformed precisely to the five stages, in a short space of time. How appropriate, given that smartphones are blamed for damaging attention spans.
Christmas is almost upon us, and many will likely end up with new phones that they grow very attached to. So here’s a run-down of what I went through in case it happens to you, so you can be better prepared for it.
When my phone first broke, I couldn’t accept that this was possible. I’m careful with my phone(s), I keep them in a case, never drop them, I still had the screen guard on this one. I also hadn’t done anything to break it; it was in my pocket. Ergo, it couldn’t be broken. This crack in the screen turning the whole display black would go away if I cleaned it. Or restarted it. Or if I took the Sim card out and blew on it (an approach anyone who ever owned a cartridge games console will have used). The fact that the crack was clearly physical damage and nothing to do with software was something that just could not take hold in my brain. These phones cost a lot of money and are very advanced. How could they just “break”? It’s ridiculous.
My psychological defence mechanisms had kicked in, so the loss of my phone was clearly a big deal.
When it sunk in that my phone was broken, I got very angry about the whole thing.
You may scoff at the idea of getting angry about something as trivial as a phone. I would have agreed until very recently. But something being “trivial” is no barrier to people getting very angry about it. And my intense reactions showed that, despite my own protestations, I clearly didn’t consider my phone trivial.
I had looked after my phone. I’d never damaged one before, let alone irreparably. I’ve seen many friends with phones so battered you’d think they been using them as Frisbees. I’ve even seen one use his phone as a coaster!Putting a device worth hundreds of pounds at risk to preserve the integrity of a pub table? These people should have broken phones, not me. I’d looked after my phone and paid a daft amount for a decent model, so for mine to break wasn’t fair! And unfairness is one thing that’s bound to make a person angry.
Once I’d calmed down a bit, I decided that I’d turn my phone off and charge it up for a bit, see if it felt better after a rest and a full battery. I’d never heard of devices “recovering” from physical damage, but then these modern phones are pretty advanced.
Failing this, I considered asking someone if we could swap phones. I’d put my Sim card in theirs, and they’d get my broken one to use. Exactly how this deal would be of benefit to the other person is something I’ve still not figured out.
I then started explaining my situation to those around me, in case they knew a fix or solution to my problem. Obviously, none were forthcoming. Eventually, I was reduced to asking people if they could find my wife on Facebook and send her a message about what had happened, in exchange for a favourable tweet once I regained internet access.
If I ever compile the 10 most dignified moments of my life, I very much doubt this will be on that list.
Once my bargaining had failed, I got depressed. Not proper clinical depressed, just sorry for myself. I felt that if I couldn’t keep a phone safe from harm despite my best efforts, there was no way I could be trusted with anything more important or valuable. (I have a two-year-old son, so this was a worrying thought.)
I also thought of the potential consequences of my being out of contact for what might be several days. All my Twitter followers, my Facebook friends, my email contacts, my actual real-world friends whom I text with regularly; what would they do without my constant presence in their lives? And it dawned on me fairly quickly that they would do nothing different. Many probably wouldn’t even notice. I might get a few “You were gone?” replies when I regain access to the online world, but nothing would be any different without me.
Nothing makes you feel more insignificant than realising that that’s what you actually are.
This all happened while I was away in London, so I had to make my way home without the benefit of constant internet access. I had to figure out the tube maps just by looking at them. I had to remember where I’d been and the directions to return there. I had to go to the train station and find out the departure times from the actual announcements. I had to read a book rather than use the internet, like some sort of Neanderthal.
It was refreshing. It was reassuring. It was oddly soothing. I considered whether I really wanted to get my phone fixed at all, as without it I was able to really appreciate my surroundings and interact with them on a more visceral level, giving me an expanded worldview and deeper understanding of what it truly means to be human.
I decided I would get it fixed, though; I’m clearly more dependent on it than is healthy. But look at the insufferable arse I turn into without it.
Dean Burnett is aware that this piece is largely self-indulgent rambling about inconsequential happenings, but he only wrote it to gain some extra money to cover the unexpected expense of getting his phone repaired. He can be seen complaining bitterly about this on Twitter, @garwboy
This article was written by Dean Burnett, for theguardian.com on Monday 22nd December 2014 07.15 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010