21 - Smart phones stole my brain
And I want it back. Introducing The Notebooks, and the letters we write to ourselves.
I often hear people ask what would you tell your younger self? What wisdom would you impart?
I’m not at all sure this is the right way round.
Growing older strikes me as an act of forgetting, so why should I have more answers now, the older I am? I don’t even know where my keys are.
I actually think it’s my younger self that has all the answers. She was a master of juking the system. I find myself outwitted by the system, effortlessly outmanoeuvred and so deeply enmeshed I wonder if it’s not too late to escape.
I’ve always known that my younger self has the answers, because she has written prolifically to her future selves. That is, to me. I have written ahead, to myself.
When I was 16, I wrote to my 26 year old self.
When I was 27, to my 37 year old self (because I didn’t find the 26 year old letter til I was 27).
The most recent, written a few months ago to my 47 year old self.
The writing-letters-to-our-younger-selves thing in contrast strikes me as hubristic, and a bit depressing. Hubristic because, again, I am not convinced I have more answers than my younger self. And depressing because, even if I were to write to her, my younger self is gleaning nothing from it, trust me. She’s already long gone.
At least my 47 year old self might get something from last year’s letter to her (which is a stern kick-in-the-butt and a call to action so let’s see if she listens).
Also, and maybe this is the key point, I’m really not convinced I’m getting older and wiser.
And, for this, I blame my phone.
I know. Another technophobe! How thrilling! How original!
It’s true though. I have a very unhappy relationship with my phone. Last year I tried to get rid of her and go back to the Nokia I had when I was 14 (the one with Snake!). That lasted about three hours, and an SMS that, despite being only about four sentences long, had to be sent in three different texts. Now sending 1/3….. now sending 2/3…
Back to the iPhone then, with not a small amount of resentment.
To take you back, just by way of context, I was very late to the smart phone party. While everyone else was cruising around on Twitter and Tinder as the ‘10s dawned, I had an old flip phone — calls and SMS only. It was bright pink and super basic. I cycled through different numbers, networks and SIM cards on it, across at least three continents. It did the job it had to do and never once did I wish for it to do anything else.
When I moved to Burma in 2013, I needed a new phone, which had to be compatible with my new (to me) Myanmar Telecoms SIM card. Those were the only SIM cards that were then permitted on Myanmar’s frayed, ancient and tremendously overstretched network. No one had a “handphone” (as they were charmingly called) except for the military and the odd foreigner (mainly, me) and those grubby SIM cards were a rare, precious currency. Mine cost me $250— a bargain I was assured, the price had been two thousand a mere six months earlier — and, to acquire it, I had to taxi with an actual SIM card broker to a far-flung alleyway near Shwedagon pagoda and hand over a stack of crisp starched US dollar notes.
But that’s a tale for another time. I bought the cheapest phone I could find to go with my very expensive SIM card and that Huawei was my first “smart” phone. While there was nothing very smart about it, it was the first time I had a phone with a built-in camera and that felt wildly revolutionary at the time — goodbye digital camera! Goodbye constantly deleting photos to make space! — but way less revolutionary when you see the grainy thumbnails it produced and also, Burma in 2013 was not a particularly useful place to have a smart phone. There was no 3G, wifi was almost universally non-existent and Uber and Deliveroo may as well have been on Jupiter.
It wasn’t until 2015, after my son was born, that I moved back to London and my sister gave me an old iPhone she had kicking around.
Lo, suddenly I became a smart phone user.
My god, was it useful. I could read one-handed while feeding a child. I could order take-out. Answer emails. Scour Rightmove. Find my way around London via the most optimal possible route, updated live in real time. What did I do before this?! How did I navigate from one side of London to another with just a mental tube map? How did I eat?!?
But, with great power comes great carelessness.
Because why remember anything or write it down when I can just google it?
Why not keep 300 tabs open in case I ever need to refer back to anything ever again!
Now which tab was that thing on?
Never mind, I’ll just google it again.
Hang on, I have a notification. I’ll just respond to this message.
[Breaking news on the New York Times].
[Your screen time is up 870% from last week].
What was I googling?
See? My mind became lazy. This is why older me has no more answers. My mental tube map is long gone. I can barely remember which line Finsbury Park is on. (I lie. Victoria. And maybe Piccadilly?)
I'm allergic to modern life. I hate my phone. I am aware that this is the anti-tech-backlash-Luddite tale of our time and it is hardly ground-breaking.
I refuse to concede that Insta has determined what my story is.
I will not bow to the hubris of thinking I (older, wiser) have all the answers now (even though I *literally* do have all the answers, right now, on Google, at my fingertips).
Luckily, I have a colossal stack of things I wrote down before smart phones stole my brain. A gift, from my younger self.
The Notebooksis me, mining them for her wisdom.
Anyway, that’s the plan. To mine the morsels from my pre-phone brain.
If I can remember it.
I’ll just make a note on my phone.
Brilliantly, this was an entirely sunk cost. Ooredoo and Telenor subsequently rolled out their networks across the country the following year and, in one fell swoop, collapsed forever the lucrative Burmese market in second-hand SIM cards. By the time I left Burma in 2015, everyone — from the kid working in my tea shop to the granny balancing shopping on her head — all had handphones and two-dollar SIM cards. Better minds than mine have written at length about the mobile phone revolution in Myanmar, if you’re interested, not all effects positive. But again, a tale for another time.
A section of Life Litter in which the aim is to post an excerpt a week from The Notebooks, ie. a collection of every notebook, journal, diary and Saltines box I’ve ever kept, written and scribbled on from about 1991 to roughly the present day. They are a ball-ache to type up though so if anyone has any great dictation/ handwriting recognition / labour-saving apps, I’m all ears. And yes, I do know that I have just completely undermined my Luddite message.
Eek I have definitely foreshadowed too much wisdom and oversold The Notebooks. 🤦🏻♀️ There is also a vast amount of wittering... but surely what is life if not a vast amount of wittering! (Around the edges of a tiny little nugget of wisdom, maybe, if we’re lucky...?) Also, I’m less a rage googler and more of an idle googler, consistently losing the thread of whatever it was I meant to Google (which possibly means early senility beckons) but I’m all for less phone usage either way - so SOLIDARITY. And thank you so much for the kind words ❤️ I hope The Notebooks deliver, even a little bit. And let’s see yours!!! I’m impressed beyond belief at your organisational abilities, I tried bullet notebooking once and think I lasted slightly less than a week 😳 I’m definitely more chaos than organised 🤣🙋🏻♀️ xx
Such a great post, Jill! Loved this: "But, with great power comes great carelessness." It was only on reading that line that I realised quite how - and how much - I use my phone just because it's there. And that's ME, an avid notebooker of the first degree...! Need to pull my tatty socks up with inky, analogue fingers, and put the phone down from time to time instead of all that 'rage Googling' I seem to do on a daily basis - just because I HAVE access to a world of information doesn't mean I need to dive in there. I'm going to mend my ways!
Yay to The Notebooks! A while ago I was wondering about showing one of the daily logs from my archived bullet journal every so often, as a kind of 'on this day in (whichever year)' kind of feature, but unlike your Notebooks project this wouldn't been wisdom I'd be mining, but more like reminders to put the bin out on Wednesday!
I think it's wonderful to be finding letters you've written to yourself - what a very special kind of personal history.