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My iPhone and the Irony Police

The iPhone was a sexy beast. I was willing to do anything to have it. Even risk arrest by the Irony Police.

Or close enough. I shackled myself to an absurd contract with Rogers for three years, just for the chance to get an iPhone in 2009. You read that correctly. The first iPhone came out just 14 years ago.*
It was the communications device that science fiction had promised us, in a variety of premonitions: 2001, A Space Odyssey. Star Trek. Aliens. It was access to the Internet (we used a capital “I” in 2009), plus a phone, and so much more. It quickly eclipsed its addictive predecessor, the CrackBerry, and changed us all. Literally. There’s evidence the devices are messing with our brains. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

End of the Clavening

cliff claven, character from Cheers

I was in a pub the first time I realized how much power the device had. My friends and were in a bullshit conversation, when the topic of D-Day came up. Our resident Cliff Claven had the facts wrong – and I was pretty sure he did – but he was gaslighting me into thinking I must be mistaken, he was so certain. Then I remembered the sleek piece of glass in my pocket.
“Well, we don’t have to argue about the facts. We can just look them up,” I said as Cliffy’s eyes widened.
Sure enough, I was right, and he was wrong – and for the record, it would have been fine if that had been reversed – but something changed in the air in that moment. I thought about all the stupid arguments I’ve had over a beer, and realized that the facts should no longer be a point of debate. No more drunken disputes over who played Hudson in Aliens: was it Bill Pullman or Bill Paxton? (Of course it was Paxton, what kind of idiot would make that mistake. Nobody, ever again.)
Yes, the irony of that is not lost on me. Despite access to nearly all the information in the world, some people still want to have their own facts. But not among my friends and family. We may have different opinions about the facts, but all questions about the facts are answered by the innocent phrase: “Gee, if only there was some kind of device we could consult to learn the answer.”

More than a phone

I’d had a mobile phone before getting the iPhone, of course, but it was basically just a phone. I didn’t have the patience or thumb dexterity to use it for messaging. With the advent of smartphones and their easy-to-use keyboards, texting became the preferred form of communication amongst anyone below old-man-yells-at-cloud age. So much so that it’s now considered rude to just call someone on the phone to talk with them. After more than century of having this amazing ability to talk to people at great distances, we all just collectively decided: “Fuck it, telegrams are better.”

Voice communication isn’t perfect. All the visual signals are lost. But text is way worse. It lacks subtlety and nuance, even for those of us who are masters of the emoji and sticker. (Please stop fooling yourself they can replace body language and tone.)

And then we started to see other ways in which the smartphone separates us. Instead of having a conversation, I’ve seen people sitting in a group, scrolling through their feeds. Hell, I’ve done it! Some communicate with text while they sit together, leaving behind eons of evolutionary tools that help us connect and feel together. Is there anything more frustrating than trying to tell a person you love something important, only to realize they’ve been looking at their phone, and not really listening?


These devices are changing our behaviors and our brains, a process that has been amplified and ramped up by social media. Now the technology just doesn’t want our time, it has turned our attention into a commodity. Each notification, ping, push and poke – look at me, pay attention. And if there’s something good there, like someone gave you a like or you have a new follower ”¦ a little squirt of dopamine similar to the kind produced by chocolate, or cocaine, or sex. (Insert your own favourite drug.)  Oh, and here’s someone selling you the perfect soap!
We now have an acronym for something that always kind of existed, but was never in our faces so often: FOMO. (Fear of Missing Out, ICYMI.) Studies have shown that the amount of social media we use can have negative effects such as increasing depression, anxiety and loneliness. Comparison is the thief of joy, right? And even if we may consciously recognize that the perfect lives we see represented on Instagram and Facebook are massively curated, that doesn’t assuage our primitive brains. So we get pulled in by the dopamine hit, and then pushed down by the depressive effects.

Am I saying these devices are all bad? Of course not! In 1989-1990 I circumnavigated the world, mostly by plane, so it’s no great achievement. But honestly, I don’t really remember how I managed that without my smartphone. (I also managed not having a watch, nor a camera, both of which I now have in my pocket all the time.) Having access to up-to-date info and communications can literally be life-saving. I’m willing to give up the “adventure” of not knowing where I’m going to stay for the night, in exchange for finding digs that I know – because Trip Advisor is hella’ reliable – will be great. Even if I miss out on some good stories, like the time I stayed in a Paris hotel that was so disgusting, I slept on my tarp, rather than the bedcovers. (In those days a tarpaulin was my equivalent of Douglas Adams’s towel.)

The book bragging website Goodreads has more likes for the following quote than anything else I’ve written: “People who have so much of their personality invested in the Internet can’t really survive as whole individuals without it.” When I wrote that in 2012 (in The Fridgularity) that was meant to be a send-up, but I’m worried that we are reaching that point. Am I aware of the paradox of quoting a social media site to make my point? Please. I have a hotline to the Irony Police.

Sleepy social

Research has evidence of other problems. The one that I always talk to my students about, mostly because I think the issue has been neglected by the media until very recently, is the topic of sleep. There’s pretty good evidence that the blue light emitted by smartphone screens disrupts our natural sleeping patterns. It causes us to have more trouble falling asleep, and get less REM sleep, which is good if you really hate Michael Stipe’s voice, but terrible if you understand we need REM sleep to you know ”¦ not go insane.

So what do you do? Can you seriously live without a smartphone? Of course you can, but it’s also going to be extremely inconvenient. I know I don’t want to start having to pack my tarpaulin again when I travel – whenever I get to do that again. I basically follow the advice offered up in the documentary The Social Dilemma**, the three most important parts being:

  1. Delete the apps you don’t need – note the word “need”. I used to love Twitter, but I didn’t have it on my phone.
  2. Turn off notifications – this is how they ring your dopamine bell. Turn. Them. All. Off.
  3. Limit your screen time – and especially before you go to bed. Give yourself at least half an hour away from a screen before you begin your kip, and even better, and hour with some kind of mind resting activity like meditation or mindful toenail clipping.

I’ve already discussed my Digital Sabbath on this site.

Flipping the Script

Nowadays, I find myself scrolling through pictures of old phones, wondering if I could possibly downgrade. Maybe I could get by with a good flip phone? I mean, except for occasional posts to my author’s page, I did manage to wean myself off Facebook, so maybe I could do it? The privacy benefits alone are beguiling. But that would mean losing all that convenience, plus, no travel agent in my pocket, no watch, no camera.

Or maybe just go back to a land line? Oh shit, that alerted the Sarcasm Squad of the Irony Police” – gotta run!


*In Canada. The release in other countries was 2007. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Canuckistan, we have a digital oligopoly here, with the most expensive wireless costs of 28 developed countries. Rogers is one of the two communications behemoths that control the market. It’s the one that I hate the most, partly because their customer services is so abysmal, but mostly because it’s the one I have had to deal with more. I’m sure many fellow Canucks have similar feelings for Bell, the other mobile leviathan.

**You can find the full list of tips here.

Update: I originally wrote this for my newsletter in May, 2021. A lot has happened in the meanwhile. Twitter has become a toxic nightmare (even more than before since Eloon took over the site.) Other social media are being seen as almost equally problematic. And my OG iPhoneSE (purchased sometime in 2015, I think) finally gave up the ghost. Despite my ruminations, I opted for the convenience of the damned thing, and got a new(er) iPhone 13 Mini.

cover art of The Fridgularity and Marvellous Hairy, both by Mark A. Rayner

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