Necessity or Compulsion?

Eliane Glaser

I have never owned a smartphone. The man in the shop couldn’t understand my refusal. ‘You get one free with your plan,’ he told me. I share the objections on questions of principle – the ubiquity of harmful content; the erosion of the social fabric – but more than that my response was visceral. I just didn’t want the thing in my hand.

So I have a brick, and live in the 1990s. If I need to find somewhere new, I look it up on my laptop and draw a map on a scrap of paper, or ask a black cab driver at a red traffic light. They seem increasingly bemused. If I get lost while driving, I pull over to peer at my A to Z through a credit card-sized magnifying glass. My son learned to map-read while I maintained an unpopular holding pattern on a roundabout.

The other day I went to Tate Britain on the bus and forgot to check the directions before I left the house. At a vaguely familiar stop I asked the driver if we were near the Tate or Millbank. He shrugged. I asked him where he was going next. He indicated the road ahead without irony. I got off and consulted one of those signs at street corners, which are plentiful but baffling because they show the map upside down.

If I go to the theatre, I print out the tickets from the email. Sometimes I forget, or my printer is out of ink, and I ask the box office to print them. Sometimes, the person checking tickets at the door is incredulous and almost doesn’t let me into the building. My heart sinks at a QR code menu. I either ask the hard-pressed waiter (half guilty, half indignant) to root around for a paper menu, or submit to my companion reading it out from their phone as if to a child.

I use a watch, an alarm clock, a camera and a CD player. I listen to a portable analogue radio with headphones, or download radio programmes onto a mini-MP3 player. I have a paper appointments diary and a pocket notebook with a pen. My daily newspaper lands on the mat. On holiday, I rely on guidebooks. When I was last abroad, I walked to a restaurant and made a reservation by writing my name on a napkin.

When someone wants to show me a photo on their phone, I count in my head how long it takes them to find it. It’s usually about two minutes. The person tries to continue the conversation while they search, but they usually can’t help also reading a message they’ve just received. I used to fill the time by babbling on. Now I sit and wait. When the tiny image is finally located, it rarely adds much. I hate phones, but I also hate the gap they open up between me and the people around me who mean well.

When friends text me emojis, they come up as rows of rectangles. I have to guess the emotional gist. I don’t know how many steps I’ve walked. I don’t know when the bus will come. Facts stay forgotten. Identity verification requires a fiddly workaround. I call my local minicab company if I need a cab from home, and don’t use Uber. I’m not on Facebook or Instagram or TikTok or WhatsApp.

WhatsApp is the big one. The primary school PTA year group rep wouldn’t put announcements on email and made it clear that if I missed out, it was my problem. I didn’t really want to go to those pub nights anyway. But during the Covid lockdowns I needed to use WhatsApp. I make radio programmes and I had to be able to communicate instantly and privately with presenters during interviews. My husband’s smartphone still has various broadcasters’ messages on it.

He also has a lot of messages from 11-year-old girls, because I impose my techno-abstinence on my children. They are the only ones in their year groups not to have phones. But they seem to have social lives. They travel about on their own. I don’t track them. I don’t call them. If they go to a friend’s, they ring to let me know they’ve arrived. Smartphones seem to make children less safe.

If someone tells me they couldn’t live without their phone, I usually mutter something peaceable about horses for courses, but what I really think is that we should separate necessity from compulsion. My resistance to getting a smartphone isn’t high-mindedness so much as a recognition of my own susceptibility to addiction. I feel the siren pull of my laptop as soon as I walk in the door. It’s one of the reasons time away from my desk is so crucial.

There are other advantages to my old phone. My battery lasts a week. My contract costs eight pounds a month. My screen is intact. I look around at the world, I get lost in thought. Sitting undistracted on the bus, I sometimes feel bored, or sad, or plagued by existential doubt; and though that’s uncomfortable, I like to think it’s good for me. I get the itch to access everything everywhere all at once, but I’m glad I can’t scratch it.

The 3G mobile signal is about to be switched off, older digital radios can no longer receive the new DAB+ signal, and landlines will soon be replaced by something called Digital Voice. At some point my refusenik status may become not just eccentric but practically impossible. I only hope a bigger backlash kicks in before then.


  • 16 February 2024 at 9:49am
    Phil Edwards says:
    Sitting undistracted on the bus, I sometimes feel bored, or sad, or plagued by existential doubt; and though that’s uncomfortable, I like to think it’s good for me.

    I used to read the LRB, as I recall... Cheap shots aside, I do think this is interesting. When I was a lot younger and under the influence of the Situationists, I had a half-formulated theory about the creative (nay, revolutionary) potential of boredom: only by being fully in a social setting, in all its alienated tedium, could one apprehend how arbitrary all its determinations were and glimpse the possibility of collectively moving out of them... I never wrote it up even at the length of a pamphlet, and now the moment has very much gone. Kids don't even sing "Why are we waiting?" any more...

  • 16 February 2024 at 9:50am
    Phil Edwards says:
    Wot no markup? To be clear, the first sentence of my longer comment is a quote; I didn't "quote" it because I'd put it in italics, or so I thought.

  • 16 February 2024 at 10:57pm
    Nick Lee says:
    That was me 18 months ago. My phone company told me they would no longer support my phone so I was bumped onto the cheapest smart phone I could find. Good job, because shortly after, my employer made access to all the software and database I need to do my job accessible only through a smartphone enabled security process. Now I notice I get stuck on phone - news, lrb etc - and feel the relief when I read off screen - a book or paper. Social media hasn't got me though. Still stalling my boys requests for a phone of his own.

  • 17 February 2024 at 2:03pm
    Deirdre O'Sullivan says:
    I am even more of a Luddite than the author of this amusingly defiant article, as I don't even own a basic mobile phone, but use my trusty old landline instead. If people want to contact me, then leave a message on the landline, and I will call you back at my leisure. I don't need callers urgently buzzing in my pocket. We are right not to follow the herd - because it's becoming very obvious, that the herd has lost its way. Luddites unite! But I can't help wondering, does the Luddite Society have a website?!

    • 20 February 2024 at 8:51pm
      ali almaadeed says: @ Deirdre O'Sullivan
      Ah, you think you've gone back to the basics with your landline, do you? That's luxury, that is! In my day, we didn't have any of these fancy landlines. If we wanted to talk to someone, we'd have to write a letter, walk ten miles through the sleet to the nearest post box, and then wait six months for a reply, which usually never came because the local fox had a penchant for paper.

      And you talk about your trusty old landline like it's some badge of honour. We used to dream of having a landline! My family communicated by smoke signals. And if it were raining, well, you just had to wait for the clouds to clear, didn't you? No instant gratification for us. No, sir.

      But you're right about not following the herd. The herd? They had it easy, following each other around. We didn't have a herd. We had to navigate using the stars, which we could only see if it wasn’t cloudy, and given our luck, it always was.

      And as for the Luddite Society having a website, that's the height of luxury! A ‘website’, he says! In my day, if you wanted to join a society, you had to carve your application into a stone tablet and heave it up the highest mountain where the society's elder might, just might, find it before the century was out.

      So, you keep your landline and your quaint notions of communication. I'll be here, shouting into the void, hoping the echoes teach the birds my message so they might, on the off chance, fly past someone I know. Ah, those were the days, real simplicity, real isolation. You modern Luddites don’t know how easy you've got it!

    • 20 February 2024 at 10:18pm
      Nick Lee says: @ ali almaadeed
      That's funny Ali ! Here I am, in the void, shouting my head off :-)

  • 17 February 2024 at 7:36pm
    Podge says:
    Thank you. Another Luddite here. I've used an old brick for many years (with a landline at home). When my carrier ($10 a month) gave up on 3G, I found I was able to turn a smart phone into a "dumb" phone by turning off everything except phone calls and texts.

  • 18 February 2024 at 6:36pm
    Kelly Winsa says:
    I have an alcatel which my friend just told me no longer exists. Its memory is almost full, the power drains even when it's off. I use it to get the codes for online purchases. That's about it.
    I write young adult novels and my main character doesn't have one either. Her mom won't let her get one, or a bra.
    I used to tell my kid, when he said, mom, I'm bored, 'That's great. Go make something. Boredom is where creativity comes from.'
    On the judgemental side, I am tired of watching parents sit with their phones and ignore their kids. It's really weird. What happened to, 'they grow up really quick?"

  • 18 February 2024 at 10:04pm
    Dr Paul says:
    'I am even more of a Luddite than the author of this amusingly defiant article, as I don't even own a basic mobile phone, but use my trusty old landline instead. ' -- Same as me! It's a bit of an inconvenience once in a while, but I've never bothered with a mobile telephone. I sometimes think about getting one, a very basic one to use in emergencies, but I haven't a clue how to go about it.

  • 19 February 2024 at 7:00pm
    Douglas Brooks says:
    I live just like the author except I don't have any kind of portable phone but I do use Instagram to advertise my work as a boatbuilder. I agree completely that I might not be able to resist the seduction of always looking at a smart phone and consider that good enough reason not to have one, a stance that is constantly reinforced watching the bad, rude, and sometimes dangerous behavior of those that do. Whenever anyone expresses surprise (or horror) that I don't have a smartphone, I think back to what Moses said to me. He was an Amish sawyer and I was working at his mill. Two log truck drivers came into the mill building after dropping off loads and while warming themselves by the wood stove started arguing about a particularly stupid-sounding reality TV show. Moses continued working quietly while they argued. When they finally left he turned toward me and muttered, "I'm sure glad I don't have that problem." I always think of his words when someone tries to argue why I should have a phone. That was twenty-five years ago. An Amish community I know hires a non-Amish person to drive around to all the Amish businesses one day a week and let them use his phone. Don't own, just borrow, and I have found in a very few situations that complete strangers were happy to let me borrow their phones.

  • 21 February 2024 at 5:10pm
    Timothy Barnard says:
    The author doesn't mention that she is on Twitter. I'd rather have eight mobile phones ringing simultaneously in my pockets and bags at the doctor's office than go anywhere near Twitter.

    I don't own a mobile phone or laptop or digital camera (I do own a 1930s Rolleiflex 6mm camera.). My desktop computer is nine years old and I am constantly being told that one thing or another will no longer work on it, but those things always do work. This computer has no video camera or microphone.

    I play vinyl records and have an old CD player, a few old CDs and headphones in my walk-in closet, into which a treadmill has been squeezed. I don't own any kind of mobile music device.

    Somehow I survive, like any other human before the year 2005 or so. Amazing.

  • 21 February 2024 at 5:21pm
    Daniel Leo says:
    #metooo, but I think my main reason is cheapness, ha ha. When I can get a smarty at the same cheap rate as my dumbie, then I'll probably join the rest of the mob. As it is I am the only person in my gym who isn't on their phone between every set of weight-lifting, and constantly while on the exercise bike, although I always bring a "book"...

  • 21 February 2024 at 5:59pm
    Joe Mahon says:
    "those signs at street corners... are plentiful but baffling because they show the map upside down"

    It's not upside down, it's oriented to the direction you're facing. If you're facing south, north is at the bottom. If you're facing north, it's at the top.

  • 21 February 2024 at 6:46pm
    Jeff Wells says:
    I’m in the middle somewhere on this. I’m 79 so should be an IT Luddite of sorts. However, although I had a humanities degree, I did a post-graduate computer programming course in 1980 (it wasn’t called ‘coding’ then), had one of the first personal computers (a circuit board a keyboard, a printer and a tv monitor) on which I wrote letters and did my personal accounts. Then I had a generally happy career teaching computing and writing software for various national charities just as the Internet was getting going. Nevertheless....
    Both I and my wife have cheapish smartphones (bought outright and topped up at £10 each month). We don’t do social media apart from Whatsapp and that’s mainly to keep in touch (via free video calls) with our son and his partner in France. We use our phones as hand-held computers when it is most convenient to do so. I must confess to being obsessed with avoiding being inconvenienced in any way. If the smartphone (and tablet and laptop) are the best for the job so be it. I’m also still an active semi-pro musician so I’m happy with digital music. I was always glad to leave vinyl behind!
    To sum up, I’m a strict utilitarian. Whatever works for me is ok. But, naturally, anyone who eats with us is asked to turn their phone off!

  • 21 February 2024 at 7:48pm
    Andy Senior says:
    "My resistance to getting a smartphone isn’t high-mindedness so much as a recognition of my own susceptibility to addiction. I feel the siren pull of my laptop as soon as I walk in the door. It’s one of the reasons time away from my desk is so crucial."

    At a certain point technology is no longer a pleasure, but something to be borne. I grew so weary of relentless television in my teens that I unplugged my set and stuck it in the closet. Having a computer enables me to say publicly how much I resent the ubiquity of computers. Going online is an addictive time suck.

    I do not want that time suck to be portable. I do not want any appliance that calls itself "smart." I'm already smarting.

  • 21 February 2024 at 8:00pm
    Jennifer Gouge says:
    Good on you!
    I too recognise my susceptibility to addiction and don’t have a smart phone.
    It’s also the feeling of having the equivalent of an ankle security bracelet that gives me the creeps.

  • 22 February 2024 at 12:30am
    Pete Hindle says:
    Phones - by which I mean smartphones - are ubiquitous these days. They’ve gone from snazzy new thing to work-approved tool that also doubles as the thing you need to pay for your parking. It’s taken around fifteen years, the same period that it’s taken for superhero movies to become boring. This cultural shift is infinitely more interesting than “I’m cool because I don’t have a phone”.

    Not having a phone isn’t the statement you think it is. Yes yes, you’re not sucked into the whirling malstrom of content, good for you. But it’s not because you’re better, or more stronger. You’re not better at resisting temptation, or more canny at not being fooled. You simple don’t have the option. It is less pious life choice, more being a hermit on a rich man’s estate. Lost or late? Ask a friend with a phone. Parking or taxi? Milord, please connect to thine 5G service. Spare us the sackcloth and ashes; you’ve found a way to be superior and thrifty to literally everybody else. Now if only you could also be modest about it too.

  • 22 February 2024 at 4:55am
    Dariel Francis says:
    Extraordinary, the blogger says they pay £8 a month for a non smart phone! My Smarty contract is £5 a month for full data, SMS etc smart phone services to a phone I own outright, so nothing included for instalment purchase of the phone itself. It's fine, all notification noises etc are turned off, so not a distraction, I still buy a paper newspaper but it's handy to have a mini computer in my handbag as well.

  • 22 February 2024 at 5:07am
    nomadron says:
    I had to buy a smartphone last year as Vodafone here in Romania were no longer selling external drives for my PC. Now I get the signal through my phone

  • 25 February 2024 at 8:25pm
    P Eluard says:
    One shouldn't be punished for ones choice not to adopt a technology, of course. And stubbornness displayed on one's sleeve is often edifying. But let's not pretend that the wholesale rejection of a technology as various and variously useful as the book is anything anyone should be proud of. Please let it not take hold.

    Do not damn the entire of a body for the symptoms of its disease.

    • 26 February 2024 at 9:45am
      P Eluard says: @ P Eluard

  • 26 February 2024 at 7:28pm
    Andrew Hambleton says:
    Nice one! I carry a paperback to the pub with me. When one of my friends gets their phone out I get my paperback out. They get annoyed but they also get the point..

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