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Artillery Row

Elegy for the phoneless youth

The lost romance of growing up without the internet

I am, barring unexpected technological reversals, a member of a particular cohort: the last generation who grew up without a smartphone. Oh, sure, there are kids today who grow up phoneless as a matter of parental choice, but when I was a child in the mid to late-80s, there weren’t any phones to withhold from us.

What strikes me, as my year group gradually washes up on the shores of middle age, is how few of us regret this absence. Not one of my friends sees their lack of childhood connectivity as a regret. Now, all of us now have smartphones, and we all recognize too the benefits that a smartphone could have offered us in adolescence, such as making kids with marginal identities feel less lonely or allowing for shared online gaming. Yet most of us feel, I think, that we came along at just the right time; with our analogue childhood giving way to the early days of dial-up internet in our teens, followed by developing broadband speeds, though not yet smartphones, in our youth. That, I think, felt like the ideal point to come in at, with the rate of connectivity maturing at the same rate as we did as we moved from childhood to early adulthood.

Why are we all so grateful for that long period without an internet phone? The first thing is I think it allowed us to form ourselves in quiet. We were, of course, terribly bored. But boredom is good for a kid; it forces you to seek out information and form your imagination, and it compelled my friends and I to explore our physical environment. Aged eleven, we used to sneak out of a local playground onto a large industrial estate behind. One time we were caught by security on our way back through the wire fence. Even when we played computer games, we did it at each other’s houses.

In my particular case, it also meant I read more books, and reading on paper sticks with you more than online. It forced me to seek out libraries, to follow the traces from books to other books rather than just idly skimming online. It rendered the cultivation of my tastes a more social process, as I needed to go and ask older people what was cool and follow their recommendations rather than having it served up by an algorithm. This offline self-development lent something solid to my character and, I dare say, left me better able to concentrate. It also makes me much more able now to take such radical steps as leaving my phone at home — I’m distinctly aware the world won’t end without it, given how it went along quite well until I got my first mobile. I was 18 when I did, by the way, and it was an indestructible Nokia with functions for texts, calls, and playing Snake.

Being phoneless also spared us all a lot of embarrassment. Like most future moderates, I was a radical communist as a teenager, but I was able to express this in private, without excitedly leaving a trail of hare-brained posts to trip me up when older. To the extent I posted “content”, it was on long-since defunct internet forums, rather than in arenas likely to prove damaging to any future career. And of course, that culture was a much easier one for risky jokes to flourish in, knowing they were ephemeral.

It sometimes feels like these days everyone has been turned into a “phone person”. I live at present in a non-Anglophone country, and if I could describe the language many of the professionals I meet it would be, rather than international English, “internet”. There’s a sense that the internet has made everyone more similar; when I got to university, a generation formed offline were still eager to talk. At the same time, I’d acknowledge that the internet is a powerful tool for keeping minority languages and subcultures alive. It’s just that, having grown up without the online world, I feel better at taking the good and leaving the bad from it.

There is something else which I was glad to witness, which is the charm of the analogue

There is something else which I was glad to witness, which is the charm of the analogue. There is simply no comparison in putting together a Spotify playlist for someone to making them a mix cassette; nothing to compare between sending someone a flirtatious meme and hand-writing them a love letter. Growing up without a phone anchored me in the romance of analogue communication. Of course, there are analogue fans now who keep this alive; people who deliberately live with a dumbphone or still buy a newspaper on paper. But these people are making a deliberate act of refusal in face of digital abundance; it’s never going to be a mass stance.

There is also a romance that has been lost in people being so easily reachable. When you watch old ‘80s movies, you often see a scene where a lover phones another from a payphone; maybe they’re even putting their last pennies towards that end. There’s often an urgency and charge to the scene due to the fact that only these minutes are possible for communication. People being reachable, but not always; these are surely the optimal conditions to live in and remain enchanted with each other. You can’t idealize absent people if they remain contactable; in a world where you’re always a few messages away from everyone you’ve ever known, no relationship can be considered truly defunct. It also further alienates you from the people around you to know what they think on the issues of the day – there’s a certain level of necessary ignorance which is spoilt if you learn, say, that your casual acquaintance spends their evening posting that Russia was provoked by NATO.

All my life I have to a certain extent felt like a representative of lost causes; learning foreign languages, reading serious literature, taking English trains. This, though, is one I feel lucky to represent, the pleasures of the world before the smartphone. Connectivity has brought great gains but I’ve seen the losses too. Like everyone, I wouldn’t and couldn’t give up my phone now but I am profoundly grateful to have grown up without one; it’s been a marvellous inoculation against the excesses of the internet ever since.

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