In my talk to a group of international post-grad students, there was a section about consumerism in relation to climate change. I critiqued our addiction to more stuff and to the latest thing and advocated a simple life that used less of the earth’s resources. At the end, I invited questions. The first question was, “Can you show us your phone?”Photo on 19-01-2016 at 14.05

What could I do? I knew he’d got me. Reluctantly, I had to pull my iPhone out of my pocket. Yes, I could say it’s only an iPhone 4; I could say it wasn’t the latest model when I got it; I could say it’s not mine, it’s provided by my church. But I still felt a fraud. I’ve always known there are more eco-friendly phones on the market. There are certainly cheaper phones. There are simpler phones – do I need a smart phone? In fact, do I need a phone at all?

Last week there was a piece in The Guardian by Steve Hilton, who runs a Silicon Valley start-up and hasn’t had a phone for over three years. Hilton writes that at the end of his first week without a phone he felt more relaxed, carefree, happier. He questions the way everyone is forever anxiously checking things and says that he finds something menacing in our need to be connected and contactable all the time. He says that people are incredulous when they hear about his phone-free life, saying, “But how do you live?” The most common response, though, is, “How fantastic that must be. I wish I could do that.”

Do I wish I could do that? Part of me does. It’s only two years old, but my iPhone is approaching the end of its natural life. I have to re-charge the battery at least once a day, and that’s with hardly using it. The memory is too small to update the operating system. I object to this built-in obsolescence. Amnesty International alleges that thousands of children, some as young as seven, are doing back-breaking work in terrible conditions mining cobalt in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Cobalt is used in the lithium batteries in our phones (and other devices) and half the world’s supply comes from DRC. By having a phone, I am the rich man for whom these African children work like slaves. It’s not the only way my consumption of stuff causes others to suffer, but it’s one way.

Maybe I don’t need a smart-phone. Maybe I don’t need a mobile phone at all. I don’t keep checking things on it. Emails only come via wifi and I’m not perpetually logged in to Facebook or a news service. I use a paper diary. If you phone me and I’m with someone, I’m not going to answer – it’s rude. But the maps are useful. Having all my contact details on it is very useful. Having a camera on me all the time is handy. Texting is the main way my son, at university 350 miles away, keeps in touch with me. And what about emergencies? Somehow we used to cope, but the world has changed and the world expects us all to have phones in our pockets.

Asking if I need something by weighing up the pros and cons in terms of my convenience, is the wrong question, I think. The real question is about the justice of the level of my consumption. The real question may be about the price paid by others for my choices, answered in attending not to my needs but the needs of seven-year-old cobalt miners.

What would you do?


7 thoughts on “whyPhone?

  1. I LOVE reading your thoughtful blog posts. I have never had a cell phone — relying instead on email (and Facebook and Linked in and WordPress) via an aging laptop computer to communicate with the rest of the world. On rare occasions I will make or receive a phone call using an old-fashioned land line telephone. I agree with Steve Hilton that it is possible to live without a cell phone. There are fewer intrusions and interruptions in the flow of one’s life. However, I will also admit that my life partner DOES have a cell phone, which I have used when we are traveling to visit family in different states. And my main musical collaborator these days, a jazz pianist named Joe Reid, also has a cell phone. He has made me aware of how helpful/wonderful the map function can be for working musicians who are driving to a new venue (especially after dark….) What is most disheartening about your post, of course, is being reminded of the people and mines and hillsides and jungles and gorillas and trees and rivers and ecosystems and factories — and in some cases, warlords — whose lives are intimately connected to these magical, shiny, electricity-using devices which billions and billions of dollars worth of advertising (as well as some of the most creative minds on the planet who have, sadly, devoted their gifts to the lucrative realms of advertising) have convinced us we need to buy and buy and buy again. Deep sigh. THANK YOU for another thought-provoking, honest blog post!!!

    1. Good to hear about someone else surviving without a cellphone … but it’s challenging to me!
      We’ve built this highly complex world & it doesn’t seem like there’s an easy answer to changing it. I feel I’ve just given in to so much of it without thinking. It occurs to me that the lack of easy answers means we’ve got to work together with as wide a base as possible to change systems/structures, but maybe unilateral actions like not having a phone or not flying are worthwhile because they demonstrate that alternatives are not only possible but can be personally beneficial.
      Keep flying the flag for a better way of life!

  2. You might like (?) to know that your post was the final straw that broke the camel’s back regarding my own cellphone overusage. I didn’t say it here just then but I waited until I was actually doing it – q.v. my remarks on your ‘Climate action’ article on talking vs doing. So, I decided to cut down on its use over Lent. Now I use it for texting and calling, when necessary. No reading, social media, browsing the web, playing online games. I got plenty of time left now I’m electronically fasting. I’ll be a different guy, come Easter Sunday. 🙂

    1. Well done! I’m still dithering, but I’m being hassled to decide as the contract’s ended. I’ve never done much by way of apps & games & social media on it, but some are handy like train times. The camera is definitely handy. But I think I will probably downgrade to a simple phone just for texting & phoning. There are some made from recycled materials – I just need to find someone who’s selling one. I wonder if you’ll stay minimal after Lent … perhaps you could post an update if you do?

      1. Here’s the update you asked for. Lent is come and gone, and I’m back to using my phone – not as much as before, e.g. I’m not ‘doing’ social media like I was. It’s good to know I can cut down on usage, and to reflect upon the effect of so many distractions on my attention span. Which is limited; that probably doesn’t make the news, but it’s a revelation to me.

        This 40-day period of restraint had effects outside of the phone realm, all having to do with focusing on fewer tasks at the same time. I now try to read only one book at a time (on the phone or out of it). I also rediscovered the joys of handwriting: I rummaged for my old fountain pen (one of the few ways I enjoy handwriting), and now instead of interrupting the task at hand when a new one arrives, I just write down the new one on a piece of paper and carry on. Nothing too ground-breaking here either, unless you’re me, of course.

        Once again thank you for your posts. I think that honest writing on daily life issues can help someone make a resolution. Minor as they may be, these may add up. Extraordinary common grace!

  3. Thanks for the update. I love your phrase ‘extraordinary common grace’, and the idea that these small tweaks to how we live our lives at an ordinary level become extraordinary through grace as they align us more with God’s intention. I’m afraid I back-tracked on the phone & ended up with another smart-phone – it is a Fairphone, who track the ethics of their supply-chain & re-cycle and design the thing to be easily mended and so on, and it’s on a contract with the Co-op, but I still feel a bit compromised.

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