The day I left my auxiliary brain at home

I got to the office this morning and couldn’t find my phone. I phoned home (on the landline), and Mrs M confirmed my suspicion that it was still plugged in to the charger in the kitchen. Aarrgh! I felt naked and adrift.

Now, I am not a great mobile user. I’m not forever checking stuff. I keep notifications for apps permanently off. I use a paper diary. I don’t do emails on the phone. Some of this dates back to my early days with a smart phone, when I did use some of these features and caught myself referring to it as my auxiliary brain. At that point, I thought, “No.”

However, today I was in a mild panic. I had a couple of appointments lined up – people coming to see me – and I didn’t know how they’d get in touch to say they were running late, or whatever. What if one of my children sent me a text and they wouldn’t know I hadn’t received it?

In the staff kitchen, I told two colleagues about it and we agreed that, somehow, in the olden days, we managed fine without mobiles. One said that she had been to see Chrissie Hynde in concert the previous night, and Chrissie had stopped in the middle of a song to tell someone to stop filming and switch their phone off. We agreed that it’s rude, the way some people film concerts, and that the results are rarely worth seeing. We agreed that you get more out of a show by keeping your phone in your pocket and being fully present. One of my colleagues said that she’d read some research showing that people who don’t take photos remember more of their experiences than those who do. It’s as if you delegate some of your thinking to your phone, and lose a little bit of your ability to use that little bit of your brain. Also, you stop being fully present. Instead, you’re partly in the future, thinking about how you’ll share those photos on Facebook and how your friends will react.

I recognise that I am old, well – 52. But I do feel resistant to the idea of delegating thinking to machines. I know it is the future, but I don’t like it. What shocked me today is, even with the limits I place around my dependence on the phone, I realised how dependent on it I am.

In the end, both of my visitors turned up on time. When I got home, there were no texts waiting for me (apart from one from one of my visitors saying he was on time). I got through the day fine, with just the brain that’s in my head, just like we used to.


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?