Life Without A Phone


Lily Tomlin once said, ‘New York is always knowing where your wallet is.’ It’s true of all big cities, and longtime residents tend to stay out of trouble not just because of what they know but how they look and which areas they wander into.

When a couple I know recently visited from Australia for the first time, passing through London for one night on the way to Austria, I managed to bump into them (I’m one of two people they know in the entire Northern hemisphere). So I took them for a drink. They didn’t look especially like tourists, but all evening long they were targeted by every mad, drunk chancer in the metropolis.

I’ve thought about this and still cannot see what differentiated us – except when they spoke. They did not look especially wide-eyed and were dressed to fit in, although they jumped when a barmaid dropped a tray of glasses; no-one else flinched.

Criminals have a sixth sense for targets. I never see London crime but I certainly see it in Barcelona, partly because one part of the city has always had a rough edge, in common with say, Marseilles and Naples, and partly because there I’m the outsider. I’m tall and blond enough to stand out in any Latino crowd, so much so that shopkeepers sometimes address me in German. And I see crime more because of it. Yet violent crime in Barcelona was virtually non-existent until very recently, just as gun crime in London is negligible.

Yesterday I had my phone stolen. I was in a tourist area I never normally visit and had grown careless. I turned my back for a moment, whoosh. iPhones can’t be unlocked so they are used in a resale scam. We’re just weeks away from new phones arriving so I thought I’d try living without one for a few days.

The first thing I did not miss were phonecalls. I hardly make any. And the first big hurdle I faced was cash. I can’t take out money easily because I use an exclusively digital bank. The next services I use most are in order; my Catalan translation app, maps, photos and music, and somewhere at the far back end, actual phone calls. I can text on my laptop, but I’m not going to cart it around with me, so I’m trying no phone for a while.

Is it even possible to live without a phone now? Everyone has a phone. I have been hooked onto a zipwire, put on a gurney and led on a mountain horse by teens all chatting on their phones. I’ve watched girls risk death trying for one more Insta-friendly selfie. Like Lyra’s Daemon, they remain beside us wherever we go.

Day two was easier, even I suddenly had no plane ticket (digital), no ability to remember streets, music, book notes, addresses, numbers, names, no account balance (digital), no brain. I bought a notepad and a pen. I’m missing the soundtrack to my walkabouts.

But that’s all. I did not grow up with a phone in my hand. My parents got their first phone when I was sixteen. The avocado-coloured trimphone lived on a telephone table in the hall, and as my father refused to give anyone our number no-one ever rang it. If they did, he would answer in a strangled ‘posh’ voice, trying to put them off ever calling again.

Perhaps in some atavistic way I am devolving to my father’s behaviour pattern. Although being phoneless is nowhere near as difficult as I’d expected it to be, I may soon give in simply because friends expect me to be there.



23 comments on “Life Without A Phone”

  1. Liz Thompson says:

    All the best! I got a smartphone the other year, but I’m still amazed how my friends seem to live on one. I check mine 2 or 3 times a day for messages, and still haven’t quite worked out how to answer it when it rings. My first access to any phone was my parents getting one, a joint (shared) line, when I was about 10. The number was 227. I find it harder to remember phone numbers nowadays! And as a Girl Guide, I had to remember to carry a twopenny piece around, in case I needed to use a public phone box.
    But I do cling to my iPad.

  2. Dave Kearns says:

    I still use the phone I got 10 years ago; it’s not smart. I only ever turn it on if I’m going to be out of the house on my own (so that my wife can text me). Otherwise, I use Google Voice for answering the few calls I do get (90% of which are scams and spam and 5% are wrong numbers). My social networking is done on my laptop (a tiny bit on a Kindle) and I really enjoy getting away from that for peace & quiet.

    It got really stressful last week when I took my car into the shop and needed to keep the phone on so they could call to tell me what problems they’d discovered. Once they’d called I quickly turned the phone off again.

  3. Peter Tromans says:

    Life without a phone is fine, but not without Google and all it gives access to, maps (that’s all/any of Google, OS, Waze, depending on circumstances), capacity to calculate beyond mental arithmetic, e-mail and texts. I still use paper maps as well. But satnav is wonderful after I lose my way.

  4. Joel says:

    I still do not have a smartphone as I haven’t yet found a need which justifies one (tho’ live timings for buses is a temptation), and as a retiree I’m among mostly similar-minded people. Those who have a smartphone have them for the add-ons which suit the lives they have mostly chosen to lead.

    This may be dinosaur-ism but my simple little feature phone of several years age makes and receives calls and texts. It does other things but I have no need for them – didn’t know for a few years that it had a camera – I was conned by a ‘3’ shop assistant! I don’t need any more than that, but I recognise others do.

    My bank card is always in a different pocket to my phone, as is my (London) ‘Freedom Pass’ – so if I’m pickpocketed I still have at least one more means of survival.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    I had a very simple phone ten years ago because no one could phone me in the library after 3:30 and my mother was in care. I kept it after she died because it meant my husband could phone to say he was picking me up. Then last year the provider said I had to have a new phone because they weren’t servicing the old one any more. They gave me a new phone and I still don’t really know how to work it. It is just to make emergency phone calls.
    After the satnav couldn’t get us out of Brussels and then tried three times to send us across farmers’ fields in France – and I’m not about to try Flanders mud – we decided we weren’t interested in anything the system wanted to tell us. My geographer husband can navigate us anywhere with a good map and a compass. It was good enough for Dampier, Cook, and Vancouver so it’s good enough for us.
    You’ll survive, Chris. Just remember that all those devices ultimately depend on electrical power.

  6. Ian Luck says:

    My phone is seldom used for calls – in the last six months, for example, I’ve made precisely three:
    1): Ordering a Chinese meal at work;
    2): Reporting a set of broken traffic lights:
    3): Calling someone’s mobile at work to tell them that they needed to replace the handset of the internal landline phone PDQ.
    That’s it. If I contact people I know, then I generally use Whatsapp, which is the nearest thing to ‘Soshul Meeja’ that I can bother to use.
    I have had a phone since 2006, and I know that I’ve never got close to using up ‘free minutes’ talk time, ever. Most of my contacts I see face to face every day, and the others are of the:
    “Pub. Eightish”, variety. Bloke talk at it’s economical best. I’ve forgotten my phone going to work before now. Did I miss it? Hell, no. I just put the radio on, and listen to Radio 4/4Extra/6 Music. If anyone has called me, or texted me, it’s never that important. It can wait until tomorrow. If it’s urgent, then they have my work number. No need to panic.

  7. SteveB says:

    I did have my phone stolen also, in London about 3 months ago.
    I backup to icloud but it was a bit catch 22 because the security code was tied to my phone number, whose sim was lost with the phone. So I got a phone the next day but had to wait till I was back in Germany to pick up a replacement sim and restore the phone.
    So I was phone-less for nearly a week and it was very relaxing in fact. But it’s essential for modern life really. I mean even something as basic as google maps. And when I was back online and explained why I had vanished some people were a bit suspicious!!

  8. Helen Martin says:

    Let’s see: Google maps, bus trip planner. Both are on my computer at home. If there’s any question about location that’s where and when I’d check. The only times I’ve been sorry I didn’t have a phone have been when something has happened and I need to phone the husband. There are no public phones any more. Considering the cost to maintain them I certainly can’t blame the phone company for taking them out. How many things are so vital that you can’t wait till you’re home to look them up? (Okay, I know things happen, they do.)

  9. SteveB says:

    Hi Helen, like when I was on my way to a party in a place I hadn’t been before last Saturday evening for instance?? And even more in my way back actually… Citymapper is pretty essential, especially in Berlin for example. I keep in touch mainly on Viber with people. That’s without checking bus times, UBahn times, train times via the Tube or RMV app.
    And that’s without all the work stuff!!!

  10. Helen Martin says:

    Steve, I try to back off but every once in a while it seems that people are relying so much on their phones they don’t pay any attention to what is happening in front of their noses, and perhaps they could follow those noses to get them where they want to be. Then I meet with friends and wonder about something. They tap away on their phones and tell me the answer. Instant response is good, just so long as we notice that there are roses there to be smelled.

  11. Jo W says:

    Well said, Helen! 😉

  12. Peter Tromans says:

    Helen mentioned calling her husband. I forgot that. LOML and I lose one another in department stores, supermarkets and old car meetings. A text ‘where’ is an easy solution.

  13. Wayne Mook says:

    There was a time when blogs and forums were at the heart of social media, but times move on. One of my favourite forums looks like it’s just bitten the dust.

    As for smart phones, they are handy but not essential. As for getting lost I enjoy it, although I dare not tell some people that. Google is OK but the maps are not as good as accurate as the could be, some roundabouts in Salford are a point in case. And being lost in a city you can ask people the way, and they will probably show you on their smartphone.


  14. Debra Matheney says:

    I hate the bloody thing. It is never with me when it rings. By the time I get to it, the call has dropped. Half the time it’s solicitation or some other scheme. (Give me your social security number or you go to jail was a recent one.) Several friends only text which I hate even more. They are more a curse than a blessing, but when I lose my husband in a store I can call him. (He doesn’t text but loves Google Earth.) And then there is the whole privacy issue. I avoid social media at all costs but other people have put my picture on Facebook or talked about me there, which I hear about from someone out in public. Infuriating.

  15. Ian Luck says:

    Part of the fun of going somewhere new is the possibility of getting lost – that’s actually the best way of finding interesting stuff. On a trip to London several years ago, to buy some Doctor Who action figures I needed, from Forbidden Planet, my attention wandered, and I found myself lost – not frighteningly so, but actually rather pleasurably, and, after a while, to my great joy, found myself in Fountain Court, which I had looked for on a previous visit, and never found. If I ever got really lost in London, which has never yet happened, then I’d look for a Tube station, and take a train to somewhere I knew well. I’d never bother using my phone. Ever.

  16. John Howard says:

    Im with you regarding the extent of my usage but I just have to use a Spanish app being ‘darn saff’. I’m also with Ian on the usage of Whatsapp. Interestingly my provider, O2, have noticed that I am spending the vast majority of my time in Spain now rather than in the UK and have threatened to revert my charges back to the old roaming rates. Holding fire on that for the moment to see if they actually carry it out.

  17. snowy says:

    The number of rings before voicemail can be changed, [how varies by provider/phone so check the help pages of the people that you pay for the phone service.]

    For those stuck with an Android phone it is possible to avoid some of the Googley tentacles by installing alternative apps, [once they are working you may then optionally disable the stock apps.]

    Just a few alternatives:

    Play Store you can switch to F-Droid.

    Browser you can switch to Firefox Klar or DuckDuckGo Privacy Browser, [both block trackers, ads and delete cookies and history on exit.]

    Maps you can switch to: a choice, for SatNav – OsmAnd, for walking – Trekata, [both will work offline, maps are stored locally.]

  18. snowy says:

    Oh, anybody shunning Facebook by using WhatsApp or Instagram, you should really read the small print more closely.

    [You could try Telegram instead, but getting the rest of the herd to use it might be the tricky bit.

    Works best for groups of people that actually know each other in the real world, with which one might ‘ – ‘ave a word – about data privacy’.]

    Far too much nerd-ery, time to gather some wild berries!

  19. Ian Luck says:

    I only use Whatsapp as it has end-to-end encryption. And you don’t get arseheads pestering you wanting to be your ‘friend’. I only speak to people I know. Proper friends, not, just in name only. That suits me just fine.

  20. Ian Luck says:

    My phone goes straight to voicemail, and a message informing the caller that the phone is broken, and cannot be used to reply, and that it does not record properly, so leaving a message is futile. It always works. The people I want to speak to, contact me on WhatsApp.

  21. Helen Martin says:

    The idea of having a phone and not talking to anyone on it is just so counter intuitive that my mind turns inside out. I was meeting a friend yesterday and getting together involved phone calls with my husband and a new definition of “corner”. We laughed afterward, but if I’d had that phone working properly it would have solved a lot.

  22. snowy says:

    A phone isn’t really a ‘phone’ anymore it’s a mini-tablet computer that happens to also do ‘phone stuff’, [but you knew that already.]

    Mine is almost always off or being used for strange stuff like OpenSSH sessions, restarting CUPS, 2FA via OTP or taking pics of plants/flutterbys to look up later – in a book, [but just at the moment it is being a kitchen timer. smiley do-dah]

  23. Dhamicat says:

    I have been plagued by my “smart” phones ever since I dropped my little old Nokia flip top on the deck of my boat. All phones since then appear sullen and are like the imps in the icongraphs from discworld books: smoking in a corner, saying “sorry, guv, I’m out of black, can’t do that”. Most of my close friends know to use Messenger….as I always have my iPad with me…..

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