Or, how I joined the digital underclass – and learned to love it

A few months ago, I had my phone stolen while I was asleep on the train. Don’t ask. It turns out my insurance didn’t cover theft, so in order to replace my phone with a like-for-like model (an iPhone 7), I first had to buy out my contract. But I still had a year of a two-year contract left to go. It was going to cost me £500 and I didn’t have that sort of money to frivolously waste on my own stupidity.

‘Try your household insurance,’ said the helpful man at the O2 shop. But my household insurance has a £500 excess, so I was back at square one.

I asked if I could downgrade. He gave me an odd look. Then he suggested an iPhone 6s, which was still expensive.

There was another option, he added conspiratorially: go to the Games Xchange shop round the corner, buy a cheap repurposed handset (repurposed means secondhand) and put your replacement sim card in that.

So I did. I bought an iPhone 4 for £60. The nice lady at Games Xchange explained to me that, as it was so old, a lot of apps wouldn’t work on it. ‘Which apps?’ I asked. ‘WhatsApp. Facebook. Possibly Instagram. Also lots of websites.’ Everything, basically.

Having already survived for the best part of a week without a phone, and in my slightly odd state of mind, I decided this was no bad thing.

So I bought the phone. And I’m still using it now, months later.

What I’ve discovered from my new, downgraded life…

Nothing works. Which can be frustrating, but is generally enormously calming. For instance: I’ve got my mornings back. During my commute, I look out of the train window or read a book instead of replying to emails.

I look up more. I talk to my kids more.

Most apps – as I was already warned – aren’t compatible. Sometimes you even get an option to download an earlier version of an app, which is like going back in time.

The camera is rubbish. You need to smother every picture in filters before putting it on (a year out of date version of) Instagram.

Things don’t sync. Calendar appointments disappear. Names and numbers aren’t recognised. I’ve lost my favourites.

It can’t handle group texts: it splits them into individual conversations and then, on the rare occasions when you get some WiFi, the rest of the conversation arrives in an incoherent flood.

I can’t get 3G, let alone 4G. Which means you don’t get emails anywhere that you’re on the move: walking through town, on the train, having coffee, going for a meeting at someone else’s office. (NB: all of the above should of course be covered by what is laughably referred to as ‘The Cloud’, or by localised WiFi networks with advertised passwords. None of it works.)

I have no emojis. This may seem flippant, but it’s a serious problem. There are times when a ‘LOL’ or an ‘x’ just aren’t enough. How do you convey a ‘thumbs up’ or a ‘crying’ or a ‘poo’ emoji using only the QWERTY keyboard? My text messages are now filled with little aliens and question marks.


view from blackfriars train station

View from Blackfriars train station (taken with an iPhone 7)

I have joined the digital underclass. And do you know what? It feels awesome.

Time is on my side. I reply to work emails when I finally get to see them – in a work environment.

When I’m on the train, I look out of the window. I take photos. I post them on my 2017 version of Instagram, and tag them #commuting, a few hours later, when I finally get a decent WiFi signal. But better than that: I read books.

When I turn up at work, I’m more inclined to do work, because I haven’t been doing work for the past half an hour before arriving at work. If that makes sense. It’s exactly like it used to be. I’ve finally realised what my parents mean when they tell me I work too hard: my father, who was a Royal Marine officer, and my mother, who was a primary school secretary and also worked in the local emergency planning department. What they actually meant was: your job isn’t that important. Turn your phone off.

Do you know what I’ve missed in the past months of being a digital second-class citizen? Surprisingly little.

Do you know what I’ve gained? Nothing but positive experiences. Not simply spending time with my kids, but having no distractions from my kids. It would be simplistic to say I’m more relaxed: I’ve actually become less tolerant of people staring at their phones the whole time, and given how all-pervasive that experience that is, you could argue that I am less tolerant in general. Then again, I’ve not been on Twitter.

As tech brands cynically force their customers to constantly upgrade, for fear of being left behind by the march of progress, the irony is that they are actually making us less connected. But if you decide not to follow that particular arc; if you instead choose to tune out, to reject emojis and 24/7 online access instead – something unexpected happens. You feel re-engaged, not less engaged. The underclass are onto something. Try it, you might like it…