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We’re So Reliant on Our Phones, They’ve Warped Our Sense of Space and Time

That little battery symbol can dictate your entire day

We are all truly cyborgs, thanks to the biomechatronic limb that is our iPhones. We have so come to rely upon our phones for basic functioning that they’ve even begun to shape our basic instincts and perceptions: Time and space are no longer measured by minutes or miles, but by that little battery symbol in the upper corner of the screen. 

At least, that’s what a recent study asserts. According to a survey of London commuters by researchers at the City University of London, people measure the time and distance of their journey based on their access to chargers. “People no longer think about their destination being 10 kilometers away or 10 stops on the tube. They think about it being 50 percent of their battery away,” says Thomas Robinson, the study’s lead author, in an interview with the university’s news site

It’s not simply that we’ve become so in-tune with the ways of our phones that we know precisely how much life is left on our device based on its battery symbol, but that we view the battery symbol as either granting or restricting our access to the other tools of our phones that we’ve come to rely on. Without our phones, we’re not just missing out on the hottest shitposts Twitter has to offer, we also lose access to maps, emergency resources, payment options and other utilities that basically allow us to function. 

The study further found that many people gauge their sense of personal responsibility upon their battery management. People who often let their phones die were identified by the study’s participants as “disorganized,” “inconsiderate” and “frustrating.” On top of that, people reported feeling less anxiety when their phones were fully charged, and increased anxiety when their phones were about to die. 

Of the 58 people I polled via Instagram, however — a completely legitimate and reliable sample size! — only 53 percent agreed that having a low phone battery brought them anxiety. I personally don’t focus much on my battery, usually because I have frequent access to a charger (something that would presumably be less straightforward if I lived in a place with proper public transport, rather than driving everywhere). 

That said, I struggle to imagine what I’d do in a scenario where, say, I was lost and had a dead battery, which is weird, because the time when people got by without their phones is really quite recent. Many people still do this, in fact! My father is one of those people: He’s never had a smartphone, and he never will. He’s been the occasional owner of an “Obama phone,” i.e., a free, ultra-basic cell phone provided to low-income people as part of a public-assistance program. But at the moment, he’s living his life as a city boy in Boston, sans cellphone.  

When I ask my dad how he gets by, he tells me, “I just read the maps.” But what if he wants to go somewhere but isn’t sure where it is? He explains how he recently navigated this issue in his hunt for a recreational marijuana dispensary, “I asked the guys in the smoke shop across the street and they said, ‘Go to Brookline Village,’ didn’t tell me the street or anything,” he says. “So I went to the subway, looked at the map and took two trains over to Brookline Village and walked around a bit, found a guy on the street and asked him if he knew. Then he pointed me to a small shop behind this big building. They didn’t have any flower, though. Next time I’m gonna call them before I go [from the landline].”

In another world, my dad could have just Googled it. There was probably even a closer recreational dispensary. But he, like many others, can’t afford a smartphone, and doesn’t have much interest in one, anyway. Instead, he’s just living in the moment, spending essentially his entire day procuring legal marijuana, whereas I couldn’t even write this article without using my cellphone to call my father, because like the true cyborg I am, I rely on my phone to store my loved one’s numbers instead of memorizing them in my actual brain.