I remember the first time my father bought a cell phone, more specifically, the weeks leading up to him getting one. This was in the early 90s. At the time, the closest thing to a cell phone was the cordless landline; the kind that came with two headsets that could be placed at different points in the house. Please note that this type of phone, with two headsets, came way later. What we had before were the kinds with a circular dial pad, like this one here, with numbers only,  0 to 9. My folks were experts at locking it with a padlock so you had to ask their permission before you used the phone.

With the landline fixed in one place in the house, there were several challenges and somewhat funny experiences like running across the house to where the folks were, to tell them that there’s a call for them. Despite the fact that they had heard the phone ring, and all the calls coming in were probably for them, they would still just wait for you to deliver the message. Woe unto you if you were the one who made the call and the person you needed to talk to was nowhere near the phone. 

If you took too long to pick up the call the person on the other end would hang up. Before the digitised landline that was fitted with caller ID features, you would then not know who had made the call. Sometimes the person calling would urge you to hurry up because they were at a public call box and were running out of talk time. If my dad at that time was in the bathroom and so there was no way of hurrying him up, there was nothing to do but wait and hope they had enough coins to keep slotting in the machine.

When I was given the one opportunity to use the phone to call my friends and they didn’t pick. My dad would do this thing of only allowing me two attempts before taking the privilege away. If my friend didn’t pick up on the second attempt, too bad. That chance was gone. And he would sit there to make sure I stuck to the rules. If you thought that was bad enough, it gets worse. If the person I was calling happened to pick up, he would sit there and listen to my conversation. So much for privacy.

Back to sourcing for a cellphone – my dad visited town to see what options there were. I think there were only two electronic shops selling cell phones at that time. And because the price on them was not cheap, you had to place an order, pay a deposit and wait for it to be imported. It’s arrival took anything between two weeks to a month from the time you paid the deposit. My dad was not ready to wait that long. He eventually got his phone from a friend who was disposing of theirs to get the newer version. You would think that the newer version was smaller or sleeker or less heavy. Those things were huge! Nothing like the Nokia 3310. And most definitely nothing like the Samsung flip phone. They were heavy and you had to pull out the antennae to try to find a suitable connection. And it cost almost kshs 200 per minute on talk time! Eventually my dad got something that looked like this! Folks, you have to keep in mind my father was an electrical engineer and gadgets excited him. He was always on the lookout for advancements in technology and the cellphone was one of those things that he could not just let pass him by.

Well, today, our cellphones are a far cry from the first models released. Think of all the amazing things that we can do just from the palms of our hands and good wi-fi…far cry, I tell ya!

This is not necessarily a good thing, and I think more and more people are starting to realise how cellphones are beginning to be a nuisance. Maybe I should stop making these general statements and speak for myself. My cellphone is starting to feel like a burden, like something I wish I could get rid of. I’ve been playing around with the idea of actually going back to the basics and getting a mulika mwizi, that is, a cellphone that is not smart. They have no ability to get online, and they have those really bright torches hence the nickname. Also, those phones can last up to three full days before you need to charge them! Yes, those are the phones that are starting to look really appealing.

I currently feel like a slave to my phone. It’s like it is this thing I need to communicate but at the same time, it feels like I am always communicating with people through it. I watched a documentary on Netflix I think. I can’t seem to remember the name of the documentary. It explained how developers incorporate elements into the phone that are designed to keep you on your phone almost all the time. Software and app developers are not too far behind on the trail. From watching this episode, I learnt that the human brain is wired to respond to stimuli and these developers are maximising on this. This is why we find it hard to ignore notifications. So the phone and app developers take advantage of this need to respond, and unless you change your phone settings, you will struggle to ignore a notification. You may not respond to the person immediately but you will want to look at the notification. With features like read/receipt a part of you will feel obligated to respond because now the other person will know that you have seen their message and have chosen to ignore them. See, just one of the ways in which they get you.

The simple times of planning or scheduling social calls are long gone. The landline did not allow you the luxury of calling people on a whim. At times you would call and simply hope that someone was home to pick up, and most importantly, that the person you needed to speak to was home. If you were both using public phone booths, you needed to have a plan so that the receiver was waiting by the phone booth when you made that call. It also meant shorter conversations because there were other people waiting to use the same phone.

Another struggle I am having is creating phone-free time. Truthfully I can’t totally blame the phone for this. I have of responsibility (or is it control) over this. The current times we are living in make it such that the easiest way to stay in touch with loved ones is through the phone. But when do you switch off? When do you put your phone away and ignore it? It is possible, I know this. I am struggling with just putting my phone away. This is a recent struggle, a 2021 struggle. 

I find myself spending more time on the phone now as opposed to even just a year ago. And it is not as if I am communicating with many people, just the same circle of friends. It is just that we are now communicating more often than before. What I need to find is a way to still stay in touch without feeling like the phone is taking over my life. Old school communication meant that your time on the phone was limited either by parent/guardian or by the state of your pocket. Making or receiving a call was a luxury. But like I said, this could just be a me problem and needing to figure out when to put my phone away.

The phone has also made us more brazen. It gives a false sense of security .The physical distance between the sender and the recipient creates an environment where people just talk to each other anyhow. Things we would not say face to face get typed easily from one person to another. It is said that our tongues hold power. That the thoughts we have and the words we speak yield power. If this is the case, how is it that we just type things and hit send without really thinking through the consequences of our actions? 

And how is it that we have developed a sense of entitlement to people’s time? Just because you sent me a message and you can see I am online, why do you feel entitled to my immediate response? Yes, I saw your message, I just don’t want to respond to it just yet. So when you keep texting insistently, all you are doing now is getting on my nerves. 

Then there are the passive-aggressive texts that come through asking if I saw their previous message. Come on now, when does it ever end? And to monitor the times I am on my phone through Truecaller? Too much!  

I remember my dad would throw a fit if you shared our number with anyone without his permission. He didn’t want strangers having our number, which was an exercise in futility if you think about it. Kenya Telkom published a phone book annually and included all the numbers they had issued that year. Basically, anyone who knew your full names and your physical address, had access to your number. Also, airtime was too expensive, so you would not waste it on nonsense. The phone was to pass on messages quickly and move on, no time for catching feelings.

With the cellphone being what it is now, anyone who has your cell phone number feels entitled to reach you through whatever means necessary. I do realize that this is more of a me problem in the sense that I have created limits for myself in what the phone is to me and what it can and cannot be used for. And maybe expecting people to operate within these limits is my responsibility, and not the responsibility of those trying to reach me. 

What am I trying to say in many words? Maybe our folks were on to something in limiting our talk time. Maybe the access we all have to each other as a result of the cell phone needs to be reviewed. Maybe developers need to stop profiteering from our data so we don’t need to accept all terms and conditions just to make a call. Maybe, just maybe, I should throw away my phone and just get a landline.

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