Saturday afternoon and I’d been sitting in my local pub for at least an hour drinking the remains of my second pint of beer. The local clientele were doing their usual: scrutinising their hand-held devices as though they were personal life-support machines requiring constant tweaking and attention.
Meanwhile, on the pub TV, the sordid details of News International’s phone hacking scandal were unfolding live before my very eyes.
“Jesus H. Christ!” I exclaimed out loud. “This isn’t just affecting a small cross-section of the population, this is a goddamned epidemic of massive proportions!”
The fat lawyer sitting in the corner briefly glanced up at me from his iPhone with an expression that suggested a mixture of contempt and confusion, before taking another quick swig of his drink and refocusing his attention on his brightly lit touch screen.
“Whatever happened to coming to the pub to engage in social interaction!?” I exclaimed.
There was no response.
I looked out of the window at the multitude of passers-by, all of whom seemed to be preoccupied with whatever was on their cell phones.
“Another beer?” asked the barmaid as she punched in a few characters on her smartphone.
“What exactly are you all fucking doing?” I asked somewhat irritably.
“I’m on Twitter,” she said without even looking up.
“And I’m on Facebook,” remarked the fat lawyer – his beady little jaundiced eyes looked up again briefly, as if attempting to burn holes in the back of my inner skull.
“Yeah,” I remarked sarcastically, “cos, so much interesting shit is going down in here right now that all your friends need an update.”
“Do you want a beer or not?” asked the barmaid impatiently – her podgy little pink thumbs sliding over the touch sensitive device.
“No thanks,” I said getting to my feet, “I’ve got walls at home I can stare blankly at.”
Suddenly I felt a vibration in my pocket as I vacated the pub.
Christ, I thought whilst taking my phone out of my pocket to check it, this state of constant connectedness is even starting to affect me now.
I glanced at the screen.
A phantom phone vibration I realised. A condition brought on by modern living. A syndrome I had heard media theorist Douglas Rushkoff talk about, where our nervous systems have maladapted to expect real-time communication at any given moment. An electronically induced nervous tick, if you like, that doesn’t even require the device to do anything electronically other than just sit in one’s pocket awaiting an incoming announcement of no or little value.
It was the final straw for me and a much needed match tossed into the proverbial gunpowder barrel. Whatever happened to using a phone as just a phone?
As I walked up the road I made my mind up. Either I’m going to exorcise the use of a mobile phone from my life entirely or find one that just makes and receives calls. No cameras, no email, no internet, no text messaging, no mp3 player, no fuck all, just a phone that actually phones people.
Does such a thing even exist?
When I arrived home I fired up the internet and within minutes I had my answer: John’s Phone.
Manufactured by John Doe Amsterdam and pitched as “The World’s Simplest Cell Phone”, John’s Phone seemed like the complete antithesis of everything one has come to expect from forth generation mobile phone technology.
Looking like a cross between a television remote and a garage door controller, I instantly fell in love with the simple yet eloquent design. The black business model especially appealed to me with the bomb symbol on the hang-up button.
Not only would this phone suit my needs but it would send a clear message of social rebellion. How amusing, I thought, to pull this baby out of my pocket with everyone around me locked in a state of constant communication.
The more I researched John’s Phone, the more I was determined to get one. Not only was this exactly what I was looking for but, as I saw it, a subversive statement to the drones in the pub.
Whilst the retail price seemed quite reasonable to me for acquiring the limited connectedness I was looking for, I also saw the potential for writing a piece of social commentary about it and the modern day epidemic obsession with always having to be “switched on”. So I applied to acquire a review model and several days later a white “snow” model arrived through the post.
The first thing that struck me about John’s Phone was the simplicity of its design. Clearly, someone had really thought about this. Whilst I quickly realised the appeal this phone might have to the older generation – with its big buttons and hardwired switching on the side – I also began to appreciate many other benefits that this phone might offer to anyone as pissed off as I at being constantly connected.
The way I saw it, possessing this phone was a statement in itself and a means of flipping the bird to “The Man”. An unlocked, quad-band telephone with seriously bad attitude. Any sim card on any network worldwide could be slotted into the little drawer at the side of this unit, and within seconds be ready for use.
I imagined how political activists might find it of value, where one could acquire a temporary sim card prior to a protest, use it to mobilise and then discard the sim card afterwards to avoid traceability.
Also, the hardwired on/off switch might equally be of value to the political dissident. For example, everyone knows that most mobile phones are still technically “on” even when switched “off”. Since this phone doesn’t even have a clock on it, there is no need for it to tick over in the background when one has powered it down. As a result, when the phone is turned off, it is really “off” – meaning that nobody would be able to trace and track your location if you didn’t want them to.
Given its limited functionality it would also be virtually impossible to hack a phone like this. I mean, what could a News International investigative journalist really hope to gain by acquiring unlawful access to John’s Phone? It doesn’t do anything other than make and receive calls, so they wouldn’t even be able to read texts or emails. They also wouldn’t be able to get details of your personal contacts either, since the only address book that John’s Phone has is a little paper booklet located behind a flap in a compartment at the rear of the unit. With its built-in detachable pen, one simply jots down one’s private contacts in the supplied paper address book – a straightforward piece of analogue genius in my opinion.
Stick that in your pipe and smoke it Rupert Murdoch!
Many people might think that having a physical address book is taking things a bit too far, but I would strongly disagree. I have challenged friends to access one of our mutual friends’ phone numbers quicker than me using their smartphones, and every time I have retrieved the information faster simply by opening up the flap at the back and looking at the address book. It also encourages you to remember phone numbers (like in the olden days) since the little display on the top of the unit doesn’t tell you the name of the caller, just the number that is calling you. The unit does however give you the option of setting ten speed dial numbers which, as far as I am concerned, is more than enough to conveniently communicate with those I regularly stay in contact with.
John’s Phone then is essentially a behaviour changer, changing not only one’s own behaviour but the behaviour of one’s personal acquaintances. It encourages communication only when really necessary and forces you to actually talk to people instead of spending valuable time corresponding by text. If someone wants to get in touch with you, they have to essentially call you as their texts won’t be answered.
In fact if someone texts you, you won’t even know about it, for John’s Phone saves texts directly to your sim card and doesn’t even bother alerting you that you have even received a text.
This might also be perceived by some people as taking things a bit too far, however, once you have informed all your acquaintances that a response to their texts will either not happen at all or be severely delayed, it encourages them to stop expecting a rapid response whilst allowing you the freedom to stop being concerned about it. For example, I have not given up entirely on texting, I just don’t worry about responding quickly and my friends have gotten used to it. Instead, every 2 or 3 days (or whenever I have time or can be bothered) I take out the sim card, slot it back into my old phone and check for any text communication. To date, no-one has sent anything that has required a life or death response.
So, what about the phone’s performance?
Well, all I can say is: Wow!
When the folks at John Doe put this baby together they clearly wanted to make the one thing that it does do function really well. For example, I’ve just returned from a week long trip up the Scottish Highlands – staying in remote locations where signal coverage is exceptionally poor and battery life normally drains away rather rapidly due to one’s phone constantly roaming for a signal. Since John’s Phone has only one function, it doesn’t drain battery life anything like a 4G phone as the normal standby time of the unit is a staggering 25 days.
During my trip away I left the phone on permanently to test out the functionality of the device properly, and upon my return yesterday, I was amazed to see that the battery was still approximately 75% fully charged. I also noticed that it was able to pick up a signal in places I had struggled to acquire a signal before, suggesting to me that either phone mast coverage in Scotland has improved drastically over the last few weeks or that John’s Phone is far more effective at picking up a signal.
The quality of sound is also crystal clear and the volume can be controlled easily to suit your personal tastes. Turning the phone up to maximum volume is virtually similar to having a speakerphone function. I mean, it’s so damned loud that everyone around you will be able to hear your conversation clearly too if you so desired.
Another pleasant surprise for me was the lack of interference that the phone seemed to generate when near other devices. For example, I’m used to placing my mobile phone on my computer desk when I’m online. With my old phone I found that every couple of minutes I’d hear what sounded to me like electromagnetic/static interference being picked up on my computer’s speakers, making me wonder what information my phone was relaying to my network provider, or why my network provider needed to communicate with my phone. With John’s Phone I get none of this, and the only time I hear a little static interference is when the phone is just about to ring.
For me, having John’s Phone is a true breath of fresh air and I have no desire to go back to the irritation of possessing a multifunctional mobile device. I’ve always been a great believer in having individual specific devices for carrying out individual specific tasks, and the modern day concept of having one device to perform multiple functions just seems more of a hindrance than an advantage.
It also sends a clear message to those around me that I am able to break the level of connectedness that appears to have been thrust upon us against our wills, and that by not having text, email or internet at my fingertips is not as much of a social impediment as it would first appear. When all is said and done, I am still contactable at the press of a button, and I can still equally contact others just as easily as they can get in contact me.
Where before I used to be constantly checking my previous phone for texts or missed calls – or even checking to ensure that the overly sensitive touch screen function hadn’t inadvertently called someone randomly through bouncing around in my pocket – I find with John’s Phone that I can simply switch the phone onto lock and go about my business without unnecessary distraction. With it’s built in vibration function and single ringtone set on high, it doesn’t even occur to me that I might miss a call, as the volume is so loud it’d be virtually impossible (unless you’re as deaf as a doorpost).
It also gets a few smirks and sarcastic comments when I pull the thing out of my pocket, but I tend to be the kind of person who relishes in that kind of reaction. In fact, the other day one individual seemed scared to examine it up close, fearing it to be some kind of joke gadget that might administer an electric shock.
But as they say at John Doe: “keep things simple” and “stop being so difficult”. Whilst I’m not exactly the kind of person to advertise any kind of product whatsoever, I am, in all honestly, highly impressed with this little device and think it sends a clear statement of non-conformity to an ignorant and subservient society that is clearly becoming increasingly incapable of appreciating freedom and free choice. Whilst many people have taken the opportunity to belittle John’s Phone, there have also been those who seem to admire it for its simplicity, and I have been rather surprised and taken aback by the number of people who “get it”.
One thing I would like to see for it, though, is perhaps a little piece of computer software that allows you to check the sim for text messages when interfacing the device with a PC (and perhaps even to be able to respond to them whilst the device remains synced). This would eliminate the need for removing the sim and placing it into another phone every few days whilst simultaneously allowing one to charge the device via the computer’s USB port.
John’s Phone retails at around €70 – €90 and comes in six distinct different colours. Models can be purchased directly from their website.
George T. Mortimer
(George, and this essay, can be found over at Media Underground)