That moment when your phone dies…
Recently my wife was travelling back from work in Pretoria on the Gautrain, while I was in the kitchen washing dishes.
No, I’m not inverting a patriarchal stereotype, it’s just the truth.
After the last dish had been stacked in the rack, I picked up my phone and saw a series of messages from her.
“Train leaves in seven minutes,” read the first.
“Running out of battery, so I won’t be able to call you when I get to Rosebank, will you fetch me in 45 minutes?” read the next one.
The third message, five minutes later than the first read, “On 1% please answer”.
I tried to call, but my wife’s phone went straight to voicemail. It was obviously dead.
I grabbed my car keys and drove to the Rosebank Gautrain station to pick her up.
Now I’m pretty sure that everyone who owns a cellphone has been in that situation at least once.
The one where your phone runs out of battery just when it seems you need it the most. There is an almost irrational sense of panic that rises up within you.
When I got lost in Johannesburg and my phone decided to die, cutting me off from Google Maps, it felt like a crisis.
A sense of dread came over me. “Oh no, what do I do now?” I thought to myself.
What I did was find some helpful people who passed on some directions and I was soon on my way. Since that day, I have learnt to keep a map book in my car in case of emergencies, just like I did before Google Maps existed.
Before cellphones became so ubiquitous, people who were travelling between cities and needed to get picked up at a train station would have phoned through their arrival details, hours – if not days – before.
But that level of preparedness almost seems antiquated in a world where we are used to technology solving our problems at the touch of a button.
What I am curious about is why the dead phone can instil such anxiety in human beings, when deep down we know that people still found where they were going and still managed to get picked up at the train station in the days before of cellular devices.
Why does the dead phone make human beings feel helpless and impotent and what does that say about our relationship with technology?
A while back I read about Die With Me, a chatroom app with a difference. Die With Me is essentially an artwork in chatroom disguise.
What distinguishes it from normal chatroom apps is that you can only use it for the brief period between when your phone has 5% battery left and when it dies.
It is the brainchild of Dries Depoorter and David Surprenant. Depoorter says that the feeling of getting lost in a city when his phone had died inspired him.
“I think it’s a new feeling we all can recognise,” he told Tech Crunch. “Having a low battery on you feels… it feels like you depend on technology.”
Most phones only last about four to five minutes with 5% of battery life, so the occupants of the Die With Me chatroom are constantly changing.
Depoorter says the stress that comes from being able to use the chatroom but only for a limited window is essential to the experience.
He says they have also noticed how users share tips on how to stay in the chatroom for longer. Depoorter’s chatroom project brought a smile to my face, and I couldn’t help but think that those who just dismiss it as a gimmick are really missing the point.
If we are going to successfully navigate the new technologically advanced future, we are going to have to have honest conversations with one another and ourselves about the psychological and emotional stresses of a technology-dependent world.
Perhaps spending your last few percentage points of battery power in a chatroom, sharing the now- common human experience of facing being cut off from the digital world, is not just a clever idea.
To me, Die With Me is a way for us all to take a few minutes out of our busy days to realise that when the phone goes dead, life doesn’t come to a grinding halt.
Let’s make 2018 the year in which we begin to challenge irrational behaviour fuelled by technological dependency.
This article originally appeared in the 1 March edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.