Josie Adams refuses to fix the cracks in her phone screen even though they’re slicing her fingers to ribbons. In the latest instalment of IRL, she goes on a quest to meet others like her and discover their shared psychology.
We stare at screens all day and all night. Is this good for us? We’re going to talk about that. Read more Screen Week content here.
On the bottom shelf of my bookcase, inside a second-hand biohazard bag, five mobile phones are dying. Nothing is wrong with them except their screens, which I have cracked and then slowly, over the course of about six months, ground into glass dust with my robust hands. One by one they are left to suffer, unfixed, in eternal darkness.
I believe there are two types of people: those who fix their cracked phone screen immediately, and those who will never, ever fix it. It is often said (on HBO) that a sword is an extension of the body. Well, a phone is an extension of the mind, and my refusal to fix a screen is a representation of my superior nature. I am a true Stoic, resisting both the lure of consumerism and the pain of the glass shards in my fingertips.
Some people say my belief is unfounded, and I am a lone destructive force. Someone I know called me a “psychopath” for proudly treating my phone’s cracks like battle scars; two others have said I’m “irresponsible”. But surely there are people who feel as strongly as I do that a cracked screen is a fine and normal thing? And assuming I’m not alone, what kind of psychology do we share? What drives us to keep destroying our screens, and our fingers?
My hunt for fellow never-fixers leads me to Steve*, a suit-wearing 24 year old freshly inducted into the sea of Wellington bureaucracy. He calls me after work from a brand new iPhone 12, purchased last week. It still has no case, and as he tells me about his history of screen destruction, he walks along the Petone main strip. A strong wind or bumped shoulder could pluck the shiny iPhone from his grasp at any moment.
Steve dropped a previous phone, a Samsung, out of a car. Although the drop initially caused only a couple of tiny puncture marks, the small white dots spread into a line, and from there the disease grew exponentially. “A ghostly green hue took over the whole screen and became stronger and stronger until no pixels were firing anything other than green,” he tells me.
The experience of having a nearly unusable phone was oddly liberating. “For emergency use I could still use it, but any other administrative tedium with which phones have become synonymous was beyond arm’s reach,” Steve says. He couldn’t check Facebook or respond to non-urgent texts, “but if someone died around you, you could get it going.”
Steve held out as long as he could. The Samsung’s screen was an illegible green for a full fortnight before it finally became totally unusable. Like me, he sent it to his own phone crypt (a pile next to his bed).
Why is it such a point of pride for people like Steve and me that our phones are never in peak condition? Dr Sander Zwanenburg, a lecturer at the University of Otago, works in a pretty niche field: he’s a psychologist specialising in personal technology. He owns an iPhone 8 with a big scratch on its backside. He’s reluctant to generalise too much about the psyches of those of us who refuse to fix our phones, but suggests Steve and I could be experiencing “technostress”, ie an inability to adapt or cope with new computer technologies in a healthy manner, giving rise to the fatigue, muscle tension, and apathy we often associate with too much screen time.
Zwanenburg says that while our phones help us cope with the demands of modern life – our work, our friends, our finances – they also prevent us from fulfilling these duties at times. “Our phone is a massive source of distraction,” he says, “and reminds us of all the things we should or could be engaging in, stressing many people out.”
“We may both love and hate our phones,” Zwanenburg continues. “We may want to throw it out, but then we don’t.”
This gets at why some of us walk through the world with proudly flawed phones: it’s a safeguard against technostress. The phone is halfway to thrown out, so we’re halfway to freedom from the digital hellscape. It’s like turning up to an event with deck stain all over your jeans: the jeans are still perfectly functional, but the stain says, “Do not ask me for help – I am too busy with the grit of the real world.”
Poppy*, known as “Droppy Poppy” to her friends, is a Christchurch-based charity worker and another chronic screen cracker. “Other people see it as more of a problem than I do,” she tells me. “Don’t people drop things all the time? And I have my phone on me a lot, so it makes sense.”
The 29-year-old psychology graduate rationalises her cracked screens as the result of her bright and chipper nature. “I think a lot of ‘clumsiness’ and ‘laziness’ is down to downright optimism in life,” she explains. “You just think things are going to survive longer than they do.”
She tries to make phones last as long as they can; her last phone was an iPhone 6, and she only replaced it last year. “I attempted to replace a screen myself,” she says. “I was sure I could do it, and I did. And then it cracked again, and the second time it was done. It was goodbye phone.”
Of course, Steve, Droppy Poppy and I share the earth with our polar opposite type: those who stay on top of their digital anxieties by keeping their phone screens as immaculate as possible. Sabina*, a court registrar in Auckland, said a respectable length of time between cracking your phone screen and fixing it was “maximum a week”.
At the moment her screen protector – not the screen, the screen protector – is cracked, and she’s worried. “If I take it off and put a new one on I’ll have to do it perfectly, and that’s a lot of stress,” she says. The protector has two cracks across it, in an “X” shape. “I could go a few more weeks with it like this, but probably no more,” she continues. “It’s more annoying now that I’m talking about it.”
Sabina lives with her partner, Anthony, who is somehow more uptight than she is. “How can you live like this?” he asks her, even more irritated by the tiny X. “It’s so easy to fix.”
Zwanenburg said there’s any number of reasons why someone might be anally retentive about their phone screen. “Some of us use our phones more than anything else,” he says. “Some of us simply cannot tolerate disorder.”
“It’s like when you have dirty glasses,” says Sabina, who seems to fall into the “cannot tolerate disorder” category. “When you’re looking through it, it’s fine to a point. But once you clean them it’s a whole new world.”
Nephi Hatcher has been working in IT since the brink of Y2K, and in phone screen repair for a decade. He’s seen it all: phones run over by cars, thrown against walls in fits of rage, or just dropped a metre or two. In his experience, a cracked screen is rarely the end of a phone’s life. “If it’s just a few hairline cracks you could get away with using it for years,” he said. “For $5 we’ll cut out a piece of Duraseal and that holds the glass in place. That’ll last.”
While the ever-growing cracks aren’t leaking radiation, he says they do “bleed” damage into the display panel. You might see black patches start to appear under the cracks, and if you keep jabbing at them those patches will become necrotic stamps over a green, glitching mess of a screen.
He has some insight into the divide between those who fix and those who don’t. “Those who don’t want to fix their phone typically spend under $400 on a phone,” he says. He’s got me – my current phone, an Oppo AX7, cost $190. Getting its screen fixed would cost a similar amount, so it doesn’t seem worth the expense and effort.
If this kind of customer does finally cave and agree to fix their phone, Hatcher says they’ll often “bring in four or five of them”. As he’s speaking, I think back to the bag in my cupboard.
On the other hand, he says people who spend upwards of $1000 on their phones are more likely to get the screen repaired – even if it’s just a small scratch, and even if it’s a $1200 job (note: do not buy a Samsung Galaxy Fold if you are smash-happy). But despite the different price points of the phones, Hatcher doesn’t think the divide is down to wealth. “It’s nothing to do with what you earn,” he says. “I see people walking in with phones that cost more than their car all the time.” People see the phone more than the car, so it follows they’d spend more on a nice-looking one.
His occupation notwithstanding, Hatcher himself is not a screen fixer, a revelation that immediately endears him to me. “Me, I keep using it,” he admits. “I’ll just wear it out.”
The philosopher Theodore J. Kaczynski once said, “It is not possible to make a lasting compromise between technology and freedom, because technology is by far the more powerful social force.” That’s never felt truer than today: we compromise constantly by giving up our data and attention to Facebook, buying into the planned obsolescence intrinsic to new technology, or catching a social media-spawned psychogenic “tic”.
“How do we cognitively evaluate the countless frustrations, distractions, and moments of stress [phones] have caused?” Zwanenburg, the psychologist, asks rhetorically. “Are they just a small price to pay for the sheer convenience, utility, and fun [phones] offer us? Or do we see our phones as mere necessities imposed upon us by our occupational and social environment, while we yearn for simpler lives?”
For those of us who press at the cracks in our screen, it’s probably the latter. The bleeding patches are a revolt against the frustrations of technostress; like Poppy, we optimistically assume our battered phones can last the distance, and like Steve, we feel increasingly liberated as each new millimetre of crack renders our phones more emergency-only. We, and the phones we will eventually destroy, are free.
*Names have been changed for privacy.