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My cellphone does the whole lot, which is why I need my iPod again

I recall seeing a fantastic comic strip years ago, where the artist bemoaned the state of the modern world. Not in the sense everything was awful (although, by some metrics, that would have been true). But in the sense how activities have become homogenised. Because today, your phone does everything.

This means many activities when illustrated show someone staring glassy eyed at a black rectangle. Because in the real world they involve someone staring glassy eyed at a black rectangle. Not great for art, nor life. Back in the day, these same activities had diversity and character. It was obvious what someone was doing, by virtue of what they were holding or interacting with. So a sense of focus and comprehension has been lost.

I often find such a lack of focus impacts my own life. I use an iPhone 15 Pro Max as a daily driver; and as someone whose first computer was an Atari 400, Apple’s handheld marvel still feels akin to magic. (Although, amusingly, typing on glass is barely better than smashing out words on the Atari’s membrane keyboard.) But my phone does everything – and that often means it does too much.

Out of focus

You never got distracted by Instagram on one of these.

That might sound ungrateful. But I’m sure many of you get it. You’ll sit down of an evening and tap your smartphone’s display. Before you know it, owls will be knocking on the window, suggesting you should probably go to bed, and you’ll realise you’ve spent hours darting from app to app, doing… nothing in particular. 

My iPhone is a newspaper, a TV, a jukebox, a games console, a music production suite, a typewriter, a video editor, a podcast creator, an exercise aid, a camera, and far more besides. But because it’s all of those things, everything can all blend into a kind of grey mush.

I’m fully aware this is a ‘me’ problem. Being armed with a handheld dopamine machine means focus too often drifts. I’ll dig into a long-read in Alfread but a notification will come in and I’ll end up buried in Instagram. Sessions in Korg Gadget might be interrupted by me checking lyrics in Notes, and then I’ll be down another rabbit hole. 

Apple would argue it provides the tools to help you focus with, well, Focus. Google offers similar functionality in Android. But when recently tidying my disaster of an office, I started wondering if there’s another – better – way.

Bring back the classics

When we said pocket-sized, Nintendo, we didn’t mean a coin pocket.

In a drawer, I found a small collection of abandoned iPods. That took me back to a time when I’d spend hours just listening to music, rather than music being the accompaniment to at least one other activity. 

Elsewhere, I unearthed Nintendo handhelds – consoles that forced focus even within the activity of gaming, on account of requiring physical carts, not digital files. Elsewhere, friends enthused about the joy of rediscovering e-ink displays for writing things down and thinking, without distraction, and retro handhelds that moved things on from ancient hardware, but that were specifically geared towards one platform.

So has this boosted my focus? Not really. If anything, I’m using my phone more, looking at the best way to resuscitate and improve a classic iPod, searching for old Nintendo carts I’d always wanted but never bought, and shopping around after convincing myself that I absolutely need a reMarkable 2 (scribbles!), a PowKiddy RGB30 (Pico-8!), a Kindle, and a new electric guitar. 

I’m sure having piles of new toys will totally help me focus, rather than having everything all in one tiny pocketable box, right? Right?

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