Up until my freshman year of college, I had used the same iPhone 6s since seventh grade: rose gold, 16GB, with a glossy white home button. No case. Not a single crack, sticker, or, really, anything on it at all, until I got a Popsocket the summer after the twelfth grade. It had a screen size that’s probably half of what iPhone 13s have now. It also turned on differently; back then, you had to press a button at the top rather than one on the sides–remember that?
This may sound silly, but just remembering that iPhone fills me with incredible nostalgia. After all, it had witnessed a lot–nearly five years of my life. No matter where I went, it was always in my pocket or backpack, something that I almost never left the house without. It was there when I started middle school, when the love of my life was Percy Jackson (and honestly, he still is), when my gym teachers would play songs like Timber and Feel it Still during class while we ran laps or did fitness stations, when I spent nights tearfully fangirling over The Hunger Games and The Fault in Our Stars. It was there when I started high school, when I got my first job, when I left home for the first time for a trip to New York, where I was going to play violin in a music competition. It was there when I started experiencing some of the things that I had only read about or seen in movies, like driving a car on my own or getting chased by a horse (it’s a really long story). It was there when I started to learn what it meant to grow up, when I realized that some things are just simply not meant to be, when I learned how to advocate for myself. It was there at the best moment of my life when I got into my dream college, Princeton. And it was also there at some of the most tumultuous, like at the height of the pandemic. It was there as I entered and left my teenage years, as I started to become an adult. Looking back at it now, it feels like that iPhone 6s was like an omnipresent eye throughout my adolescence, there to capture and see it all, completely unfiltered.
If I could, I would keep that phone with me throughout college, and even longer after that. One phone for one life. But, continuity, as I’ve since learned, is only an illusion. Nothing lasts forever. What finally took the 6s down was water. On a humid day in July after the senior year of my high school, I decided to charge my phone on the kitchen counter since all the other power outlets in the house were occupied—as I had done many times before, with no mishaps. But that was also the day the coffee machine started leaking, and once I returned to my phone, I found it completely drenched in scalding hot water. No matter what I tried, it wouldn’t turn on anymore. It was broken.
At the time, I almost wished that something more dramatic could’ve happened. Cracking in half, exploding into a million pieces–something louder, something more visible. That, for some reason, seemed to me that it would’ve been more fitting, more apt for something that had been so ingrained in my life. Then it would at least have some tone of finality, as if it were signaling the ending of a chapter in my life. Alas, it was destroyed by something so silent like water damage, which I couldn’t even see anymore after it dried and actually lends the phone the illusion of working. Even today, it sits in my desk drawer at home, completely whole, with a perfectly black, uncracked screen, and sometimes, I press the power button, hoping that it would still turn on.
Even after the 6s was destroyed, though, all of my data was still available on my new iPhone 11 through my iCloud. Immediately after I logged into my account, all the photos and videos I had taken throughout middle school and high school populated the once-empty apps on my screen. Some of the notes I had written in the Notes app were still available, though I quickly deleted them (since they were mostly passwords for things I no longer used anymore or “poems” I wrote from seventh grade, which I just couldn’t finish reading out of embarrassment). For a while, I even continued to get old reminders I used to schedule for myself in high school, reminding me that I have orchestra rehearsal on Wednesdays, or that I needed to stop by my locker after school.
At first, I felt a little strange seeing these things pop up on such a new device and not my 6s, but eventually, that became less significant to me. I mean, who cared if the 11’s exterior was different if all the content that I really cared about—like the pictures I took with my friends or family since 2016—were still on it? Just looking at those videos and reminders on the 11 evoked the same emotions and memories I had about my adolescence that I mentioned earlier about my 6s. This experience made me start to wonder whether it really mattered that I had switched phones. The 11 was only distinguished from the 6s in terms of how it looked on the outside–it was only the “shell” that was different, but otherwise it was still the same.
That was probably one of the most interesting yet counterintuitive things I’ve realized about technology so far: despite the ways it’s promoted excessive materialism through encouraging voracious online shopping and trendy objects on social media, technology also detaches itself from materiality as well. The physical exterior of the 11 didn’t matter to me, so long as I had all the “memories” from the 6s on it as well.
From then, a whole array of other, similar situations with technology became apparent to me. In many ways, technology has actually discouraged us from owning more things–for example, think paper–since everything is compressed onto a few pixels on the Internet, projected onto a small screen that makes them ever more digestible for us to consume. And perhaps most stunningly, technology has completely transcended the very material objects it’s made of through becoming integrated within human personalities. For me, I don’t think I would be as curious or inquisitive as I am today if I didn’t grow up with ready access to Google on my computer. Or, maybe, I would still have lots of questions, but I wouldn’t have the answers to them. Without my phone or ancient iPod from 5th grade, I wouldn’t have discovered all the Taylor Swift or Lana Del Rey songs (for better or for worse) that gave shape to my feelings of yearning and angst in my teenage years. And of course, social media has only further exacerbated my incredibly unrealistic standards for everything from food to friendships, setting me on a relentless quest for perfection (even though I know that most of what I see on it is either Photoshopped or completely fabricated).
What do these dynamics mean about technology’s role in society or humans in general? It could mean plenty of things. It could mean that in the future, technology can become so much more embedded into the human experience in ways that we can’t even foresee. It might even mean that the posthuman cyborg worlds we read about in books might be possible. But for me it means that there’s a little irony in everything—and I like it.