I Explained iPhones To My Grandmother

“What’s that thing?”


“That thing, that instrument between your fingers. What is it?”

I dropped my iPhone into my lap and immediately started searching between my fingers, as if I’d never seen them before. I was sitting in my grandmother’s living room in Oregon while she and her partner were watching the nightly news.

“Grandma, what are you talking about?” I was confused. Had a tattoo of a trumpet or something magically appeared on the inside of one of my fingers? (Note to self: That’s an awesome tattoo idea, thanks Grams.)

“No! That thing you just put down! What is it?”

Wait… did she mean my iPhone? Once I got past the befuddling idea that someone — including my 76-year-old grandmother — wouldn’t know what an iPhone looked like, I had to stop and consider. It was an interesting question I’d never been asked. What is an iPhone, really?

“It’s my phone, Grandma.”

“That’s a phone? You call it just a phone?”

How do you explain what a smartphone is to someone who has never used one? Moreover, how do you explain it to someone who wouldn’t understand what an app is, or how the entire Internet can be contained in a piece of technology no larger than a postcard? How could I explain that I still call it a “phone” even when it can do all this at the command of my fingertips?

Nine years ago last week, Steve Jobs walked onto a stage in San Francisco and changed the way we live our lives. Maybe that’s too grandiose to say, but I know this: It certainly changed my life, and the lives of nearly everyone I know. I doubt my grandmother would know who Steve Jobs was, then or now.

In January 2007, I had just turned 17 and was starting my final semester of high school. I’d been accepted to my first-pick college and was pretty sure that journalism was what I wanted to do. In 2007, working in print media was still a viable career choice. In 2007, I had a hot pink Motorola Razr phone.

2007 was also the year I got my first Apple product: a bright blue iPod mini I named Bloo. My first iPhone wouldn’t appear until 2009, after I finally smashed my second Razr so badly that I had to hold both pieces of the flip phone together with my hands just to make a phone call.

2007 was just nine years ago. That’s about one-third of my life so far, so maybe that’s why living without my smartphone seems like a near impossibility to me now. Every piece of my life is caught up in that phone, and I bet things are similar for you, too. It’s how I stay in touch with friends or make plans to go out. It’s how I use Facebook, Twitter, and Tinder. I play games on it when I’m bored. I’m learning to speak Arabic with it. I watch movies on it and it can play me music it thinks I might like. I set six different alarm clocks on it so I’m not late for work in the morning, and it can play those alarms with increasing levels of melodic annoyance. With a swipe of my finger I can rent a room, call a cab, or order a pizza. I’ve used it as a compass in the woods and as a level for the artwork that hung on my first apartment’s walls; in a pinch I’ve even written full articles with it — if it could boil water and wipe my ass, I’d never have to leave my apartment again.

There are a lot of people — mostly members of older generations — that decry that deep level of connection to a piece of technology. They say we can’t unplug from the machine, and maybe that’s true. Maybe I tend to downplay my reliance on it so that I don’t have to deal with a lecture about it from Baby Boomers (whom I don’t usually agree with, anyway).

But between you and me, I don’t think that being reliant on a piece of technology and being aware of the rest of the world are mutually exclusive. Yes, I spend a lot of my time on the Internet, usually through my iPhone. But I’m not just playing games; I’m catching up on the updates from BBC about an incident in the Middle East, or listening to NPR. I’m reading a novel or checking my social media pages for work. When I went on a solo road trip through Northern California last month — the end point of which, by the way, was grandma’s house — I used it as my GPS, my music player, and as a way to let people know where I was and what I was doing. Its presence at my side didn’t distract me from the beauty of Napa, Mendocino, Cannon Beach, or spending time with loved ones. If anything, it added to my experience, because it made my trip easy and safe.

When the telephone was invented in 1876 and became common in homes soon after, some hated the idea of young people spending copious amounts of time on it, talking to each other across the country. When television was newly popular, in the 1950s, and a fixture in many households, Americans were subjected to diatribes about how it would suck you in, ruin your eyes, and distract you from real work. Luddites have existed in many forms for many years on many different topics; I usually think of them like bullies at school — it’s best just to go play in a different corner of the playground. To me, the people who moan about the ubiquity of smartphones in 2016 aren’t any different from those who moaned about factory-made lace in 1816.

The truth is, I believe that people are always scared of that which they’re not used to. It’s human nature, it’s what kept our ancestors in the cave at night while scary things howled outside. And much like my septuagenarian grandmother, who saw the rise and daily use of television, rockets and computers in her lifetime, what’s new and unfamiliar can often seem like a campfire cautionary tale come to life.

To me, that “instrument between my fingers” is a new and exciting addition to my daily life. The fact that I can only vaguely remember playing Snake on my old phone isn't shocking; it's a memory of the ever-changing nature of technology, the same way our children will only vaguely recall a time when drones were only being used for the occasional package delivery.

To my grandmother, it’s something right out of The Jetsons. We will look at the technology of 2066 the same way she sees my iPhone. And maybe, just maybe, by 2066, I’ll learn to stop breaking my screen.

Images: Giphy (3)