I quit my job on a Friday and boarded a plane to New York on the following Sunday.
The Saturday in between, I spent desperately overturning my small London studio apartment, hunting for the “small item of personal significance” I’d been asked to bring along for my upcoming summer course.
This assignment — “describe yourself through a unique and meaningful artifact” — seems to be a fairly common ice-breaking exercise. It leads me to imagine that crippling anxiety isn’t the reaction most people have when faced with said task. Me? I was in full-on panic mode.
Still, I kept telling myself that if I only looked hard enough, I might recall the perfect object to “represent my story.” In my head, I couldn’t shake this picture of a hand knit jumper in a pattern so discernibly Norwegian that it could only have been produced by a grandmother. Something with reindeers and trolls on it, with a heartwarming tale of family heritage to accompany it.
But I’ve lived in four countries over the last 10 years. With each move, I curated my belongings into two suitcases. Even if I had ever owned anything of the sort, it would be long gone today. The search was futile.
I realized that even if I did own that jumper, it wouldn’t be authentic. It’s not who I am. I was born and bred in Norway, but refuse to be summed up by a place where I never felt belonging. I came of age in California, but I am not Californian. My last place of residence doesn’t compensate for my attitudes being strikingly un-British.
The only object that resonated with me was the one I already held in my hand.
I brought my iPhone.
I promise it’s not what you’re thinking. Yes, I’m a product designer, and I could reasonably use the kingpin of all Apple products as a way to explain what I do. I could write an essay on the origins of my “personal design philosophy”, a true ode to Steve Jobs and Johnny Ive. But that would make me a cliché dick. In fact, this isn’t about the iPhone at all.
Yes, mine is an iPhone, but the brand isn’t the point. It could be a Samsung, Huawei, or Xiaomi. The choice — my choice — speaks volumes of my location in the world, my demographic and my social class.
Together they become symbols of a place without a geographical location.
So no, this is not the tale of a deep passion for glossy black surfaces, a dramatic discovery on a fateful autumn day nine years ago. This isn’t about Apple. This is about physical representations of where I spent my adolescence.
This is about growing up on the internet.
I began to feel sentimental towards the internet long before I ever owned a wifi-enabled device (computers included), yet I can’t think of a better manifestation of where I spent my childhood.
Many of my fondest teenage memories are of online message boards and forums, obscure internet communities and late-night MSN conversations with people whose faces I’d never seen. My favorite gifts were digital. For Christmas, I begged my parents for domain names and premium subscriptions to DeviantArt and LiveJournal. My memories are without physical artifacts.
It goes without saying that I was a nerdy, introverted child. I spent every recess in middle school hiding in the back of the library reading PC World. It made my week when, on occasion, a teacher would forget to lock up the school’s computer lab against unsupervised use, and I instead got to spend recess talking to my closest digital friends.
For my teenage self, the internet was a safe space. The only space where I felt belonging and purpose.
My friend Maykel Loomans recently described phones as “tiny shields we bring into the real world.” My iPhone has saved me from my social anxiety at innumerable parties and social gatherings. It’s a portable comfort blanket; a reminder that I’m not alone no matter how lonesome I feel.
I think of my 14-year-old self, crunched in a library corner praying nobody notices she’s there all on her own, and I think of what a difference having a smartphone would have made on her psyche.
I think about the fact that, to her, even needing to ask a shop assistant for help prompted a full-on anxiety attack. Yet, the thought of moving to a different country didn’t phase her at all. I’ve done it three times now, each time asking myself the same question. If mundane tasks terrify me, why do I find moving to foreign cities where I know no one so easy?
Perhaps the reason is that I’ve always been able to bring my real home with me.
Conversations about smartphones are often — still! — a debate around privilege. We hear of spoiled kids distracted in class, teenagers sexting each other using newfangled apps. The decline of civilization brought to you by Pokémon GO and Tinder. Mindfulness is the topic of the year and we deride those who fail to be present, vilify the objects of our attention to as decadent symbols of consumerism.
Here we are, fitting worlds of knowledge into our hands, only to dismiss the medium as a gratuitous pocket monster machine. What is more privileged than that?
The hundred-dollar-computer, also known as the One Laptop Per Child, was much revered in the design industry but never succeeded in the real world. When OLPC was launched in 2006, the year before Steve Jobs stood on a stage and announced a $599 luxury device, no one could have predicted that it was in fact the latter that would come to empower the developing world with access to education.
The path to knowledge and empowerment today isn’t a computer. It’s a ten dollar Android.
Whether you’re a Facebook-loving farmer in Myanmar or a tech-obsessed New Yorker, the beeping, blinking snow globes in our pockets give us all an opportunity to belong.
I am who I am because of the ideas I was exposed to, the people I met, and the skills that I learned — not in real life, but in a world that has landmarks but no physical location.
So I quit my job and flew from London to New York, and I brought my childhood home with me.
Christine Røde is a designer from the world wide web. Follow her on Twitter for more emotional outbursts and musings on technology.