How full is your smartphone battery right now? Do you have enough power to make it out to eat and back home? Could you hop on a last-minute flight right now, land, and catch a Lyft to your hotel? Could you stream Spotify on the way? Are all these questions giving you anxiety?
If so, you aren’t alone. In fact, according to a new study out of Cass Business School, published in Marketing Theory, your phone battery, and its ever-draining nature, probably has a profound effect on your life. It’s enough to determine where you go, how you define time and distances, and even how you judge yourself and others. In an age when so much of our world revolves around our apps, our batteries define us, and with stakes that feel quite high.
“If your phone drains, you symbolically die—to yourself and to others,” says Thomas Derek Robinson, lecturer in marketing at Cass.
To reach these conclusions, Robinson’s team studied 22 Londoners, who ranged from their 20s to their 50s, all of whom spent between an hour and three hours commuting a day. These white-collar subjects sat through one to two extensive interviews, stretching up to two hours long, in which researchers really mined their daily habits to determine how energy played a role in their lives—focusing specifically on mobile energy.“The methods we used are basically anthropological,” says Robinson. “[We] get a complete understanding of respondent’s motivations, mapping out their life world.” And as a big part of that understanding, his lab confirmed that “from the moment you get up in the morning, to the moment you go to bed, [energy concerns] are there all the time.”
The battery icon is basically an omnipresent countdown clock, he explains. That means on the tube, Londoners will actually measure their commute not by stops or distance, but by the battery power they may have left. “It sets a deadline in your future, and it’s counting time,” says Robinson. “It shapes your perception of time. Instead of hours or minutes, you think, ‘I have another half of battery’s worth.’ Your personal perception of time and space becomes relegated to the power in your battery.”
Perhaps this sounds melodramatic, but consider any long day you have ahead, in which you need your phone to navigate, play music, redeem a ticket, or even buy lunch. It’s likely you have either already made accommodations to recharge, or you’re carrying some anxiety about getting your next energy fix. Robinson found that concerns about our phone battery are so bad that it will often change the places we choose to go to next.
“If you’re shopping with a friend and your battery runs down, it will govern where you go—somewhere with a charging station and your mobile phone,” says Robinson.
At home, the situation is not really improved, even though power is more plentiful than in public spaces. Families are quite possessive about their power plugs. “Stuff like who gets to charge where in the home—if you have a partner, and they charge on the wrong part of the bed, there’s a whole territorial thing that happens,” says Robinson. Likewise, children on tablets will often have a dedicated socket, perhaps near a comfortable couch.
You can abstain from this world of recharging if you choose—just let your phone go dead! But such abstinence doesn’t signal mental fortitude, according to Robinson’s interviews. If your phone is dead, people might consider you lazy, or, as one subject put it, “inconsiderate.” On the opposite end, someone who always has their phone charged was called “anal” by their spouse. The social ergonomics of charging our smartphone battery has become a lose-lose situation. Don’t plan? Bad. Over-plan? Bad. A crippling, middling sense of phone anxiety seems to be the only answer.
In any case, our batteries are a multifaceted problem, only bound to get worse. “Think about the internet of things. The demands on your phone will increase exponentially over the next decade, I suspect,” says Robinson. “The battery is never going to be big enough. Never.” And to make matters worse, if you have a phone, connected to a smartwatch, syncing with an electric car, our day-to-day range anxiety will only compound under the influence of more devices.
In turn, Robinson believes there needs to be more public resources, built into our urban infrastructures, to allow recharging. (This NYC pilot project with solar charging stations from the design firm Pensa in 2013 is a good start.) He also suggests that phones might auto-alert important contacts when they’re about to die (a feature we swear we’ve seen in some major smartphone platform before, but that we couldn’t pin down at the time of publishing). Notably, the tech industry seems at least a bit aware of battery anxiety. Apple’s latest iPhone 11 models promise an “all-day” battery.
In the meantime, “I think people should talk more about it,” says Robinson. “It turns out many of these battery issues are tacit. We all understand them. We all have these rules about them. But they don’t become acute until the battery runs out.”