Does anyone remember life before the iPhone? How did we get anywhere? How did we stand the boredom of waiting for the train? How did we cope without instant access to the world and everyone we knew in our pockets?
In just five years the iPhone and more recently other mass-market smartphones have become deeply embedded in our daily lives. Everywhere, all the time, someone in our presence is gazing down into the little screen in their hands, paying a bill, scrolling through Facebook, texting or doing a million other things that transport them out of the present moment.
Just the thought of being without our phones is too much to bear for most and those who have lost their phones often experience a sense of panic akin to losing something deeply sentimental, such as a wedding ring. How did we become so emotionally and psychologically dependent (and addicted to, some would argue) on a device that we have lived quite happily without until now?
To understand the allure of the smartphone, we need to stop thinking of it as simply a device, says cultural anthropologist Genevieve Bell, who studies how people relate to technology for tech giant Intel. "The seductiveness of smartphones isn't about the technology per se, it's about what the technology affords and what it taps into," she says. And, of course, it's connection - to the world and others - that the smartphone offers us more than anything else.
"It is our channel of access to other people," says academic Rich Ling, whose book Taken for Grantedness explores the role of the mobile in society. "The mobile phone provides us with social cohesion to our tightest group of family and friends. If you do not have your phone, you become a problem for your social sphere."
There is also a physical aspect to our attachment. Because of its ability to store so much information and content, the smartphone has become a kind of digital treasure chest, engendering a sense of emotional attachment not usually seen with technological gadgets. "It is a repository for a lot of personal information," Ling says. "In this way it is an important thing."
Bell agrees. "They're full of photos, text messages, addresses and maps and the things we have done," she says. "They're this diary-meets-scrapbook - to have all of that stuff in the one place, it is incredibly seductive.''
Google, too, is attempting to unlock the unique allure of the smartphone in a new study, The Meaning of Mobile. The study, conducted by an anthropologist, found that more than anything else, it's the promise of ''hope'' and ''possibility'' that is at the heart of our attachment.
"The mobile is a real-time Choose Your Own Adventure in which we are constantly writing and rewriting the stories we tell about ourselves," the study says.
Often when a mobile phone user glances down at the little screen, something has happened. Someone has posted on Facebook, someone has texted them … there are endless possibilities that could greet them.
Their life is happening via their phone. It's the sense of anticipation, curiosity and excitement about all this, Google believes, that affords these little devices so much meaning. For some, the drive to constantly check and recheck their phones can morph into a disorder, according to American psychologist Dr Larry D. Rosen, who popularised the idea with his 2012 book, iDisorder.
"My concern is that we have become very enmeshed with our technologies," he says in the book. "It's gone past the stage of, 'This might be a problem' to, 'It is a problem' for many people.'' He says technology today is ''so user-friendly that the very use fosters our obsessions, dependence and stress reactions''.
Fear of being without our phones has prompted the emergence of ''nomophobia'' (no-mobile phobia). An addiction rehabilitation centre in California even offers a nomophobia recovery group.
''It's not necessarily a clinical disorder, unless it's causing real impairment in a person's social, occupational or personal life,'' a clinical psychologist at Morningside Recovery, Elizabeth Waterman, told the Chicago Tribune in October. ''But it can be a real problem for many people.''
But it's not the first time we've seen panic regarding the addictive potential of a new form of media or technology. "There was all that stuff in my childhood about being addicted to television and then in my brother's childhood about being addicted to video games," Bell says. "It lets us play out our anxieties about
these technologies. Will they cause shifts that make us uncomfortable?" Or, as she wonders, will we simply settle into a more balanced pattern of usage, as we have with television? Which leaves us free, of course, to obsess about the next new thing that comes along.