My phone kicked the bucket.
I wish I had a juicy story about it. That it had a rough night out, or was hacked by Russian nogoodniks, or – at the very least – that I dropped it unceremoniously in the toilet.
But no. It just died.
One minute, I was happily scrolling through infinite feeds of friends, fun, breaking news, trending hashtags, and righteous internet outrage. The next, it just wouldn’t turn on.
I took it to a cheap repair shop. They succeeded in wiping it free of data. So it was squeaky-clean as well as nonfunctional.
And I didn’t get a new one for weeks.
The fear of being “unreachable”
Think about that feeling when you realize you’ve accidentally left your phone at home. Your hand furgling around in your bag, searching for a lifeline that isn’t there. When your phone well and truly expires, multiply that feeling tenfold.
My mind reeled. What if someone was trying to get in touch with me? What if political poop were to hit the fan? What if J.K. Rowling retweeted me? I would miss it, that’s what.
I pull my phone out tens of times each day. Maybe over a hundred on particularly slow or anxious days.
Without a screen to save me, the prospect of downtime was dreadful. What was I supposed to do while waiting for my coffee? Twiddle my thumbs? Origami with napkins?
It was going to be so awkward.
The glory of being “unreachable”
But – now really think about this – when was the last time you were actually totally off the map? I don’t mean for five minutes on the underground. I mean for a whole day. For a whole week.
We equate being unreachable to being unsafe. Why is that? Kids used to be fine going out and being back by dinnertime. Adults too.
Perhaps what we should really be scared of is not getting out into the wider world enough.
When we protect ourselves from the all-too-real world out there with its sharp corners, we never learn what it is to heal. When we try to keep ourselves from stumbling and falling, we never find out what it feels like to get back up again.
What I’m saying: it was wonderful to be utterly unreachable.
I did tell my friends, family, and workmates that I had no phone – I didn’t want anyone to panic when I didn’t respond, assuming I’d been kidnapped by someone nefarious.
And then I watched my rhythm change.
Without a device, life slows down
I found myself making excuses to walk instead of taking the metro, or even my bike. Paying attention to how the graffiti in my neighborhood was evolving. Actually noticing my neighbors. I even figured out which one of them owns the especially yappy dog.
When I wanted to see friends, we had to agree in advance on exactly when and where to meet. Funny how something so simple has become antiquated. I didn’t mind.
Sometimes I would arrive early, and I’d just wait. Sometimes I would arrive late. They waited. The world didn’t end.
No feeds filling the downtime. I actually listened to the city.
It’s during those in-between moments that I most noticed the lack of phone. We’ve all been trained to pull it out to fill silences, boredom, awkwardness. The phone is my friend when I’m alone at a party. Or in a coffeeshop. Or eating lunch on my own.
This week, I’ve gone to the park with my lunch and a fork – and that’s it. I watched the birds. When’s the last time you watched the birds?
Remember when your time was yours?
I wake up with the gift of a perfectly blank brain. I could fill it with anything. But instead of deciding for myself, I consult the device to find out, “What did I miss?”
I also remember what it was like to get excited about a phone call. And overly clever answering machine messages. And for it to be perfectly normal to wait for someone to get home to be able to reach them.
The brrrrrrring of the telephone used to be something quite special. It meant that someone out there actually wanted to reach out and talk to ME.
In 2017, a phone call is an annoyance. How dare someone demand my attention? I’ll pretend I didn’t hear it and answer on my own time. Via text.
But it’s not really ever my own time, anymore. The phone in my pocket means I am always connected. Which means all my time belongs to the device.
What I do with my device is a choice
I have a new phone now.
I don’t plan on shunning technology. Heck, my whole career is based on understanding digital communication, on fostering connection across the wires. And I think that’s wonderful.
I think the devices have done us much more good than bad. I love being able to send my mom weird emojis just to say hi from across the ocean. And the democratization of information is a net positive (and it’s in its infancy).
But I do think we should be more critical of them. Every inch of them is designed to keep me hooked, to fill me with a hollow sense of fulfillment and pleasure. If I’m not careful, I can end up replacing real, complex feelings with the comfortable drone of the endless feed.
And my generation is the last that remembers what it was like without them. It’s my job to pass that on. To help the younger set understand that what they do with their device is a choice.
Author Michael Harris put it perfectly: “Technology is neither good nor evil. The most we can say about it is this: It has come.”
So it’s up to me. And then it will be up to them.