WHEN SOMEONE ASKS FOR MY NUMBER and I say, “I don’t have a phone,” the reaction is either, “That’s so cool!” or, if it’s a dude, “Yeah, right” and an eyeroll. Assuming I’m lying seems fair: In the US today, 91% of US adults own cell phones, leading Fast Company journalist Elizabeth Segran to opine that “choosing not to own a mobile device is a minor act of protest.”
Am I protesting? Kind of. I spend enough time in front of a screen for work, so when I’m outside, I want to really be outside, unconnected, and yes — free. But mostly, as a Scot, it’s just my Calvinist roots showing — I’ve dropped one too many phones in one too many washing-up bowls to justify spending money on an item I’ll only end up breaking.
And it turns out, for the first time in forever, by not having a phone, I’m cool. The backlash against constant connectivity is real, with many questioning whether our smartphones wield too much power over us. Our phones — through ads and algorithms and apps designed by millionaire software engineers — are designed to be addictive. As Segran writes,
“You may think you have control over it, but how often do you not answer the Pavlovian bell?”
Between cell phone rehab for ‘Nomophobics’ and the invention of the NoPhone — a piece of smartphone-sized plastic designed to help people “Never again experience the unsettling feeling of flesh on flesh when closing your hand,” cell phones seem like just another way in which we’re not in control of our own lives.
1. I do become aware of everything around me, and it sucks.
I live 50km from the nearest store in the Canadian Rockies, so once a week I head to town to stock up on groceries. Supposedly, being at the supermarket is when the benefits of not having a phone are most evident:
“When you’re waiting in line, you’re not burying yourself into the digital cesspool or app store, you’re forced to interact with your surrounding environment. You suddenly become aware of everything around you.”
By not being sucked into the vortex of a tiny screen, maybe I’ll meet someone in line who’ll change my life; maybe I’ll have a single unique thought that will change my entire perspective on the world. Maybe. But it hasn’t happened yet.
And I sure as hell haven’t found myself floating in a Zen-like state of zazen (awareness) under the Co-op’s strip lights. Mostly I’m just restless with the knowledge that work emails will be piling up for me to deal with when I get home.
If I had a phone?
I could use that dead time to check my emails. And when I got home, instead of having to head straight to my laptop, I’d be free to go outside, ride my bike, eat ice cream. Whatever. I could do whatever I want.
Having a smartphone means we can turn dead time into time that’s actually useful, and that’s amazing. So despite the popular rhetoric that we’re all tech-zombies with iPhone neck and craptastic social skills as a result of our addictions, it’s not surprising that, when US owners were surveyed, 70% said their smartphones represented “freedom” rather than a “leash.”
2. My friendships are weaker as a result.
J and I were best friends in law school. But it’s been 6 years since we graduated, we live 4,000 miles apart, and without Snapchat or WhatsApp to make communication easy, we’re not in contact all that much. Anyway, three weeks ago, J Facebook messaged to say she’d just handed in her notice at her law firm. She was done. No more law. Ever.
I couldn’t be more proud of her for making such a massive decision, but hearing her news was a huge shock. Why? I had no idea it was coming.
The Telegraph’s Alan Tyers wrote ‘Without a phone, you basically don’t exist’. That’s an exaggeration — you still exist, but at some point you become an afterthought, just another acquaintance ‘liking’ Facebook updates.
By not having a phone, by not Snapchatting and WhatsApping my oldest, closest friends regularly, I miss out on the small details; I miss out on being part of the narrative arcs of their lives. I just get the big reveals: “We’re getting married!” “I’ve quit my job!” “We’re moving to London!”
But life is in the small moments that lead up to those big reveals. That’s why we don’t just read the last page of a book then say there’s no point reading the whole thing. It’s the details that we love; it’s the details that make us human.
“There are many things you could miss if you are not paying careful attention. There are remarkable things all the time.” — Jon McGregor, “If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things”
3. My memories fade all too fast. And there’s no way of retrieving them.
Before I moved to Canada last year to be with my boyfriend, I lived in Berlin and we’d keep in touch through Skype, Facebook, and long emails that included lines like:
“If we don’t see each other, then let’s make sure it’s because we’re outdoors with the sun on our brow and the wind in our hair, and that there is no sadness or regret there.”
It’s pretty corny, but I copied my favorite lines to a blank notebook, drew accompanying pictures, and gave it to Dylan for his birthday.
Sometimes, when we’re being kind to each other, we read those passages aloud at bedtime. But those lines are becoming stale with repetition. And because we don’t text or WhatsApp or Snapchat, there are no digital records of what we’ve said to each other since I’ve been in the Rockies. There’s nothing for me to jot down. There’s nothing but fast-fading memories of words once said.
4. I haven’t taken enough selfies.
In ‘Forget the landscape, start taking photographs of yourself on your travels’, Matador staff writer Emma Thieme writes that her dad once said,
“Your mother and I never took enough photos of ourselves. We have albums of flowers and mountains and you guys as kids, but we don’t have any of us when we were young.
It was one of our biggest mistakes.”
While I have a disposable camera which goes in my backpack when I’m hiking, it only has 27 exposures in it, and having film developed is expensive. I simply don’t have endless chances to take the right picture, and it doesn’t feel right to waste those exposures on multiple, blurred images of my gurning face. But will I regret the decision not to take pictures of me in the future?
5. To me, a peach is just a peach. And it tastes less sweet as a result.
In the British philosopher Bertrand Russell’s 1935 essay, Useless Knowledge, he writes that cultivating the contemplative habit of mind and acquiring knowledge for knowledge’s sake can lead to a more joyful life:
“I have enjoyed peaches and apricots more since I have known that they were first cultivated in China in the early days of Han Dynasty; that Chinese hostages held by the great King Kanishka introduced them to India, whence they spread to Persia, reaching the Roman Empire in the first century of our era; that the word ‘apricot’ is derived from the same Latin source as the word ‘precocious’, because the apricot ripens early; and that the A at the beginning was added by mistake, owing to a false etymology. All this makes the fruit taste much sweeter.”
And now you don’t have to be a British philosopher or an academic to know about the world; you just have to be curious and have a smartphone to hand.
“By attaching ourselves to web-enabled devices, we boost our intelligence with encyclopedic knowledge and infinite memory: we’ll never again forget the name of an actor or the French word for spinach or how to find our way home.”
Basically, we all get to be Stephen Fry.
On a hot day, the juice of an apricot running down my arms and chin as I lie down in a meadow to eat, I am happy. But, according to Russell, I could be happier. My friend D said, “You really think you’d be happier if you were googling an apricot’s etymology while eating it?”
Well, not really. But I could google the etymology first and eat after. Right?
Or maybe I’d just bounce around the internet and get sucked into a pointless article about ‘10 celebrity kids who will become annoying like the Jenners’. Because while we may have been given instant access to all the knowledge in the world, the tool with the potential to enlighten us has been simultaneously designed to make us look at endless cat gifs.
Maybe I won’t be ordering a phone just yet.