Let me make something clear: this is not one of those posts about an experiment a self-conscious writer tries to manufacture to see “how much we’ve changed” – this was purely by accident. Thursday night, after weeks of increasingly futile plug-jiggling and old NES-style dust-blowing, my iPhone 5 refused to charge. I knew this day was approaching, but being both terrified and disgusted by the Apple store on North Michigan Avenue (see below), and being just stubborn enough to believe the problem would just go away, I had been ignoring this inevitability. Thursday night, though, it finally happened: I would have no phone Friday.
No big deal, I think. I’m always talking about how I don’t “need” this thing, judging people I see as they compulsively monitor their latest selfie’s number of likes, cursing those I nearly run into on the street because they are watching a Google map of where they’re walking instead of looking at street signs (and fellow pedestrians), intentionally getting in the way of cars whose drivers are similarly distracting in the hopes they’ll start see me, slam on the breaks and get mad (my wife loves that I do that). So I’ll be without the device, which obviously means more moral authority for me. Plus, I’d still have my iPad, and though it lacks a cellular data plan, I can still use it for some things (reading, listening to music).
When I Got up on Friday morning, I did what I now realize I always do – I staggered over to my phone’s charging station to check the weather (Chicago in December — apparently I still *need* to know it will be cold and dreary). This didn’t happen. My wife is pregnant, and Friday morning, we had a bit of a scare (turned out to be nothing at all) but immediately this fear set in, which was that I would be unreachable during the 1 hour or so while I was in transit from home to work. I promised to call her when I got there. Somehow that felt inadequate.
As I was riding the elevator down to our lobby, I realized my bag felt light – I had forgotten my iPad! Oh well, I shrugged, I’ve still got a book in my bag. So there I was, deviceless. Ready to party like it was 1999 (the year I got my first phone).
I had planned to stop by Starbucks (it being the last day of my semester, and therefore planning to buy myself a well-earned $6 flavored latte). Again, I reflectively took out my phone (I use the Passbook app to pay at Starbucks). No dice. I took out my wallet and paid with credit card instead. Recognizing the lack of anything to do I’d soon be facing as I sat down in Starbucks, I purchased a PAPER New York Times ($2.50!). Ordinarily I read it on the iPad; now I’d have to turn the pages, manage the folding, and crease the editorial page when I got to it. All the old rituals came right back. I also noticed (I think anyway) that I read through to the end of the stories way more often than when I read on my iPad.
I walked to the train station and got there about 6 minutes early. At that point, I generally look at facebook for a few minutes, but couldn’t. So I sat down, drank my latte and tried to manage reading a few Times stories with only one hand. That worked out okay but I must say – the traditional “newspaper” is pretty cumbersome and annoying compared to a tablet. I’m generally sort of a luddite but here I was faced with the realization that a tablet is a far better delivery medium for short- and medium-length news stories (even if the reading part doesn’t go as well).
I boarded the train, sat down and read my book. Strictly speaking, I still had one device – my $300 bluetooth over-the-ear headphones – But nothing to send them music. This was probably my most deeply felt loss for the day. I’m way on the introvert-side of the spectrum, and don’t really like using my phone to communicate with others – but now I couldn’t listen to Bach either. I had to listen to the chatter (mercifully, relatively minimal on the 6:37am train) of my fellow passengers, had to hear the electronic announcements of successive stops, had to hear the blowing of the train’s heating system. Then again, somehow the ambience of those sounds was pleasant in a way that even Glenn Gould’s 1983 Goldberg Variations would not have been. I recognized then that there’s a claustrophobia you experience with headphones on in a public space, a claustrophobia I only even saw was there by seeing what it felt like for it to be gone.
When at school, I called my wife on my classroom’s LAND-LINE! People always have to say “LAND-LINE!” like that nowadays. It’s that sort of self-congratulatory “god-how-ANCIENT” sort of tone of voice. I thought since I had the chance here, I’d use it. I even considered posting one of those tedious facebook “My phone is dead – contact me here or by gmail!” messages that my millenial fb friends seen so fond of but then realized there was no one I wanted especially to be in contact with anyway, so I decided against it.
The work of the day was pure druggery – I had 54 final exams to grade, and probably 40+ other odd random end-of-semester marking day miscellany. Just the sort of day that an intermittent phone-checking seems like an ideal part of. A couple of times I even tried to do so (again, knowing full well the phone in my pocket would not turn on). In the end, I got that grading done in probably better time than I would have. Not that much better, but still better. I did look at my actual DESKTOP (see above for tone) and glance at facebook, but it was actually far less stimulating than the phone version. I finished my grading and left for the day.
En route back to the train station, when I got there, I realized I hadn’t confirmed that there was a train at this time (I was leaving at a different time than usual). By now I had realized the recurring pattern of trying-to-check-non-functional-phone, so I avoided that. I thought “maybe I should go look at the PRINTED SCHEDULE on the train station wall” but that felt somehow far, far, far, too difficult. So I just waited and sure enough, a train came right when I thought it would.
If I realized one thing about my device use on this day, it was this: the main nervous habit my iPhone has created for me is that of OVER-CONFIRMING things I’m already sure are true. As I rode the train back to the city, preparing to transfer downtown to an el train on the way to a doctor’s appointment at which I was meeting my wife, I realized how much anxiety (real anxiety) it was creating for me not to be able to send her a text to let her know I was on my way, and not to be able to receive a similar text from her. When I was standing on the el platform downtown, I couldn’t look on my phone to see when the next train was coming, EVEN THOUGH I was standing on a platform with a monitor already conveying that same information (though one I’d have to wait for, for a few seemingly crucial seconds, until it scrolled through back to the start of the list).
In short – I spend a lot of time (and more importantly energy) using my phone to verify common-sense truths: the weather, the arrival of a train that I take very day, the re-assurance that a doctor’s appointment hasn’t been cancelled, etc. etc. I can think of nothing useful these experiences add to my day, and until they were gone, I didn’t really even realize the extent to which I perform them, and I’m guessing I’m not alone. Most critics of smartphones bemoan their distractiveness, but I’m actually decent at avoiding that. Instead, it’s more like – when I get “bored” even momentarily (i.e., I catch myself not doing anything, like looking out the train window and thinking) I have to “check” something. It’s a strange opposite of distraction that’s equally stupid.
When I arrived at the doctor’s office about 20 minutes early, I now became preoccupied with the fact that my wife wasn’t there yet. I took out my book and tried to read, but found that, every time the waiting room door opened, I checked to see if it was her. I spent many moments worrying whether I was in the wrong office (though I’ve been to this very office before), whether she’s stuck at home, whether the train is running late, whether… who knows? At some point I even tried to power up my phone, but before I could finish the text, it powered down again. She ended up getting there one minute early (makes sense) and somehow I was relieved. Relieved even though everything had gone exactly according to plan, and at no time had anything happened to suggest that it would NOT go exactly according to plan.
Do I have some sort of device-induced Obsessive Compulsive Disorder? It’s common for people to joke about how they have ADD now, and their phones are somehow a cure for it (or also a cause). But for me some kind of mild OCD seems like the more appropriate diagnosis. Or maybe our devices just accentuate whatever nervous/anti-social/over-social tendencies we have in whatever directions – they make us MORE like ourselves. And since human beings are, for lack of a better term, profoundly annoying sometimes (“hell is other people”) our device-laced world has made us all worse versions of who we would have been in the first place
[Or perhaps in the extremely rare instance of a good person, they’ve made us BETTER?… probably not possible]
After the appointment, we went to the Apple store. As I said before, this is a terrifying, horrible space of Dante-esque proportions. It’s almost Christmas, so there are hundreds of people here, most of whom are currently staring at a device they’ve come to pay homage to at this 21st century malebolge, housing those who have committed the mundane and tedious crime of non-sexual onanism.
The “greeter” was wearing a red Apple t-shirt and jeans (matching the seemingly 100+ other employees) and wearing two ear-buds. Why is a GREETER wearing two earbuds? When he addressed me, and I tried to tell him my phone was broken, he (with an irritated look on his face) REMOVED one of the earbuds because he could not hear me. He then looked confused as to why I did not already know the correct area of the store to which I should go (upstairs to the “Genius Bar”). I’m sure he’s not paid all that much, but even it is $8 an hour, that seems like too much, if the job is “hang out, stare at your phone and listen to things through earbuds.”
At which point I was met with another 20something idiot in matching uniform, now with an iPad more-or-less prosthetically attached to her palm. I reluctantly confessed that I needed an appointment.
[We had to wait 30 minutes, so signed up and trudged along to the brand new “Eataly” franchise (in the former ESPNZone space). That is another Dante-esque level of hell (“gluttony?”) for another day.]
When it was my appointment time, I took my phone out, preparing for a sequence of mea-culpas (the apple store is, against its own pseudo-countercultural intentions, really quite Catholic if you think about it), intending to confess that I didn’t have a case, that I had dropped it many times, that if I had to buy a new phone, that’s how it would have to be, ete. etc. etc.
The woman (the most pleasant person I encountered at the store – an awkward-looking non-photogenic but very real technician) took the phone and looked into the charger slot. She said “hold on” and came back in about 20 seconds, and plugged the phone in, at which point it began charging.
“There was about an eighth of an inch of lint in there” she said rather matter-of-factly. Lint. Of course. It made so much sense of the failure-to-charge – I thought the device had taken some sort of structural damage due to my inadequate care for it. But no – just LINT buildup. She showed me how to “fix” it if that happened again – “use a paperclip but be gentle” and we headed home, hundreds of dollars richer than we were expecting to be at that moment.
I have no pithy conclusion to this (admittedly non-pithy) narrative other than to say: our smartphones really do a lot less for us than we think they do, one way or the other. It’s quite possibly an enormous waste of money to own one. They mostly just cater to our flickering momentary anxieties and boredoms. In the past, those anxieties would flicker and then go dark. Now, we latch on to an extremely device to assuage them momentarily. If that’s not stupid I don’t know what is. Your phone is, among other things, a $600+ adult pacifier.
Sure, there is the genuine possibility of “emergency.” When my wife is actually ready to go into labor, I will probably want to be able to receive a call or a text from her. But then – to state the obvious – this event has caused an immense amount of worry for fathers-to-be for several thousand years. I doubt whether my learning about it a few minutes before I could have 50 years ago, or a few hours before I could have 100 years ago, is worth the time, expense and energy.
I continue to hope that the pendulum will swing back over the next generation, and when ours is parodied in popular culture (which will hopefully still exist in, say 2040) what will be funny about our era was the amount of time we spent staring at devices. Sort of like the 80’s-movie joke about the business executive who pulls up in a sport convertible yelling into a “car-phone” about stock deals… We’ll all be playing candy-crush saga as our grandchildren laugh at us. Though I’m sure in the near future human beings will still be annoying, we’ll have set this form of annoyance aside. I did it for a day, totally by accident, and in the end, enjoyed it.