My phone is on life support. The only things keeping it alive are a micro-usb IV attached to a portable power bank. The doctors said it needs a replacement battery, however, the manufacturer of the phone decided to make it impossible to do so without tremendous effort and technical know-how (or money), so the phone stays in limbo, waiting to die the sad inevitable death that its silicon laden kind often faces. The tragedy here is that the phone is barely over a year old (coincidentally outside the warranty period though), which I bought to replace another defective phone. This essay is not about my phone. Instead, it is about the absence of my phone; and what I’ve learned from “coping” with it being relatively absent from my life.
My generation was at the zenith of cell-phone popularity. Before Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007, the phones we carried were little more than mobile phones that maybe could connect to the internet but were mostly used to send text messages (which often contained grammar so bad it frequently led to older people lamenting our apparent inability to write well) and make phone calls. My first phone as an LG EnV, which at the very least, had a full QWERTY keyboard.
I was in 8th grade when I got it, mostly during to pestering my mom that I still didn’t have a cell phone when all my classmates had one. It gave me the power to actually ask my friends where they were (a tremendous time saver during Summer vacation). Compared to the burgeoning smartphone market, however, these phones were pretty quaint.
By 2010 I had an iPhone to call my own, the iPhone 4. It didn’t happen right away, but over the past 8 years of owning a smartphone, I’ve noticed my patience and attention span whittling down to nothing. I used to read books for hours on end in middle school, but by the time I graduated High School I could barely sit down for an hour straight without checking Twitter or Facebook. I was no longer able to be “bored” or allow one singular thing to take up my time. Even as I write this now I’m listening to music and occasionally chatting with friends on Facebook messenger. The smartphone allowed me to become an expert multitasker, at the expense of not being to focus on any particular task at once.
So when the initial panic of my phone’s decline wore off, I felt sort of free. I always thought as my phone as my lifeline to the “world”, which is to say the internet. In fact, I was being shackled by it; I couldn’t take in my surroundings all that much. So when I stopped carrying my phone with me everywhere I went, I began to pick up small details. The first day, on my walk to class, I truly felt like I was witnessing everything for the first time in a long time. There was the girl who parked her jeep without feeding the meter, and who didn’t notice the parking enforcement officer 10 feet away (and who promptly wrote the girl a ticket) or the loose WalMart bag fluttering in the wind that reminded me of one scene from American Beauty. There was also the guy riding a unicycle, the groundskeeper wheeling a cart of cleaning supplies down the walkway, the posters for events I would never have known existed, and so many more; the world was alive in a way that I had completely forgotten about.
Later that day I went to Walmart. I was a little worried that my lack of a phone would be an issue and some life or death scenario would appear, or that I would need to check the reviews of whatever hair styling cream or deodorant I was going to buy. It didn’t though, instead I had to suffer through the bargain-priced purgatory that is Walmart, this time while actually paying attention.
The parking lot was abuzz with those same bags I mentioned earlier, almost like tumbleweeds in their shape. If I had to fathom a guess as to why they appeared, I’d like to imagine that some poor soul had just bought their child some life-saving medicine and desperately needed to rifle through the bags to get it to them in time. Inside the glow of the fluorescent lights was noticeable, but I always noticed it. What I didn’t was the sound, the disgusting grunts, and groans of the elderly and obese, the squeak of the carts that had not been oiled since their creation, the “boops” of the 2 registers that had to accommodate dozens of customers. All of these sounds meshed with the so-boring-it is undescribably music that poured out of the invisible speakers, creating this constant hum that I’m sure haunts the dreams of the employees who work there. I didn’t feel awful about having to suffer through this though; it was just different. Normally I would, in typical Depression/Anxiety guidebook form, be completely absorbed in whatever music or podcast I was listening to that I would almost be completely disconnected from my surroundings. But without my phone, I could be a part of this wonderful, terrible Walmart experience. I could actually ask an employee where the hell the pomade and hair cream was because they sure as shit weren’t with the rest of the hair products. When I checked out I could actually talk to the disinterested cashier, without having to pretend I know what part of their script they’re at.
Continuing the trend of being a disgusting American, I took my lunch (is that a phrase people still use) at the local fine dining establishment; McDonald’s. Most of my experience with McDonald’s is almost always either late night drunkenness (it is one of the few places open late) or after-work apathy; I have never gone during lunch time, and certainly never actually eaten inside the restaurant. Earlier I had seen an ad for a bigger Big Mac, aptly called the Grand Mac. Inside the McDonalds was filled almost entirely by retirees who probably shouldn’t be eating McDonald’s. There was a family with school-aged children despite the fact it was noon on a Wednesday. I never really thought about how people feed their children, but the parents were tipping the large side of the weight scale and I felt a sort of empathy for the children who might be doomed to follow in their parent’s example. I thought all of this, of course, while munching on my oversized burger drenched with the thick, creamy sauce that Big Mac’s are known for.
On my long, bloated and sweaty walk back to my apartment, I truly started to appreciate how it felt to have some sort of presence in the world around me. Ironically, it was in two of the most stereotypically awful places in the world, but nonetheless, my lack of a phone allowed me to experience the world in a way that I hadn’t realized was gone from my life. The colors were more vibrant, the smells more intense, and the sounds were actually extant. While the experiences of the day weren’t exactly “great”, I feel like I was missing something when tethered to my phone. I don’t want this piece to be a complete condemnation of cell phones; they’re great, but I think that there is some moderation to be had here, at least for me. Going forward I don’t think I’m going to spend much money on my next phone (besides I can’t afford $700 for the next big “generation), and I certainly want to try and limit my daily use and maybe not carry around headphones with me. Perhaps I’ll try being bored again. Perhaps I’ll go back to my first phone, which I wouldn’t be suprised if it still works.