90 minutes without my phone

Scott Berkun retweeted a challenge suggested by Mike Davidson today: to see how long one could go without one’s phone. The idea intrigued me — conventional wisdom says that these devices are distracting and corrosive to sanity. Also, I didn’t want to admit that I was too chicken to try. I soon found that it is not quite as simple a proposition as it sounds. Just figuring out how to do it raises questions about the different kinds of dependence that electronic devices might come with.

What do I need to do in order to attempt the challenge? Just turn my phone off and put it in a drawer? Then I’d only use my iPad. Well, that seemed silly. I’d have to turn off the tablet and the phone. So actually, I did that too. Turned them both off. But I can do everything I can do on my phone with my laptop or the desktop computer downstairs. Is there a point in turning off the phone if I have a computer that’s just as capable of all the distractions as my phone?

Spoiler alert: I’m typing this on my laptop. Clearly I haven’t attempted to go without computers. And that seems like going farther than the original challenge suggested. How many people can get along without their computers at all? Perhaps if you’re on vacation or sabbatical,1 but most people have jobs and many of them nowadays include using computers.

Something else which makes a difference: the challenge was to «never carry your phone on your person». I wasn’t carrying it on my person in the first place. It was on a table next to me. Turning off the devices entirely seemed like the way to do it. It sounds as though Mr Davidson wasn’t suggesting that the phone should be buried but to try not to let it be ubiquitous. Maybe check messages when you get home. Fine. But I was already at home.2

The first thing that happened, moments after powering down the phone and tablet, was that the mail came. Literally, this is mail that came through the US Postal Service. Snailmail. There was a postcard there from a friend. The very last thing written on the postcard? «Text me!»

Already off to a surreal start, I decided to jot down any thoughts or experiences related to turning my phone off. I picked up a paper notebook and a pen from beside my chair and started to write.

Rather, I started trying to write. My pen was out of ink.

This may not sound like a big problem. But I had to contend with the Atticus Factor.

Atticus is one of my cats. And Atticus is, shall we say, not particularly socially well-adjusted. He’s high-strung and easily excitable. And Atticus was on my lap.

Atticus curled up on my lap is something that happens fairly infrequently, but in the last couple of weeks he’s decided to try out being a lap cat. I want to encourage this behavior, so I don’t get up if he’s on my lap unless I absolutely have to.

I sat there with my cat curled up on my lap, hoping someone would walk past so that I could ask to be handed another pen. Atticus can be a handful, but he’s rather adorable when he’s asleep. As I watched him, I thought, I really ought to take a cat picture.

Except of course, that my camera is part of my phone. Device-withdrawal symptoms strike again!

And then there was another: but what if I want to watch a movie tonight?

Of course, if I want to watch a movie there are options other than my tablet. Perhaps more importantly I have no plans to watch a movie. I still might decide to, but this was not an actual inconvenience. It was fear of missing out on something I’ve come to expect access to.

Eventually I received assistance getting a pen and started writing down some of these notes. When I caught up with the present moment I wrote, «all that and it’s only been…»

How long had it been since I powered down the phone and the tablet? How can I check the time without my phone? I was stuck. There is a clock on the wall, but once again I encountered the Atticus problem. Could I lean and crane my neck around far enough to see the clock without disturbing the cat? It turned out I could.

It had been about thirty minutes.

Still determined not to admit that I am dependent on my phone, I picked up a book I’ve been reading. I put my headphones away (because my music is all on my phone, natch) and started reading. Within a few minutes I came across a passage that reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend a few days ago. My thought was to snap a picture of the page and text it to him.

You see where this is going.

Are any of these things I wanted to do unreasonable? Of course not. We have amazingly capable devices in our pockets, and the fact that they are useful in a variety of contexts is a tribute to technological progress itself. Yet it is undeniable that they have infiltrated many areas of my life.

The phone and tablet remain turned off. With the laptop open, it doesn’t seem like much is different. I’ve no doubt that there can be a real relief from going offline, and by abstaining from social media. In order to get that benefit I think the computer itself — or at least the network — would have to be shut down.

  1. To be fair, I am on sabbatical. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t have things I want to do with the computer. In fact, it means I have lots of things I want to do on the computer before I have to start working again. ↩︎

  2. Also, powering the device off and keeping it in a pocket might be a better idea for someone who is out and about routinely. Emergencies do happen. It’s one thing to experiment with being less dependent on our automated overlords. It’s another to be stuck with a flat tire and a cellphone back at the house. ↩︎