round black and white analog wall clock in front of man

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. 

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