Opinions, Column

Thank You For Unplugging

I was curious—curious through observations of others, and through myself. Curious especially when thinking of my parents—how did they do it?

Because of my curiosity, I started developing a hypothesis. It would be like having a limb lacerated, I thought. Unusual. Uncomfortable. But I couldn’t be sure. I’d have to experiment with the idea of not having a cell phone, so that meant giving it up. A week sounded about right. Turn it off. Store it away. Plan nothing before. There would be no messaging through my computer, or tablet. No using Instagram or Twitter on my computer. Only email. If people needed me, or if I needed someone, I would be unreachable. There would be no calling home, no instantaneous connection on the weekends or weekdays, I would be completely off the grid, incognito.

And then I did it, and here I am. Mapping out the conclusions. Channeling the scientific method. And, it must be said upfront: My hypothesis was wrong.

So, those seven days without a cell phone. Imagine a persistent cycle in which you feel as if you’re constantly standing someone up, and constantly being stood up—not because you’re forgetful and need to have the phone as a constant reminder, but because you feel hollow, like you’re scrambling to figure out if you should be somewhere you’re not.

The feeling fades, but only after some lapses in memory. I found myself, early on, patting at my pocket, seizing for a moment, and then remembering that my phone wasn’t part of the ensemble anymore.

There’s also certain parts of a day that are made easier with a phone—so much easier, in fact, that they can easily be forgotten. Example: “Hey [insert name of someone you haven’t seen in a while], how have you been?” “Good, man, I’ve been doing well. Where have you been? We need to grab lunch sometime soon.” Wow, I honestly would be interested in connecting with this person again, you think. “Sounds good, man, I’ll let you know.”

Then you walk away. And, after a couple steps, you stop. Wait. What was that? There’s literally no way of reaching that person again. My only hope’s another chance run in. But our paths never cross. That’s what made asking about lunch such a genuine surprise in the first place.

Basic planning in person—a time, date, and location—has become a lost art. To tweak the experiment, imagine that that person you ran into stirred the thought, “Wow, I honestly would be interested in never connecting with this person again,” for various reasons—maybe you think he or she acts stupid when drunk, or maybe he or she has an ugly side that comes out when tired, or maybe he or she is stupid, or maybe he or she is ugly. The conversation still works. Hundreds of them happen every day. Basic planning has become a lost art, and double facticity has become a continued one.

When there were no cell phones, it was disgustingly easy to be a snake. “What? You didn’t get the invite? Hey, sorry, we tried to get you there.” Nothing has changed. People just catch on faster.

None of this should surprise you, really. Just interesting points.

What have changed are the methods in which a person fills the voids of the day. Like a walk to class, for example. Whether the phone is used to avoid a conversation, or your own thoughts, a two-step process of The Clutch and The Visor is employed.

The Clutch is having the phone out of pocket, but not in use. Remains at the side. In hand. In position. A soldier on reserve. Enter: A person deemed stupid or ugly. Or maybe the person is perceptive and beautiful, but the interaction will be stupid and ugly. Because of an impulsive hook-up. Or a messy breakup. Or the gray zone of I-know-him-or-her-enough-because-we-talked-that-one-time-at-that-thing-but-is-that-enough? Or, enter: None of this is stimulating enough for me. And, The Clutch relinquishes its duty and makes way for The Visor. The phone moves up from the side and assumes the position approximately two feet from the face where it doesn’t even need to light up. The very fixation of vision on the screen is body language for “I have checked out.” Don’t look. More importantly, don’t intrude. Today, The Visor is an accepted way to be, in the most basic sense of the word, so it doesn’t look totally unnatural. The Visor stays The Visor until a respectable distance has been gained from the other party or from the disparaging internal thought, and with the threat neutralized, The Visor salutes and steps down to make room for The Clutch.

Lather, rinse, and repeat.

People started growing frustrated. I couldn’t give them what they craved: availability. I was everywhere, and nowhere. Coincidence was the singular unifier—a chance encounter in the library or in the dining hall. All other possibilities were just hopes. Frustration stemmed out of the here and the now, someone’s desire to talk for want of asking a single question, looking for something short or long in response, and I wasn’t around. And that’s the beauty of it, I found: I was nowhere, until I was.

It was also the downside. Weekend planning was inconvenient. Weekend planning isn’t synonymous with basic planning. It’s synonymous with basic coordination: you’re there now, and I’m here now, so we’ll meet there in five minutes. No phone, no coordinating—nada. It’s painful to run around on the weekend, blind, looking to organize something cool or get into something cool, finding that you have no way of doing either, outside of living in the thick of it, every waking moment, which is impossible.

All of life started becoming inconvenient. The interconnectedness that saves so much time was not available to me anymore. Like I said, phones make daily life so much easier that it can be easily forgotten.

Cell phones are the byproduct of the totality of human engineering, and they are, simply put, essential. To disregard them would be silly, but to constantly engage with them is risking ignorance for what it means to be. There’s my solution. Consume at your leisure.

Featured Image by Breck Wills / Heights Graphics

December 10, 2014