What Life Without A Phone Can Teach You

Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty

Exactly two weeks ago, my iPhone 5 was stolen. When I was able to get to a computer, I used Find my iPhone to track it. The little icon of my face slowly made its way down Mission Street, took a left on 7th and landed at Market St. At this point, my phone disappeared. It had been wiped and was most likely gone for good. My emotional state ran the obvious gamut between panic and despair. But after an hour of frenetic searches on “how to find your serial number,” requisite changing of passwords, and filing of police reports,  I was ready for a drink and the continuation of my regular evening of chatting with friends and watching bad TV. I quickly forgot about my phone.

I didn’t choose to take a break from technology. I didn’t choose to unplug. Not all technology was gone, anyway. All I lost was my phone, that thing for calls, texts, and an astonishingly unnecessary amount of web browsing and app-ing. I have a computer at work and one at home. I have two iPods. There is a radio in my kitchen and a huge TV in my living room connected to a Roku. I had plenty of things to be plugged into. So I decided not to get another phone right away. I have been without a phone for two weeks now.

The simple, honest truth is that not much has changed without my phone. I haven’t decided to move to the woods and start a colony. The biggest thing is that I am less anxious because sometimes there is just literally nothing to do! My phone isn’t there as a crutch for when I don’t have anything immediately in front of me, as if it were an expensive and elaborate strand of hair to twirl. I’ve been staring into space, at the back of people’s heads, at tabletops more than I have in a while, and it’s boring. But I think being a bit bored is a way to reset and relax.

Several times in the last few weeks, I met up with friends at parks or bars. It was unnerving not having a phone to check the time or get updates if someone was running late or forgot about me or landed in the hospital. I mean, this is why we have phones, right? To make sure everything (in the world) is running smoothly. But with the constant ability to cancel and be late, we become flakes. With our phones, we are allowed to lose trust and reliability in people. In one instance, I was going to a friend’s house whose buzzer has never worked and I always texted when I arrived. She worried about how she would know I was there. We just had to trust that it would work out. I was totally late, but when I got there, I just shouted her name. She had her window open and threw me her keys. See? We figured it out.

Without being able to change plans last minute, I also now have to decide what I really want to do, which allows me to be more honest with myself and others. If I know I feel on the fence about doing something, I just have to say no instead of a last minute, faux-apologetic cancellation. And things that I feel lukewarm about but commit to, I just have to throw myself into.

Don’t get me wrong, I still refresh Facebook every few seconds when I’m at a computer. I wait impatiently for friends to reply to my gchats. I constantly check my inbox to see if the guy that I’m trying to seduce has flirted back. Like I said before, not much has changed. But what is really apparent to me is all of the time between devices. I have nothing on the commute to work or en route. I have nothing when I’m out with friends or at the park or when I’m shopping or running. I’m suddenly not preoccupied with wondering if the boy has texted me back or if someone — anyone at all (who cares!) — has liked something on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter. I’m not immune to it, but without a phone, I am allowed moments when I actually cannot worry about it.

It’s not a new idea that technology doesn’t make us better or worse people, just amplifies what is good and bad in us. Over the last two weeks, my nonchalance about being phoneless made my best friend question her attachment to her own device. Yes, she is a lot more “attentive” to her phone than I ever was, but it occurred to me that she wasn’t attentive to the piece of technology, but to the people in her life. She always texts or calls back immediately and her family is known for long, extended email conversations around vacation memories and sports teams. I, on the other hand, was never that attentive to my phone because I was never that attentive to the people in my life. It’s ironic that I only figure this out when I don’t have the means to try to be better at it.

Along with my phone, I lost two months of photographs that I will never get back. I’ve been slowly cataloging them in my brain so I won’t forget them: trees in Maine covered in ice like glass; my sister’s window ledge covered in fabrics and hand-stitched pillows; a clever book display in a shop; fresh sardines at a fish market. With each photo I recreate, I can feel some of those neurons in my brain reconnecting. It’s great that our phones allow us to forget things and organize them so that we can use our brains for more important thoughts, but it’s also nice to focus on those mundanities and details.

My sister mailed me her old flip phone last week, so I thought my days of being phoneless were coming to an end. I wasn’t necessarily in a rush because I hoped some of the new habits I developed would stick: remembering things instead of photographing, being in silence, hanging out without waiting for something better to happen on my phone. My sister just told me that USPS mistakenly delivered the package to Iowa, so the experiment continues…

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Author

Alex Vikmanis

Alex Vikmanis grew up in Ohio, studied biomedical engineering, and taught English at a public school in Madagascar before realizing he just wanted to write, so he moved to San Francisco and got his MFA from California College of the Arts. He also cooks, collects words, and makes the strongest Manhattan in town.

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