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Back to the 20th century

5 lessons from 48 hours without a phone

It unfolded like a slow-motion movie scene: my phone clumsily slid out of my pocket and hurtled towards the ground like it had so many times before. Except this time it was different: a recognizable and elaborate spider web of cracks showed up on the screen; it lit up, but no amount of wiggling, swiping, cajoling, “OK Google”-ing, and attempting to remember gesture shortcuts would get me past the cracks or the lock screen.

“No big deal”, I thought. I’ll swing by the T-Mobile store on my way home (it’s conveniently right by the exit from the subway and thus doesn’t require a Google Maps lookup) to pick up any old phone for a day (while my “real” replacement phone Amazon Primes its way over). But at 8:15pm it became a slightly bigger deal since the TMo store had been closed for an hour and 15 minutes. I had an early flight in the morning and everything from checking in (Delta app) through getting to the airport (Uber and/or train tickets) to getting to my meetings (more Uber and Google Maps) required a charged phone in hand. So right around 8:16pm a rather strange and unfamiliar type of dread began to set in: what are all the things I take for granted, phone in hand, that I’ll now have to rapidly remember how to do without one?

If you’re older than 25 you’re probably laughing at this predicament and rightfully so — I, too, vividly remember life before smartphones, before mobiles, the cheerful, chirping sounds of a dial-up modem, and… yes, the days before the commercial internet altogether. On the surface this doesn’t sound like it would be much of a challenge. Yet the phone had become so ever-present in our lives that it’s the first thing I check in the morning, the last thing I switch off at night, and to date the one thing I’ve never forgotten to take with me when leaving the house (unlike, say, house keys or wallet).

So here’s what I’ve learned and observed on my short, unintentional sojourn back to the 20th century:

  1. Reducing friction in daily life even a little is downright addictive, especially when minor friction-reducers begin to exhibit a cumulative effect. Hailing a cab, stopping for a few minutes to buy a ticket, printing out a boarding pass each add negligible amounts of time to your day. But when you’re a frequent traveler you’ve timed each airport run so you don’t waste a single minute along the way. Anything that throws even a small wrench into that flow is immediately perceived as a major inconvenience.
  2. Phones are so pervasive that everyone around me was on one constantly. On the plane each passenger (including those traveling together) was seemingly in a mini-world of their own: voice-calling before takeoff, texting, playing games, reading, etc. There was plenty of interaction with the device & humans on the other end of those devices; just little to none with the humans around us. Of course, the irony of this observation doesn’t escape me: I would not have noticed this if I simply had my phone to occupy my time & attention in a similar way.
  3. Today’s smartphones really seem to be the one device to rule them all — they’re the go-to for work, life, entertainment, causal time-wasting, logistics, and a myriad other uses. But with everything bundled in one device, when that device fails how do we easily recoup the functionality lost? While this hopefully won’t come up frequently as a challenge in daily life, how much of your plans would you be able to carry out if you were on the road in an unfamiliar city?
  4. I’ve completely underestimated the number of ‘set it and forget it’ apps that I had running and that now needed care, attention, and remembering which email was used way back when to set up the account so I can log in again. On the plus side I took it as an invitation to prune the apps that reside on my phone and culled about 30 of them (!). Most fell into one of two categories: ‘hey let me try that’ apps, and local versions of ride share, public transport, ticketing etc. that are really only useful if you’re in their geography frequently. A monthly glance and app pruning seem like a good idea to try in 2018.
  5. Of all the phone’s features I missed the camera & its ubiquity the most — much of my personal communication & a fair amount of professional is very visual, centered on photos randomly but regularly taken during the day. I certainly wasn’t aware of how much this had become the default for me; an always ready camera in your hand is very, very hard to replace.

My new phone arrived right around the 48hr mark of phonelessness — just as I was seemingly starting to get somewhat accustomed to this involuntary technology detox and I can’t help feeling a little like Marty McFly. How different would your workday be without a phone, a tablet, or a computer? How much of your work would you be able to do?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some offline plans to make.

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