My life without a smartphone is getting harder and harder | Jen Wasserstein
I“I’ve always done well without owning a smartphone – until now. Covid made my already obsolete Nokia flip phone designed in the 90s almost useless. I’m suddenly surrounded by QR codes. Now there is Airbnb doors I can’t open Cars I can’t start Menus I can’t read Paper menus are gone, ordering food has become an ordeal.
At a recent dinner with friends, after an initial chat, everyone looked at the menus on their phones. I sat there for a minute looking around the table, then whispered to my neighbor, quietly asking him to watch. When I eat alone in a restaurant, I show my flip phone to the waiter and ask for an appropriate menu. After rolling their eyes, they’ll pull out a paper menu from a safe in the back or give me their own phone to use.
It’s embarrassing when I ask a stranger for directions and he pulls out his smartphone, looks at me as if to say: “where is the your phone? “My brother says I’m like a smoker who doesn’t buy her own pack, but smokes other’s. I never wanted to start smoking at all, but the world is conspiring to smoke one. If I bought mine, I know I would smoke a pack a day.
Americans consult their smartphone an average of 96 times a day, or once every 15 minutes. Two-thirds of Americans check their phones 160 times a day. Social media companies admit to exploiting our dopamine receptors, designing products to hook us up, such as irregularly scheduled rewards.
Can I tolerate a small slot machine in my pocket, or will I be attracted? Would that little thrill of social assertiveness make me a compulsive checker? Track screen time, turn off notifications, set monochrome colors, take “digital detox” retreats or “Internet Sabbaths” – none of this seems to make a lasting dent. We are being manipulated – and we clearly have a problem. We all know it’s wrong, but we hit it anyway.
It’s not like I’m working on a typewriter. I have a computer that I use for work, online shopping, browsing the web, and watching movies. But, when I’m not at home, I don’t have access to anything. My flip phone won’t play music or take photos. I have a clunky camera that’s mostly in the closet. My phone can receive an SMS, but the emojis appear as simple squares, so I don’t know the emotion conveyed without accompanying words. A friend text me: “Big heart, big heart, big heart emojis”. My Nokia cost $ 70 and I’ve dropped it dozens of times and it never cracked. It is also a very elegant yellow. But that’s the limit of its alluring features. There’s nothing addicting about a flip phone.
Everywhere I go, I see people looking at their screens. On the sidewalks, I walk, hoping that people look up in time to avoid a collision. I see couples in restaurants lovingly watching each other on their handheld devices. When I eat out with friends, their phone sits face up on the table like a third wheel, lashing and blinking until attention is inevitably turned in its direction. Apologies are made and there is always an urgency for an answer, one minute.
I want to walk around with only the city or the woods that catch my eye. I look at the buildings. I watch people. Usually people are on the phone so there is no eye contact. The clock on my flip phone tells me if I’ve walked for an hour. I don’t need to know how many steps I’ve taken. I have an alarm clock on my nightstand. I hail taxis; there is no Uber or Lyft in my shrinking little world. I carry whatever book I read in my purse – my excuse for never reading War and Peace. I’m all about the old model; everything is replaced by innovation, that’s what I still rely on.
My phone plan only works in Europe, so I didn’t take my Nokia on a recent week-long trip to New York. Before I left Spain, I told my New York friends to meet me here and at this time, just like in the old days. We’re all over 40, we remember payphones and how the plans used to work. It still works: a friend picked me up from the airport and throughout the week everyone showed up as expected, a friend even commented that the novelty of meeting this way is “a little fun and quirky ”. I felt pretty good that I survived a week without a phone. Up to Newark.
To enter Spain, you needed a Covid form with a QR code. The airline employee at the Newark check-in counter seemed baffled that I did not have a smartphone and conclusively told me that the QR code form was required, despite my proof vaccination. I started to panic and said, “So everyone has to buy a product in order to be able to fly now?” He said, “I don’t make the rules” – an Orwellian response if there is one. I had to get this form coded, so I begged to borrow the smartphone from the nearest stranger. I called a friend who went to the website (“but it’s all in Spanish”) and emailed the QR-coded form to the surly helpdesk employees. The stranger whose phone I borrowed frantically waved to me that he had to go. I quickly thanked my friend and she said, “Jen, just take a normal phone.”
I feel embarrassed when I pull out my phone or tell someone that I can’t connect via social media because it was nothing to do with it. I know I come across as smug and a sign of virtue, like I’m too good for what everyone else has. You are probably thinking right now how hateful I am. I know.
There is a fanaticism that comes from the fact that everyone is a consumer of the same product. All dissent is attacked by reflex or, at best, rejected. “How can you live without it? “What are you trying to prove?” Apart from this anomaly, I live a normal consumer life. I buy from Amazon (with quiet shame). I am addicted to countless companies and products that I find morally offensive. That’s my typical response – but it’s hard to hear myself from very high on my high horse. I sound critical just because I don’t own a smartphone. I’m broadcasting that I wouldn’t be able to completely disconnect if I was carrying the world (Wide Web) in my pocket. And that you and I both know you can’t either.
I am determined to hold out as long as possible. My 17 year old daughter cannot imagine life without her smartphone. She has Instagram and Snapchat and texts all the time. I rarely hear him talking on his phone. I wonder about the strength of the connection that develops between her and her texting friends. What havoc his phone is wreaking havoc on his attention span. But I’m complaining about the horse-less carriage. There is no going back. The clocks are no longer wound.