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Life Arts

Life Without A Cell Phone

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In May, I gave up my cell phone.

My withdrawal was gradual and unplanned.  First, a drop onto the only tiled 6-square feet in my home destroyed my iPhone's clean look. Then mysterious crashes, like a Steve Jobs tech debut gone wrong, made it annoyingly unreliable. Finally, it needed to be shut down and restarted to change functions, like from "email" to "phone" or "text".


Cool, But At A Cost. by parislemon


Its disappearance led me to drop it altogether.

As with many big moves -- and a breakup with your fave gadget qualifies in 2013 -- it had been a long time coming.

Ever since seeing Mike Daisey's "The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" I had been wracked by guilt that my adorable cell was built with child labor, grueling hours, union busting, video surveillance and suicide nets (the spirits and bodies of Chinese workers were definitely harmed in its making). Yet I grasped it tighter, mumbling platitudes, "one person can't change "", "shining the light will help "". However New York Times articles that echoed many of Daisey's revelations, plus Apple's evasion of billions in taxes, brought fresh pangs of guilt.
My iPhone's absence has transformed my life for the better, if challenging family and friends who expect instant access.

I live more in the moment.

Very soon after I lost my iBuddy, I walked through Georgetown. Instead of jamming to music up Wisconsin Avenue, I looked carefully around a local market. Sarah Bean provided my best conversation that month. The poet and artist -- who had coincidentally been Mike Daisey's drama student in high school -- spoke of her wonderful art and the brilliant monologist's trials post-"Agony".  Her collage "We Are All Just Walking Eachother Home" now adorns my bedroom.

I model better behavior. Many books recommend parents dissuade their children from rapid-fire texting (128 per day by teens) by putting down their own devices.

 "But what kind of Mom doesn't have a cell phone?" I am often asked. For me, a better one.  Let's not forget the wired computer I'm usually by, my landline phones, and answering machine provide greater accessibility than my childhood home. And exchanging frantic texts when my daughter or I are just minutes late can erode hard-won independence through a 21st century umbilical cord. In fact, there's value in thinking tasks: after navigating to the beach with a paper atlas instead of an iPhone, my kid told me, "This map thing is cool, Mommy."

Creatively commentary and studies are illustrating the true cost of cells. Jonathan Franzen has advanced complex philosophic arguments, comedian and actress Charlene deGuzman showed a hypothetical day in her life, and Dave Eggers has published the speculative fictional novel "The Circle". A Newsweek 2012 cover story described the worrying implications of greater screen-time. The linkage of more media use to lower GPAs for college females, Rolling Stone's haunting article that describes the role of sexting in teen girls' suicides, sexting statistics generally, and tales of cyberbullying show profoundly negative consequences of the must-have device.

Egypt's Facebook revolution demonstrates technology's power for good. And the posts of smart, if uncredentialed, people have improved war policies, election outcomes, and nonprofit strategies.

Yet major misconceptions about climate change and the debt ceiling show that cell phones have been far from a panacea for misinformation.  Our citizens may parrot talking points but they often lack in-depth understanding of today's complex issues.

I'm the last to decry all technology, including yours right now. European Union Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva's brilliant talk on "The Humanitarian Crisis in Syria" was streamed to my computer Friday, allowing me to avoid the dismal rain. Facebook allows me to post political links and the web accelerates my research exponentially. Yet I too often struggle to account for hours spent online.

In fact, the recent read that shaped me most wasn't sent to me on computer but borrowed from my gym. September's Harper's Magazine gave me searing insight into the immigration policies for Iraqis who helped us, the history and toll of punishing sanctions, and the human and financial cost of the surveillance state.

Cell phone tech also reflects terms many of us don't agree to (uncheck) including overzealous government surveillance and the donation of our money by Yelp, Facebook, and Google to the American Legislative Exchange Council (the organization behind "Stand Your Ground" laws and anti-minority, anti-women bills) and by telecom companies to the Republican "shut down the world economy" Party.

Why are we so wired for wireless tech?

Bosses require their realtors, traders, and consultants respond as quickly as if they're delivering babies. Long answers and immediate call backs are often expected when workers are awake (though they are rarely explicitly compensated for a potential doubling of their work day). Seldom on the agenda: how "greater productivity" compromises time spent on kids, hobbies, personal lives, and reading while exhausting workers through a near-constant dopamine buzz.

Even at a personal level, it's de rigeur. Yet interactions are often not enriched. At a cousins' lunch, four 30-somethings whipped out their phones to ascertain the age of National Spelling Bee competitors (thus also verifying our Asian identity). Whatever. Later, N's text query for a good local bar received four lengthy responses from across the nation in a sub-5 minute time. Yet my old fave Busboys and Poets delivered happiness with a pitcher of after-hours sangria, a tribute to N's in-person charm and beauty.

Greater accessibility can accommodate real crises. But so too can it make fake ones.  Without a cell phone an angry stepmom's drive off with the carseat (and without the baby) when one's teenager needs to be dropped somewhere can't change one's mission from finding the best Bloody Mary in DC to providing short-notice chauffeur service.

Sadly, the cell-phone-free sometimes struggle in this wireless world. Yet when did we, as a society, agree individual ($60-plus monthly) mobile phones are necessary? They're now needed for basic functions: I parked four miles from the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington because available streets required calls to park. Should our city be less accessible to those without cell phones? When major initiatives across the US promote car- and bike-sharing for cheaper and more sustainable living, should pay phones disappear?

Because mobile access is expected, I borrow shamelessly, particularly on vacation. I loaned my cousin's for most of a weekend in NYC, borrowed a stranger's to arrange for the right US Open ticket, and begged a fabulous employee at Islip Airport to help me arrange for my kid to fly alone after I was involuntarily bumped.

I also rarely records events, which is less of a sacrifice. Few exchanges sound like: "That was an awesome concert moment when we were stage-side for Toby Lightman's encore of "Angels and Devils'. Not the song, T and C, when we TOOK THE VIDEO" (though I proudly shot their toddlers' first concert experience).

I also try to recall a lesson of lateness. My friend L's habitual sashays to group gatherings 45 minutes late in a gorgeous neutral palette reminded us MicroStrategists of the things worth waiting for.

Joy and meaning, for many of us, often reflects the intensity of experience, not the frequency. Quality often trumps quantity. So greater focus can help one read better and deeper, stress less, connect more, protest more, inspire more "

My cell-phone free life may not last forever, but the way I look at technology has permanently changed.  As should yours.

Go out. Play with your kids, grandkids, nephews and nieces. Hike, bike or run. Read or demonstrate. Dance. Write.

The analog world, in all its imperfection, is beautiful enough to deserve our full attention.

 

Veena Trehan is a DC-based journalist and activist. She has written for NPR, Reuters, Bloomberg News, and local papers.

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So many of us are better for doing some hard think... by Veena Trehan on Tuesday, Oct 15, 2013 at 10:45:07 AM
Well said! I have a strong retro streak and hate t... by Ernie Messerschmidt on Tuesday, Oct 15, 2013 at 11:51:48 AM
Bravo! While I work on computers and have four in ... by R. A. Landbeck on Tuesday, Oct 15, 2013 at 1:42:52 PM
The day that Einstein feared: click here... by Daniel Geery on Tuesday, Oct 15, 2013 at 1:43:27 PM
Crazy isn't it?... by Bob Gormley on Tuesday, Oct 15, 2013 at 8:18:15 PM
I carried a work provided cell phone for awhile, b... by John Sanchez Jr. on Tuesday, Oct 15, 2013 at 4:49:59 PM
I thought I was the last person in the universe w/... by Bob Gormley on Tuesday, Oct 15, 2013 at 8:16:20 PM