I resisted getting a smartphone for so long, even after I came back to the States last year. For a year and a half, I went without a phone. The only way to reach me and, even so, a response was not immediate or always a guarantee, was through email. Yes, I was traveling/living overseas during much of that time which made it easier to not have a phone. But even after I came back, I resisted. What was I resisting? I asked myself.
I was resisting the urge that comes to so many people once they are hit with the slightest onset of boredom or a few seconds of in-between time, like waiting for a bus, stopped at a red light, sitting in the doctor’s office, or standing in line to buy a coffee. That urge is to replace that boredom or state of flux, albeit a tiny fraction of time, with mindless browsing and tapping away at the small rectangular screen situated almost permanently in the palm of your hand.
I want to feel myself be a human, to experience life and interactions beyond the screen (and even as I write this on the computer, I see the irony that is in everyday, modern life). I’ve yearned for deep connection with people, real face-to-face interactions. You across from me, sharing lovely conversation over a cup of tea. A phone is a wonderful tool for connecting with people you may not necessarily have the opportunity to see everyday, I understand this completely. But have you ever caught yourself in the very act of mindless phone tapping and realized that you just spent the past twenty minutes of your life with your head bent down, shoulders hunched forward, and eyes staring almost unblinkingly into this small screen? The tool becomes the user and the user becomes the tool.
A few weeks after I came back from India and back into the throes of western civilization, I ended up getting one of those simple month-to-month flip phones from Verizon. For fifty dollars a month, I had unlimited talk, text, and web, though the web function was practically zilch; it was just the slowest thing. So, talk and text, I could swing that. It made for a more realistic way for me to obtain teaching positions at yoga studios and gyms if I had a solid, reliable number people could reach me at. Not to mention, connection with my parents and close friends became less frustrating. Instead of waiting days for a response to an email that may or may not happen, they could call or text me something and, most likely, I’ll receive and respond to it quicker than email. And vice versa.
Nine months into this flip phone, it breaks and stops working, in spite of my efforts of having it fixed or replaced. It wasn’t worth it. Around the same time, the iPhone 5 was coming onto the tech scene as the newest and sleekest iPhone yet. Despite several attempts of “No, no, I don’t need it” to my mother, who insisted I join the current times, I somehow ended up with an iPhone 5 in my hands.
At first, this new gadget had its gleam and appeal. It looked pretty, had great visuals, took high-quality pictures, and allowed me to see exactly where I was in the world and what the weather would be like for the next five days — anywhere. Huh. Everyone else around me had been using these smartphones for years already and I just came on board. However, it doesn’t take long for me to figure out why I didn’t want one of these smartphones in the first place. It made me more reactionary to whatever texts or alerts came in, and with its plethora of apps, games, tools, web browsing, and music/video options, there came even more opportunities to be mindless.
There is this digital sign on the Kennedy expressway in Chicago (I-90/94) that has been up for a while now, with ever changing numbers on it. It reads something like this:
“890 traffic deaths this year. Don’t text and drive.”
Sometimes it’ll say, right after showing the ever-increasing number that goes up each day, “Don’t drink and drive.” It seems more appropriate that now texting is deemed as more dangerous than driving under the influence. You see, texting can, and does, happen at all hours of the day. You could say drinking does too, but the chances that someone pulling out their phone because it beeped with a new message versus pulling out a beer seem higher.
Commuting on the CTA buses and trains, I look around me and about 80% of the passengers have their heads bent down staring into their phones. Whatever happened to just sitting and enjoying the ride? I get that the ride sometimes isn’t so pleasant; it can be more of a chore than something you’d take pleasure in. But it’s okay to just sit with yourself, let your mind wander, let those thoughts come in and go. Look out the window, even if all there is is blackness because you’re underground; let your eyes stare into infinity. Once in a while, if you sit with yourself long enough, you’ll finally come to a quiet place where you aren’t tormented by your false ideas that you aren’t much to anyone if you don’t send out flares into the world, like having an updated social media profile or texting a bunch of people funny pictures of frowning cats.
I say all this knowing full well what it means to live in the current age. What living in the current age seems to be doing to us, however, is making us more disconnected, more disillusioned, and less able to handle our own emotions and events in life. We find we need an app for that and if there isn’t one (yet), Google and Siri will have all the answers!
This summer, I was in a course to become CPR-certified. There were various demonstrations, stories, and talks. At the end, we all had to practice on one of the dummies, to make sure we knew what needed to be done physically if someone had a foreign object lodged in his/her throat or who couldn’t breathe. After that, there was Q/A. One of the students asked if there was an app for administering CPR. I almost couldn’t believe she asked such a question. The instructor looked slightly baffled before proceeding to answer, “I’m not sure if there is one or not; I haven’t really looked into that myself, but I would suggest to give the victim your full attention and to only use the phone to make a 911 call.”
Once, a few years back, I saw a woman choke while dining at a restaurant. She started coughing, hacking, arms flailing and, at one point, no sound was uttered whatsoever. The food was lodged in her throat in such a way that now she couldn’t breathe. Thankfully her husband took action immediately and performed abdominal thrusts, also known as the Heimlich Maneuver, on her, while I yelled at the restaurant staff to call 911. Paramedics came shortly after the object was ejected from her throat. No app would have helped the man save his wife in that very moment. He acted on his instincts and the power of love and protection was fully demonstrated.
In September, I went to an Empire of the Sun concert in Chicago, held at the Aragon Ballroom. There were three of us who went and we were excited to make it a fun dance party, all phones, cameras, and such aside. Several points during the concert, there was a sea of arms raised up in the air, not in conjunction with the music, but to record the music as a video or to snap photos. I could barely see Luke Steele in his fantastical head gear and costume on the stage what with a dozen stiff arms with lit screens held up for the entire duration of the song. I get that people want these memories preserved, I really do, but is a crappy, blown out, shaky 45-second video really going to replace the actual live experience of it all, of being with your friends, of having a blast listening to music, of living in the actual moment? You can try and preserve the moment, like bottling an artifact into a glass jar to watch it stay like it is, never changing. But the beauty of life and the beauty of everything around us is that there is a course we all have to take, and that course leads us on ever-changing horizons. If we preserved all our memories into a digital file and in so doing, sacrificed living in the moment, what good does it really do, in the end?
Again, I say all this not necessarily condemning phones or technology but shedding some light on what we are doing with them that creates the harm and produces needless suffering. Suffering comes in many forms, not all of them obvious. When we start to suffer from our own boredom, which is essentially the inability and impatience to sit with yourself with absolutely nothing to do whatsoever, we seek refuge and escape. Boredom, or validation, is an unnecessary byproduct of this false illusion we have created in our minds, that unless we do or say something, we aren’t anybody.
And that is the irony, isn’t it? In the doing or the saying, we’re trying to claim a piece of this world for ourselves but this world will continue to give birth and take away lives with or without us. Might as well put down our phones and enjoy this life while we have it. One day, it won’t be here, and there’s definitely no app to bring us back from the grave.