I was walking down a narrow sidewalk in London on a brisk winter’s evening when I noticed that many of the people walking past me were not actually there; they were on their phones, communicating with people who were also elsewhere, and some were so engulfed by their screen that they almost bumped into me. That small, metal box (which is probably on the table in front of you as you read this, or, much more likely, in your hands now) is something we seem to be dependent on, almost as a tool for our basic survival. I don’t think anyone who reads this will be able to truthfully say they are not addicted to their smartphone. The irony is that when the idea struck me to write an article about our excessive use of these devices, I had to get mine out to make a note of it. What did we do before we had mobile phones? Can we, in 2018, live without one?
Blessings sometimes happen in disguise, and my smartphone breaking just over a month ago was just that. As I began the day with a phone, which had a newly-cracked screen, I was actually scared; it was almost as if I had lost the use of my hands. I made the no-brainer decision to buy a new one, but before I could do that, I had already arranged to meet a friend. I still had my laptop, so I confirmed the meeting and told him I would be off-grid until we met. As I left my apartment, a number of worries flooded my mind; what if he cancelled last minute? What if he needed to meet at another time? What if he wanted to meet somewhere else? What if I got lost?
Could I really do it?
I chose to walk to my friend’s apartment that afternoon, as I often do around London, as an excuse to get some exercise. The 30-minute stroll was unlike any other I’d had in recent years. Without that itching urge to take my phone out of my pocket every few minutes, my mind was able to truly take in what was around me. I noticed smells, sounds and sights that would usually have gone over my head. I smiled to myself at the overwhelming feeling of freedom, and realized I was happy. Really happy. Completely present, with nothing but the world around me.
I met my friend with no issues, and we found a table at our favorite restaurant, which would become the venue of a troubling realization. The next words in this sentence are no exaggeration, but for more than half of the time in the restaurant, we were sitting in silence. It was not just because he was on his phone, talking to those not with us, but also because our conversations kept stopping and starting, with large gaps of time as we were trying to remember what it was we were talking about. I watched him and asked, “is this what life is like now?” As he opened his mouth to reply, his phone went off and he was taken away again. I slowly surveyed the restaurant, and it seemed to be the same story with everyone else; they were having the same shallow, start-and-stop conversations, too. I don’t claim to be better than anyone with this paragraph, because I used to be just as absorbed with technology.
I felt like I was in a science-fiction film, and was able to see what the world was really like. The idea of getting a new phone and plugging back in now terrified me. Alas, I made the decision to try and live without it for one week.
The first two days involved a few problems, including getting lost and annoying a few friends. I met a few people at places I had never been before and, of course, couldn’t use Google Maps. But to overcome this, I did one of the scariest things one can do in 2018: I asked a passer-by for help. One evening, I was offline for 5 hours, which seemed to annoy one of my friends. Why do we have to be reachable every hour of the day? We don’t! and the feeling I have when I leave cyberspace behind, knowing that I am experiencing the world for what it is, is something that no convenience of a smartphone can ever give me.
Had my phone not broken, I doubt I would have been brave enough to try to live without it. I accept that some of us have jobs which require us to have a phone, but why not try to leave it at home one evening? Next time you find yourself scrolling through Facebook for two hours without having made the conscious decision to do so, or you realize you are sitting in silence with a group of friends, just ask yourself: am I controlling my phone, or is it controlling me?
– On June 01 2017, I left to hitchhike alone around the world –
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