In the years spanning the turn of the millennium, the fixed-line telephone still dominated the small Baptist college where I’d gone to study theater and writing. One occasionally saw a cell phone, just as one occasionally saw a professor with a mullet or a sorority girl wearing fur, but for the most part we all scurried back to our rooms every hour to check our answering machines.
As the Class of 2002 approached graduation, however, something peculiar began to happen. One by one, usually after securing post-baccalaureate employment, my peers began adopting various signifiers of adulthood: a tucked-in shirt, a brisker stride, and, most perplexing of all, a rectangular chunk of plastic worn, Wyatt Earp–style, in what appeared to be a holster. Perhaps because of an inborn contrarianism — perhaps because my course of study ensured that there would be no job offers for me — I never purchased one of the devices that marked the campus’s emerging professional caste. Sixteen years later, I still haven’t. And life, I’m happy to report, has been grand.
To go without a cell phone in 2018 is to provoke both wonder and indignation. Snake handlers and pansexuals inspire less anthropological curiosity, lawyers and used-car salesmen less rage. Among the questions I’ve received (the most common — an astonished “How do you do that?!” — neatly illustrates the snugness of technology’s shackles) are inquiries into my trustworthiness (“You’re lying, right?”), my sociability (“Have you no friends?”), my sanity (“Are you psychotic?”), and the health and safety of my children (“They’re dead on the side of the road somewhere, aren’t they?”). The common denominator of these reactions is their implication that I have violated an unassailable 21st-century covenant — that, in my unwillingness to get with the mobile program, I have unfitted myself for polite society and, like Huck Finn’s father, can be reformed only with a shotgun.
That I have not yet been fired on, I consider purely a matter of happenstance.
Because, of course, “Thou shalt be connected” is one of the civil and economic commandments of our time. To break it produces serious annoyance. By going phoneless, I have spoiled social opportunities, caused my colleagues inconvenience, given my family grounds for worry when circumstances have delayed me, and risked setting myself up as a scold and a fool. I have forfeited the breezy conviviality of text chains and Instagram and have missed out on services — Uber, Seamless — that clearly ease city living. Were I a single man, I would now be preparing to die alone.
What I have gained is harder to quantify but real nonetheless: freedom, certainly, of the Brandeisian “right to be let alone” variety; emotional self-sufficiency; privacy; an attention span that approaches adult historical norms; and the satisfaction (I may as well admit it) of bucking an obnoxious trend. Yet the most important benefits strike even deeper, touching not only my relationships with others but my politics, values, and capacity for joy.
That the cell phone affects the latter is by now so well established that even undergraduates of my acquaintance can explain how their devices trigger the release of dopamine, a neurochemical that provides bursts of “happiness” not dissimilar to those experienced by cocaine addicts. So, too, can they testify to their phones’ tendency to provoke discontent, as constant digital interaction with their peers’ “best selves” (to borrow a phrase from a scholarly literature that includes such neologisms as “Facebook envy” and “status threat”) renders their own lives shapeless and uncompelling by comparison. To measure her own beauty against Snow White’s, the wicked queen had to visit a particular mirror in a specific room in a single castle. Today’s smartphone users carry their mirrors in their pockets and consult them an average of 80 times a day, if research by the tech company Asurion is to be believed.
They do so, furthermore, in ways and at times that disrupt the rhythms of traditional human existence: not only while ostensibly working but during conversations, at the dinner table, in the bathroom, while standing in line, while dining out, in movie theaters, in church, and during memorial services. (A friend of mine tells an amusing story about phone-checking within sight of an Islamic funeral in Morocco. The mourners believed that they were being filmed. An international incident was narrowly avoided.) Attention to one’s phone has so wholly replaced attention to one’s surroundings in our hierarchy of values that 77 percent of adults now find it acceptable to employ their devices while walking down the street, according to a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center. While few would pronounce themselves similarly blasé about the practice of checking one’s phone while driving, no one could contend that it doesn’t happen — constantly.
What all of this reveals is an attitudinal shift that would probably confound every civilization in the history of the planet: One now owes less consideration to the present, actual world in front of one’s face than to the prospective, digital world announced by alerts and ringtones. For further evidence of this assertion, one need only observe a party of single women at a restaurant or a group of teenage boys on the subway, or ponder what an unexpected pleasure it is when a person with whom one wishes to converse makes a show of turning off his phone.
Yet even if we’re willing to ignore the startling impact of cell phones on our habits and manners — indeed, on the very assumptions that undergird our social relationships — we’re still left to reckon with their outsized effect on our politics. As has been widely commented on, an unpleasant quirk of the digital age is that Americans’ dissatisfaction with the state of the world has increased even as standards of living have risen to previously unimaginable levels, a paradox that resolves only if we consider the sheer ubiquity of bad news confronting cell-phone users every time they scroll through their news feeds.
The progressive invitation to “think globally” has long been an insufferable cliché. In the era of smartphones, it is closer to a curse, sentencing its practitioners to the particular misery of knowing everything while lacking the patience (thanks, in large part, to technology) to analyze events properly. Is it any wonder that members of the rising generation are drawn to such “miracle cures” as socialism or are vulnerable to the argument that America and the West are racist dystopias? The world’s every imperfection has been a click away since they were preteens.
For that matter, is it surprising that partisanship and incivility have increased as we have begun to carry about on our persons devices that facilitate spontaneous, public, semi-anonymous comment and accusation? Americans held ungenerous opinions in the analog age, to be sure, but those sentiments were — happy thought — often undisclosed. Today, one need only open an app to be reminded that half of one’s fellows are radicals, conspiracy-mongers, and trolls.
Perhaps the greatest irony of the cellular revolution is the widespread acknowledgment that some of its side effects have been pernicious. In my own experience, students and adults alike readily concede as much. What they can’t quite do, so deep is their immersion in the silicon sea, is imagine their way clear of it. So here’s a suggestion: Cancel your contract, turn off your device, open the garbage can, and throw it away.
You will not die.
You may, in fact, live more abundantly.
Certainly you will have to make sacrifices, though I have found that by maintaining my car well enough to avoid breakdowns, responding to emails with reasonable promptness, and being assiduously punctual, I am able to avoid most problems. My opponent will argue that college teaching has spoiled me and that few other industries would put up with so disconnected a worker, yet employers are, like everyone else, beholden to cultural trends. In a world increasingly tolerant of invented pronouns and emotional-support animals, I find it hard to believe that many people will get fired for going without a cell phone.
There is, besides, a significant gulf between the surgeon on call and the barista who sleeps with his phone lest he miss a text. The one bears an actual, even a moral, obligation. The other willingly diminishes his chances of achieving a private life.
Because carrying the world in one’s palm makes private life very, very difficult.
The alternative — a telephone that plugs into the wall and stays put — is not without its petty annoyances, as all who still rely on one can attest. Yet, for all its flaws, the landline remains compatible with an older and finer way of living, in which the realms of one’s existence — work, society, and the home — remain blessedly distinct. Landlines are a tool in “the hand of inherited order,” to borrow Edith Wharton’s beautiful phrase. They need not be set aside lightly.
As one man in a chaotic nation, I cannot elect a president, tighten a border, or adjust the tax rate to a percentage of my choosing. But I can live quietly with my family, looking out at their faces rather than down into the unending void. There’s a word for a person who does that.