I find it impossible to write fiction that’s set after 2002. Not because I’m a Gen-Xer waxing nostalgic about relaxing to Morcheeba on a distastefully stained sofa I found partially torn apart by a dog in an alley. (Oh, the glamour.) It’s just that it’s inconceivable to depict contemporary times authentically without including interludes where characters stare at their cell phones instead of advancing their plotlines – their lives – towards some conclusion. Which is, as a thing to read, mind-numbingly dull. Unless I write “and then his Galaxy 4’s battery died” no one can ever get lost, forget an important fact, meet a partner outside of a dating site, or do anything that doesn’t eventually have them picking up a phone. So I’m stuck writing about an era where Ethan Hawke was considered the pinnacle of manliness.
On average, people spend 119 tedious minutes staring at their cell phones each day (and that’s according to a UK phone provider). That’s 43,435 minutes annually. Thirty days a year. The month of June. Sure, a portion of those minutes is spent doing useful things. But most involve time-killing activities like playing Bubble Safari or pinning photos of cronuts to our Pinterest walls. It’s a substantial chunk of the year for our plotlines to stand still.
According to that infamous study by the UK Post Office, 66 percent of us suffer from a phone separation anxiety called nomophobia—’no mobile phone phobia’—which can cause sweating, queasiness and trembling. Common warning signs include feeling anxious when your phone is turned off and being unable to visit the bathroom without having your phone in hand. This mass neurosis is hardly surprising in an era when 83 percent of millennials bring their phones to bed at night— a number which assuredly trumps the number of millennials who have an actual bed.
Recent hand-wringing suggests that the cultural backlash against cell phones has finally arrived. If it has, what are we doing about it? We all hate being on call. We all hate being sidetracked by people who just have to Google—mid-conversation—that actor’s name they can’t recall from last night’s “Once Upon a Time in Wonderland.” We all hate those people with the marimba ringtones who refuse to mute their phones. Not a day goes by that I don’t hear someone complaining about being “over” cell phones. So if the backlash is here, why are we so complacent? It’s like we’re getting mad for all the wrong reasons, fixating on mere annoyances instead of realizing why we should truly be outraged. Backlash against cell phones won’t arrive until we understand the real problem. Cell phones have made us dull.
Most outrage about cell phones sounds like this: “I went to the Arcade Fire concert and, oh my God, some guy had his phone up in the air for, like, 20 seconds during the glockenspiel solo.” Then there are those who are livid because they had to listen to some uptalk from a teenaged girl on a phone after shelling out 15 bucks to take the Chinatown bus to DC. Others are hopping mad at that jerk who was texting during that important scene in Magic Mike where McConaughey does a final dance at club Xquisite.
Yes. The horror, etc.
Whining about cell phone etiquette isn’t righteous indignation about the human condition. It’s a clichéd first world problem, not a catalyst for change. If you want to be upset by people using cellphones poorly, you will never run out of opportunities.
Then there’s the “cell phones are destroying our children” argument—a form of outrage typical of helicopter parents who deify Carl Kasell. “Our poor children—They should be outdoors!” They worry that kids are missing out on the meaningful things of childhood: finger-painting an enchanted castle in the sky, making a giraffe from paper mache, pretending to be a Minotaur in the labyrinthine bushes behind the barn.
You don’t want kids glued to a screen sexting for hours on end. So don’t let them. You want them to learn to speak well to adults and not scream at everyone? Sit them down at dinner device-free every night. Parents who obsess about phones sound like Bill Cosby bitching about rap music. Nevertheless, cultural backlash isn’t going to occur because you’d rather see your kid reading The Wind in the Willows than staring at a phone.
On “Conan,” Louis CK discussed his concerns about a culture obsessed with cell phones. His outrage was much closer to the mark. Without hyperbole, he articulated how our need to constantly tune out—checking email, hopping on Facebook, playing Angry Birds—deprives us of things fundamental to our humanity.
You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away, is the ability to just sit there. That’s being a person. Because underneath everything in your life there is that thing, that empty—forever empty… It’s down there…
That’s why we text and drive…. People are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own because they don’t want to be alone for a second because it’s so hard….
So I go, ‘oh, I’m getting sad, gotta get the phone and write “hi” to like 50 people’…then I said, ‘you know what, don’t. Just be sad. Just let the sadness, stand in the way of it, and let it hit you like a truck….’
And then I had happy feelings. Because when you let yourself feel sad, your body has antibodies, it has happiness that comes rushing in to meet the sadness. So I was grateful to feel sad, and then I met it with true, profound happiness.
He’s right. Our little handheld addictions are a crutch—they keep us quarantined from our own emotions. But I’ll take things a step further. Our compulsive relationship to our phones is making us less dynamic. Less interesting. Cell phones take us away from ourselves, causing us to passively experience our thoughts, instead of thinking them. The solitude we abandon to catch up on Twitter is the very place from which our creativity arises. Opinions, unfiltered by group-think, emerge from this solitude as well. This is why lots of writers say they have most of their ideas in the shower: no distractions, nowhere to hide. What’ll happen when iPhones are waterproof?
Instead of embracing quiet introspection, we opt out to read “’Masters of the Universe’ Is Actually a Tragic Gay Love Story between He-Man and Skeletor” on BuzzFeed. When we’re constantly checking for updates on Facebook—relying on what’s discussed on social media and blogs to maneuver our thoughts—we stifle our own individuality and become intellectually disengaged. Removed from self-reflection and solitude we become the very worst thing there is to be: dull.
Smartphones aren’t even novel anymore! We’ve been staring at them for nearly a decade. We’d almost be excused if the first iPhone was released in 2012, and we’d just ditched our pagers. But instead of being wowed by the types of exhilarating innovations we saw last decade (Google maps, being able to text instead of call, a freaking phone that’s a camera,) we’re fawning over Touch ID fingerprint sensors and retina display. “A7 makes iPhone 5s the first 64-bit smartphone in the world” is an actual Apple marketing pitch. Um, wow?
Still, our devotion is unwavering. Just try criticizing a friend’s preferred Android or Apple device. Apparently if cell phones had existed in 1860, you’d be challenged to a duel. Sure there’s a lot of money being spent on making us covet the latest thing, but our passions for our phones can only be rationally understood as overblown.
The emergence of “digital detoxing” as a trend, suggests there’s at least an appetite for a cultural backlash. In case you’re unfamiliar with the concept, the term was recently added to the Oxford dictionary:
digital detox (n): a period of time during which a person refrains from using electronic devices such as smartphones or computers, regarded as an opportunity to reduce stress or focus on social interaction in the physical world.
The indignation that fuels most digital detoxes, unfortunately, for the most part ranges from half-hearted to fully privileged. You possibly still remember the Times style section piece from just a couple months ago, “Step Away From the Phone!” We’re told that fashion market director at Vanity Fair Michael Carl detoxes by playing “phone stack” when going out to dinner: “Everyone places their phones in the middle of the table; whoever looks at their device before the check arrives picks up the tab.”
Marc Jacobs, MSNBC host Ari Melber, and party planner Bronson van Wyck also advocate creating self-imposed “device-free” zones. (Thurston Howell III and Little Lord Fauntleroy were apparently unavailable for interviews.) Meanwhile, former Lucky magazine editor Brandon Holley tosses her phone “into a vintage milk tin” a couple hours per day. Oh yes, a vintage milk tin.
Digital detox retreats and vacations are now a thing too. Most are hosted by New Age yogaphiles soliciting pricey, device- free getaways where you can “recharge”—they always say that—with hiking, organic meals, and “journaling”—they always say that too. Consider this recent event offered by TheDigitalDetox.org:
Leave your phone at home or check it at the door for a night of Digital Detox and Camp Grounded goodness. Live music with Con Brio and Cello Joe, campfire sing-a-long with Seltzy, analog zone with arts and crafts, board games, typewriters, delicious treats, face-painting, and so so much more.
If you’re like me, they lost you at “Cello Joe.” If not, don’t miss their upcoming detox event at “a tree house community nestled in an undisclosed jungle.”
Normal people have tried out digital detoxes too. A recent article in Salon speaks to a reporter’s attempt to find a life balance by unplugging. Well, sort of:
The answer isn’t necessarily to deprive yourself. It’s better to find a balance…. I’ve set up a few rules for myself, too. No tweeting while walking. No checking the phone on the subway. No TweetDeck. It’s far better to check Twitter on the actual website instead of having it open and taunting me all day long.
No TweetDeck? Um… okay, don’t hurt yourself there.
Digital detoxes lack passion. They’re pretentious. They’re the commitment equivalent of hedge funder who uses LED lightbulbs on his private jet to be “environmental.” We don’t need balance. We need to be embarrassed. We need to be mortified by how monotonous we’ve become.
Do we really want the future to remember us as a generation of obsessive compulsives who spent thirty days a year uploading selfies?
Where do we start? Anyone can tell you that brief detoxes and binge-and-purges diets don’t work. So here’s a novel idea, if we’re truly ready for the backlash to begin, let’s do something revolutionary! Let’s try a restaurant without reading what JimBo67 thinks about the tacos on Yelp. Let’s skip that important article “Who’s Cuter, Boo or Colonel Meow?” If someone forgets the name of an actor in some dumb movie, let’s just let it go. Let’s skip taking that old timey-looking Instagram pic of our navels. Let’s show up at a bar, alone, without a phone and talk to that girl or boy who approaches us, curious, because we’re not staring at a screen. Do you need to be on call 24/7? Sure—if you’re a brain surgeon at a veterans’ hospital. Guess what: you’re not.
Let’s sit in silence, cell phones turned off until we truly need them. Let the sadness hit you like a truck. On the other side, we’ll see what’s what. Who knows who you’ve actually become while you were desperately not paying attention?
Robert Lanham is the author of the beach-towel classic The Emerald Beach Trilogy, which includes the titles Pre-Coitus, Coitus, and Afterglow. More recent works include The Hipster Handbook and The Sinner's Guide to the Evangelical Right. He is the founder and editor of FREEwilliamsburg.com. Photo by Sascha Kohlmann.