I don’t have a smartphone. I am aware that this puts me in an ever-shrinking demographic (when I got my most recent phone, a model so simple that its most advanced feature is a slide-out keyboard, the person helping me called over two of her co-workers because none of them had seen it before), and there are certainly annoyances I put up with to maintain that status: When I’m heading somewhere unfamiliar I have to plan my journey out in advance. I always need to remind people that if they’re going to be late or they need to cancel plans they have to text me because I can’t get email. I spend a lot of time standing on line thinking about things instead of calming myself with crushable candy or whatever. (This is perhaps the hardest part of refusing to enter our mobile world; there is almost no one who needs protection from being alone with his thoughts more than I do.) And yet I persist, because I refuse to become a hostage to the web. I refuse to be always available. I refuse to forget that most of life is boredom and discomfort with no easy recourse to distraction.
I have no illusion that my refusals are in any way reflective of a growing movement against constant connection. If anything, it’s only going further the other way. For example: Do people in Silicon Valley ever turn off their phones? The answer seems to be an occasional, semi-braggy “yes, but only when I’m running marathons,” which is overshadowed by an overwhelming “no, not really, not by choice,” or, as one person actually put it, “We’re building a company for the long term and being offline is not an option.” “I do sleep with my phone under my pillow, though!” says a woman who prides herself on carving out two-to-four hours “away from device-enabled connectivity.”
I get it. I understand that once you have the technology it is almost impossible not to use it, even if you know it is ultimately bad for you. I am aware that making yourself constantly available — creating a world, in fact, where being unavailable is not an option — is a way to signal how busy and vital and valuable you are. If your self-esteem is completely wrapped up in the idea that “online” equals “working” and “working” is how you demonstrate your level of importance, the idea that you might miss an email is horrifying, because it robs you of your carefully-constructed concept of yourself as a dynamic, important part of the digital age.
And then there’s this: “I can come up with a long list of reasons why you should be a lot more worried about people who are on their phones than people who are off them. But culture is a weird thing. Sometimes we want to be pure and above it all, to be observational. Other times we want to fit in. At that moment, in that bar, anyone not looking at their phone was presumed to be a serial killer. So I took mine out of my pocket and looked at it, and everyone else chilled out.”
I realize that I am swimming against the tide of history here. But if I can ask a question that we may have overlooked in our rush to take advantage of everything that’s available to us in this new world, WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE? Not only are you normalizing psychotic behavior, you are stigmatizing basic human interaction. (And if you think that “psychotic behavior” is a tad harsh as a descriptor for smartphone usage you should Google up the symptoms of that condition the next time you wake up at 3 A.M. and reach for your device under your pillow.) You are trying to tell the rest of us that being gross in the way you are gross is actually admirable and something one should aspire to. You are encouraging the worst kind of narcissism and you are pretending that it is progress. You are pretending that it is acceptable.
Look, if you guys want to become glass-eyed scroll jockeys I am not going to stand in your way, but when you try to turn things around so that not being on your phone every second somehow makes you the freak then things have gone too far. I know you are reading this on your phone right now and shaking your head, but let me tell you something: YOU ARE THE REAL FREAK. Unless you are a doctor and a patient might die there is no more need for you to be available all the time than there is for a teenaged salesperson in a retail apparel store to walk around with a headset. That’s who you are, you hollow-faced tap-addict: You’re a Gap employee circa 1999. Put down your fucking phone.