I WAS RUNNING LATE that Monday morning. So late in fact that I when I did manage to make it out of my White Bay apartment I didn’t so much walk out of the building as evacuate it in a state of dishevelled panic. Fortunately, I didn’t miss my bus.
After assuming my usual seat and regaining composure, I did what I always do: I reached for the phone in the side-pocket of my sports jacket. But it wasn’t there. I checked the other pockets. Nothing. I kneaded the pockets of my coffee-coloured chinos, and again, blank. I anxiously turned my attention to the blue North Face backpack I was carrying, prodding and poking what seemed to be an infinite number of zippers and compartments. It wasn’t there either.
I must have been causing quite a commotion because fellow passengers seated nearby raised their heads from the soft glow of their mobile phones and tablets and were studying me curiously. Feeling quite dejected I let out a muffled sigh and slumped back into the Sydney bus seat with resignation, chiding myself under my breath. In the mad flurry of leaving home this morning I had forgotten my iPhone.
An hour or so later I hopped off the bus at my usual stop and scanned the surrounding streets. Everywhere I turned there were people huddled in clusters each holding what appeared to be a rectangular shaped shiny metal thing that emitted glowing lights, beeps, melodies and distant voices. A thing of sublime beauty entered into my immediate focus in the shape of a very pretty Chinese girl.
The Jimmy Choo shoes she was wearing seemed firmly rooted in the ground she was standing upon. Her expression was intense and involved. The world was swirling all around her, but she didn’t seem to notice or care much for it. She was completely immersed in her phone. ‘How rude would the shock be,’ I thought, ‘if someone were to inadvertently collide with her at this very moment?’
I was overcome with chivalric impulse and felt compelled to cross the street and somehow warn her of an impending collision. But this feeling was overcome by the sobering realisation that there were literally hundreds of other bodies in the street acting in a similar manner to her.
Suddenly, a loud screech filled the morning air and everyone abruptly raised their heads in unison toward the source of the unexpected disturbance. A young man had almost been run over by a speeding car. It seems he had walked straight into its murderous path while looking down at his phone, unaware that he has crossed the safety threshold of the footpath into the abyss of a carriage way.
Barely a moment had passed that onlookers reassumed the same blasé disposition toward the outside world. And then it dawned upon me. I was the only person on the street without a phone. That’s about the time my panic took hold.
I nervously scanned the horizon for the once conspicuous public telephone box, a familiar street fixture in my teens and twenties, but I couldn’t see any. What was I thinking anyway? Was I going to call someone and tell them I left my phone at home? Call who? I hadn’t carried a personal phone book since the 1990s. The only number I remembered by heart was my childhood home phone, long since reallocated to an entity unknown.
‘What if someone is trying to contact me? Am I supposed to be at a meeting? What’s the weather forecast today? My email? Has someone tried to email or text me? Am I supposed to pay a bill today? What about my date after work? We haven’t even agreed on a time and venue yet!’ As the questions begun to pile up my anxiety levels increased in dangerous increments, until my breathing became shallow and my brow drenched in perspiration
I quickly hurried toward the office, all my energies concentrated on logging onto my computer so I could access the so called cloud to retrieve my contacts and let folks know I was off-line. As my pc was booting, I decided that I would just update everyone via the desktop version of Facebook and use messenger to communicate privately. Problem solved! Or so I thought.
With a sigh of relief, I entered my password credentials into the Facebook log-in portal. And then the colour drained from my face. Facebook was prompting me for a code generated password I could only retrieve on my iPhone or iPad (at this point I should mention I forgot both devices that day – an unprecedented bout of forgetfulness!).
And so there it was. There was no going on-line again until later that evening. I would have to accept that I was not going be privy to the world’s goings on for a whole day. Nor would I be able to indulge myself in tweeting, Facebook posts, Instagram pics and all the liking and responding-to that this social media activity seductively solicits.
I did manage to email a friend to let him know I was off-line until such and such time, and phoned my daughter’s mother and left a landline office number in the event of an emergency. I also dialled into my mobile voicemail and checked for messages – but there were none. No one I know really calls me anymore, nor I them.
As I gradually settled down to work, I begun to notice myself carrying out peculiar repetitive movements that I hadn’t been conscious of before. As if suffering from Tourette’s syndrome, I turned my head to my right side every couple of minutes to view my phone’s notifications. I tapped my breast pocket at regular intervals and reached for my phone repeatedly, only to find that in each instance there was an empty void.
I caught myself executing these involuntary actions throughout the working day, seemingly betraying little control over simple and complex motor skills. At first I found this mildly amusing. But as the day wore on I came to regard these habitual behaviours as a disturbing sign that I had developed a physical dependency on my iPhone.
This obsessive compulsive behaviour has made me question how much mobile phones have affected our ability to interact with eachother in face to face situations. We have become quite sophisticated at incorporating personal devices into our everyday life. But I wonder what the social costs are for homo mobilis, being, as we are, attentive to the dynamics of an on-line world while our bodies remain firmly rooted in an inescapably off-line world?
The case of the guy who was nearly squished by a car because he was sleep walking while operating his phone is an obvious example. Or taking a sneak peek at a text message in the presence of a friend or colleague is not the kind of behaviour one would expect to find rewarded in a revised edition of Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.
Some years ago I had the good fortune of tutoring second year students in a course called the Sociology of Media. I vividly remember the difficulty that we all had trying to figure out the meaning behind Marshall McLuhan’s abstract assertion that new communication technologies represented extensions of man.
If McLuhan was being literal, did he mean that we physically become the technology we use? Or did he mean rather that our imaginations become enlarged, or potentially limitless, by overcoming physical barriers in hearing and seeing through the magical wonder of electronic communication? I think he meant the latter. But personal communication technologies such as the iPhone have also become physical extensions of ourselves.
Today I felt like an amputee, waving my hand through a void previously occupied by a body part no longer there. This experience proved unsettling and was a catalyst in my writing this story.
By the time I boarded the bus for home, I had given up worrying about my off-line status. I read George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia uninterruptedly for the duration of my 60-minute journey – a first for a long while. Usually, I would have only read a few pages before retreating to the cornucopia of distractions the iPhone had to offer.
When I got off the bus I took in all the sounds, sights and smells around me in a way that I had not done so for ages. I was alive as ever to the foot traffic in front of and behind me. I did not glance down while walking along the footpath, and made eye contact with people whom I would otherwise not have noticed.
I have to confess though, that as I approached my apartment my heart rate elevated in anticipation of taking possession of my phone after a 12-hour hiatus. I ran up the flight of stairs and burst into my apartment making straight for my bedroom where the phone lay prostate on the bedside table. ‘What have I missed?’ ‘What have I missed?’ I repeated to myself in suspense.
There were several unanswered text messages. I had forfeited my dinner date. The day’s social media activity had run its course without me. And today’s news was relegated to yesterday’s news. I felt a melancholy sense of having missed out. Of being excluded. Of having wilfully or otherwise acted anti-socially. ‘But the night is still young’ I reassured myself. I would eventually catch up – and catch up I did!
If, dear reader, you have persevered with the story up to this point, you will have probably reached the conclusion that I am writing about a first-world problem. First world or not though, it is still a problem. Leaving my phone at home has made me appreciate just how much I have come to rely on it to manage everyday life.
I use it to catch a bus, to do my banking, to tell the time, to be punctual at meetings, to check and respond to email, to communicate with friends and family, to glean the latest news and weather, to look up the meaning of words, to shop, to listen to music, to read, to write, to take photographs, to use it as a social prop when I’m alone at a party and feeling self-conscious, or to simply pass the time.
Without my personal device it surprises me to admit that I feel quite lost and disconnected, because in the year 2016 for better of for worse it is the hub, the nexus through which I interact with the world around me economically, socially, politically and culturally.
Not being ‘mobile’ was a personally unsettling experience both mentally and physically. But it was also liberating. Though it took a bit of getting used to, I re-learnt how to just be without touching and fidgeting every few seconds, to engage with my surrounding environment and be alert to what is happening in the moment.
That said, I don’t plan to repeat this experiment. However, what this experience has taught me is that there is no need to check one’s phone or tablet incessantly and respond to every ding-ding that it makes, even if doing so is a welcome distraction from the mundane present.
What follows are my Ten Commandments for personal device use. It is more than likely that I will break all of these rules and not infrequently. But they have been reduced into writing to serve as a personal reminder of model behaviour to strive for in the age of electronic mobility.
Thou shall not:
- Look at my personal device while walking
- Operate my personal device to the exclusion of present others
- Excessively check my personal device for updates and notifications
- Speak on my personal device when travelling on public transport
- Disturb the peace and quiet of others with loud music, ring tones and notifications
- Employ the use of my personal device while operating a vehicle
- Be distracted by my personal device from focussing on the task at hand
- Carry my personal device in my hand
- Use my personal device to entertain or distract a minor
- Take my personal device into bed