The curse of smartphones and social media

Since my arrival in this land of plenty, I made the conscious decision not to make use of a mobile phone. Initially, this was down to sheer laziness – everything was so hectic the first week, I couldn’t be bothered with the hassle of locating a phone shop and setting up an American number, not to mention the additional strain it would add to my rapidly depleting bank account..

Point being, as time has worn on, I’m now just over three weeks into my adventure on the west coast, and I still haven’t felt a pressing need for a phone. I have never been much of a big phone user anyway, but admittedly I did invest in a second-hand iPhone 3G sometime last year, and its most useful function turned out to be Shazam – the app which identifies any piece of recorded music if you hold it close to the sound source. This phone, cracked screen and all, was then (predictably) stolen from my bag in a London club, ruining my plan to jailbreak it to allow for full use once in the States. Since there was no way I could afford a new one and I wasn’t insured, I gave up on technology for two weeks or so before reverting to my trusty old Nokia from days of yore. Ultimately, however, I have come to see this thievery as a blessing.

Here’s why. I have compiled a list of quite startling observations about myself, my peers and the world in general through the eyes of someone living without a mobile phone. In part my inspiration comes from someone very dear to me who insists upon not using a mobile phone, and therefore this deliberate cutting out of technology is as much for experimental purposes as it is for personal benefit. People’s reactions upon finding out they cannot instantly contact you range from plain confusion, sympathy even, and borderline hysteria. These are the main things I have noticed from my three-week experiment so far:

  • Reluctance to commit. On a few occasions now, my fellow Brit buddy and I have been heading somewhere (the beach; downtown) and have bumped into friends along the way who, upon hearing of our planned excursion, expressed initially zealous desire to join us. We described with precision where we would be and at what time. The big piece of driftwood by the lagoon. We’ll be the ones in our underwear because we don’t yet have bikinis. That’s right, jamming along to 90s pop classics. The bus stop in ten minutes actually; come with us right now if you like. But upon realising that they cannot send that vital confirmation text, interest dramatically wanes – you can literally observe the panic creep into their eyes, deadening any spark of impulsiveness. People physically retreat when they realise that this is a person which the iPhone they automatically whipped out CANNOT connect them to; with a sigh, the iPhone (that’s another thing – everyone has iPhones) is mournfully returned to its pocket. The thirst for instant gratification cannot be quenched this time.
  • People think you miss out on things. I have to assure my adorable, well-wishing friends IT’S OKAY that you couldn’t text me to say you were at dinner a little earlier than planned – I went down perfectly content with my music and met everyone in the usual haunt by the tea stand. If we miss each other, no biggie. If there’s something I cannot emphasise enough, it’s that doing things alone always results in making new acquaintances – something that doesn’t happen so much if you rely on the same group of people all the time.
  • Misunderstandings. People (mostly Americans, who are the most technologically-savvy of the bunch) do not, or cannot, understand that this is a conscious choice. They blink at me and sympathise, making the assumption that my phone must have broken; many have laughed in my face, wondering how I must be “coping”. They make helpful suggestions about cheap alternatives for EAP students. It’s lovely and amusing actually, but not once have I felt the urge to buy a mobile phone. In fact, observing my peers makes me more and more averse to the idea as the days go by.
  • People stick to plans! Those who have bravely agreed to meet the phoneless one at a designated spot on a specific day have been perfectly on time. No excuses are made to push it back twenty minutes or so, because most are far too polite to just stand me up. Even if you make attempts to contact me through other means, such as an email or Facebook message, I might not be near a computer. Hot damn. You actually gotta make that 1pm brunch and leave whatever distracted you for afterwards. But this is of mutual benefit : I follow the plan as well, because I don’t want to let anyone down after already inconveniencing them with my ‘elusiveness’. Better still for me, I can rarely be accused of being a flake, due to the fact that my verbal agreements are usually vague (unless I am really keen, in which case I make sure my plans are concrete), and this is now my primary method of communication. I am spared the accountability linked with written arrangements, and nobody can chase me up with text messages or batter me with phone calls demanding my presence at the event I half-heartedly agreed to attend. This has further enhanced the spontaneous lifestyle I wanted to adopt out here, allowing me to make on-the-spot decisions about what I will do each day, and to make time to wallow in selfhood if I wish – it’s teaching me a lot about how to just sit and listen and how to be in my own company – an idea I think many people in my generation genuinely struggle with.
  • The paradox of sociality. One of the most interesting people I’ve met here is a Mexican boy who doesn’t buy into the Twitter / Instagram monster which seems to have most students in its clutches. Quite literally, he thinks a smartphone is a waste of money. Of course, I have double standards, because here I am using Facebook and WordPress to broadcast myself, stay in touch with good friends; sharing photos and insecurities through the tangled net of the world wide web. But the question I return to is this: is it really necessary to be an active user on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram? and what the hell is Snapchat? Furthermore, is it necessary to be checking these respective accounts multiple times a minute? I’m not saying anything new here; many have had the foresight to recognise the dilapidating effect of virtual social media on real-life social interaction, especially at university. But still, most people my age succumb to it. And it’s worth highlighting just how few of my peers here are aware of the ball and chain they drag. I’m still not used to people shamelessly stopping mid-conversation to take a selfie, deciding the best time to post an Instagram photo is for maximum ‘likes’, or spending an evening dolling up with the purpose of getting one decent profile pic and then not even going out. It’s narcissism on a whole new level and is mind-boggling and sort of horrifying. I went to a film screening on my first Wednesday here – the first in a series of documentaries presented free of charge by the University to educate students on issues of living in a multicultural society. This particular film took a thought-provoking and emotive look at the problems resulting from harsh legislation attempting to improve Mexican border control; it’s called ‘The 800 Mile Wall’ (http://www.800milewall.org/watchatrailer.html). The girl sat just in front of me switched her phone to silent at the very last minute as the lights went down, and she barely lasted half an hour before it was back out again, glaring at me from the darkness like a dragon’s eye, blinking every time her fingers swiped the screen to see if anything had changed since her last check. This was when a shocking realisation hit me: she actually didn’t have the attention span to watch 90 minutes’ worth of film. Smartphones turn young adults into little children – fidgeting, clock-watching, waiting for – what? Life is what passes you by when you’re distracting yourself. Essential, pure, beautiful water rushes away while we’re too busy sifting through it for nuggets of gold. When did it become acceptable for four friends to sit in the same space, each tapping into a virtual world in their hands, not even making eye contact let alone conversation?

So if I continue to treat this as a pseudo-empirical experiment, it’s too early to draw hard conclusions. I can say thus far though that it both saddens and fascinates me to make these amateur observations. Ultimately, it only increases my conviction that I belong in an earlier decade; musically, socially, intellectually, I don’t feel naturally adapted to modern life. We live in a world where it’s normal to find constant distractions, where the life at the end of your fingertips parallels – or, horrifyingly, exceeds – the life of your body and mind. Many would argue that ditching social media is the way to go, and to just have your nearest and dearest available to contact via a mobile phone. I certainly know several people who have fiercely rejected Facebook, often on the legitimate grounds of wanting more privacy. I understand this entirely, but for me at least, the multi-functionality of Facebook outweighs its toxicity, especially as many of my friends are now dotted across the globe. And since I am not able to check it constantly on a mobile device, I feel I can use it as a useful means of contacting people without overdoing it. Further, unlike a mobile phone, Facebook allows room to take your time with getting back to people, especially since I installed a good add-on for Google Chrome which disables that idiotic ‘seen at [time]’ feature. I feel that it is too much of an invasion of privacy for my friends to know when I have supposedly ‘read’ their messages; similarly, I do not like to have to make up excuses as to why I didn’t answer a text: we shouldn’t have to justify our right to privacy. Maybe I just seem like I want to dodge responsibility – which is probably a partial truth – but I genuinely feel a sense of liberation at my new-found freedom, and would encourage others to try cutting out at least one aspect of their virtual social life. I do not dispute the usefulness of smartphones – what unnerves me is when virtual life takes priority over occurrences in real life at any given moment. And I am all too aware of how easily I too could be tempted back into that lobster pot.

I make these somewhat pompous, didactic comments not to preach my moral high ground, but as one who once indulged in the luxury of an iPhone, knew its addictiveness and rejected it (the fact that this was out of my hands and I didn’t replace it due to expense is now irrelevant I think, because my current mentality was borne out of a developed principle). But is there room for this principle? Every form you fill in, every ticket you buy, every official you contact requires a phone number; not having one certainly has its practical and administrative flaws, and is met with disbelief by those in authority. Anyone who resists the tsunami of technology sweeping the Western world will be undoubtedly left behind with the debris on the beach. I just hope that being selective about the services I take advantage of can last, at least for the time I am here.

 

In a way, the world-view of the Party imposed itself most successfully on people incapable of understanding it. They could be made to accept the most flagrant violations of reality, because they never fully grasped the enormity of what was demanded of them, and were not significantly interested in public events to notice what was happening. By lack of understanding they remained sane. They simply swallowed everything and what they swallowed did them no harm, because it left no residue behind, just as a grain of corn will pass undigested through the body of a bird.

  •   –1984, by George Orwell

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