By Sara Schulwolf ’17
Volume Volume XXXVII, Issue 2, April 4, 2014
Existence as I knew it ended Saturday, March 16th at approximately 3 PM. In an instant of Huxley-esque technological revenge, my laptop tumbled from my hands on a crash course towards my iPhone. Too late to divert the trajectory, I watched as my iPhone screen shattered with a sickening crunch of glass. In that moment, my (virtual) life flashed before my eyes. Perhaps it’s not too late, I thought as I cradled the wounded device. Blending a mother’s gentle touch and a surgeon’s precision, I pressed the center button in earnest, slid my thumb across the fractured surface, testing for vitals. Things seemed promising at first: the familiar image of my dog appeared, illuminated on the screen; apps opened and closed as normal. But hope quickly faded. As the week progressed, ominous blotches invaded the display, engulfing the bright background in blackness. By Wednesday, the LED finally surrendered and the screen went permanently dark.
Panic. Utter panic. Emails, group messages, Instagram, Snapchat—my every tether to society—were obliterated in an instant. There I was, on a college campus in (as my coach lovingly calls it) “Bumblefuck, Massachusetts,” surrounded by people yet completely isolated. And after several frustrating calls trying to file an insurance claim on a borrowed phone, I learned that my replacement phone wouldn’t arrive until the following Tuesday. At the earliest.
I was faced with a week of phonelessness—the ultimate challenge to the 2014 woman who’d scarcely parted with a mobile device since 2009.
The first few days were the hardest, as I reverted to Paleolithic survival tactics. I’d stumble out of bed as the sun rose, disoriented and uninformed about any hypothetical breakfast plans. In order to contact other people, I was forced to revert to primitive forms of communication such as Facebook chat, hand-written invitations, e-mail, and carrier pigeon. Locating a friend became a stakeout rivaling the likes of Scooby Doo and the gang, in which I scoured the campus for clues of his or her whereabouts. And upon finally locating said friend, I’d be met with a barrage of frantic inquiries as to why I hadn’t returned their call/text/snapchat/tweet/Instagram tag. Explaining for the 87th time that my phone had gone on to greener pastures, I could see only pity-filled gazes for the distraught social pariah. It felt as though I’d lost a limb, had some vital organ removed from my system. There was an ache in my empty pocket where it usually rested, a lingering emptiness from cutting the technological umbilical cord. Like many other amputees, I began to experience “phantom pains” from where my mobile limb had been removed. Fictional alarms jarred me from slumber; my pockets shook with imaginary vibrations. Repressed text messages flowed from mind to digits, as my thumbs adopted a permanent twitch from inscribing phrases onto a fantasy keyboard. It was questionable whether I would last the week, or surrender myself to the life of a recluse. And if I didn’t make it, how could a search party pinpoint my location without Find Your Friends?
As days passed, I adjusted and began to discover the perks of life lived sans-iPhone. Gone was the guilt of unanswered text messages, the woes of waiting for responses to requests, the time spent proofreading and revising a simple salutation. No longer able to hide behind emojis and ambiguous punctuation, I found myself forced to verbally articulate my feelings, in person, to other individuals. When I stopped checking Instagram/Snapchat/Twitter/Facebook/Zoo story every other minute, I discovered that I had more time for other pursuits. Sure, it was still inconvenient to traverse the campus in search of someone rather than place a call, and annoying to converse with my parents via email. But it gave life a renewed simplicity: I’d make plans and conversation out of intent and necessity rather than convenience, and could enjoy blissful solitude, removed from companions both physical and virtual.
It was during this adjustment period I began to realize the ramifications of my electronic umbilical cord. Rather than actually experiencing the world, I had been viewing life through the lens of technology, inputting sensory stimuli as my iPhone would process it. I’d observe a gorgeous sunset over the Connecticut River (a perk of afternoon rowing) and construct a mental instagram, filtering the image to enhance color contrast, composing an appropriate caption and debating which hashtags would maximize “likeage.” Quippy remarks festered in my head without access to twitter. Instead of reveling in humorous moments, I’d lament the missed snapchat opportunities, apologizing internally to the all the friends to whom I’d denied three to nine seconds of amusement. The iPhone had been my crutch for dispelling boredom with reality and a paradigm for organizing thoughts and actions, all suggesting a frightening level of dependence upon the contraption. It called to mind the old philosophical question of whether or not a tree falling in an isolated forest makes a sound upon impact. Did not texting my friends with minute-by-minute personal updates render them irrelevant? Were my thoughts negated through lack of twitter publication? If I didn’t instagram my breakfast, did I really eat it at all?
Don’t get me wrong—I appreciate the benefits that technology provides to mankind, encourage innovation and further invention. I’ll be ecstatic to receive my new iPhone in but a few short days, and will likely both tweet about it and instagram a memorial to the late Betsy Ross (what I’d named my old phone given its tendency to autocorrect an unusual amount of words to “USA”). But a mealtime experience a few days into phonelessness epitomizes the root of my concern. At a table packed with my energetic, talkative friends, there were times when I felt as though I was the only person present, the rest lost within an alternate, onscreen universe. I’ve started to ponder the point at which technology turns from aid to parasite, to wonder if (gasp) my parents were right in their accusations about the perils of excessive screen time. There’s no need for concern as long as the distinction between iPhone and self remains clear. For those of you in which the classification has started to blur, I’d recommend a few days unplugged. I can verify that a few days without a phone won’t, in fact, kill you. It might even recharge your battery.