It was Friday morning. As I stared at my white ceiling, I heard the familiar “marimba” jingle of my iPhone’s alarm coming from somewhere between my sheets. It seemed that I had fallen asleep with my phone in my hands.
In molecular biology classes, we learn that in order to learn the function of a gene in an organism’s system, we had to “knock out” the gene and see what changed. This is exactly what I decided to do. I ‘knocked out’ my cell phone from my life, and observed the change in my behavior. As I held down its power button and watched the screen fade to black, I felt a rush of panic. Here and now begins the fast. I would leave my phone off for one week.
In an experimental effort to fully consummate my departure from technological communication, I posted to my Facebook wall, “phone broken,” then logged myself out of Facebook for the week. By imprisoning myself in a version of the universe where all communication would have to happen solely in person, I hoped to immediately become a more enlightened person.
However, after just two hours, I realized that I was absolutely not mature enough to rationally deal with this pre-1990-technology flashback from hell. Every five minutes, I would compulsively type the letter ‘f’ into my computer search bar, only remind myself that I deemed Facebook forbidden. I would find myself fishing in my pocket for the smooth, brick-shaped device, so that I could rest my eyes on the splendor of LCD. I even felt a phantom vibration of my phone a few times. About eight hours after the initial separation, the withdrawal symptoms and anxiety began to dissipate. I began to tell my friends about my plan, which produced some confused, angry stares of disapproval. When I explained my fasting plan, they would look up at me from their phones and say, “Wow, that’s really impressive,” to which I would respond, “Is it, though?”
I began checking my email very frequently. Too frequently. Frequently enough to cause concern. I was only trying to emulate what my phone provided for me—an update of all correspondences every 15 minutes. Twenty-four hours into the separation, the emails started to arrive. One from my mother (subject line: “Are you ok?” email body: “Call us, we’re worried.”), one from my sister, a grad student here (subject line: “Lil!??!!”), and one long one from my high school friend, Bianca, who I hadn’t spoken to in what seemed like months. It turns out that she decided to email me out of the blue after seeing my post on Facebook.
Without a cell phone, I had to find alternatives. Alternatives to playing fruit ninja when on the toilet. Alternatives to flipping through old texts, while fishing for a familiar face in Terrace on a Saturday night. Alternatives to promptly Instagraming pictures of the stray cat in prospect garden. Alternatives to listening to Destiny’s Child while walking up the mountain from Frick. These alternatives took the form of a journal and spontaneous conversation. My journal, which usually received two sentences a month, gained about 14 pages in a week (mind you that 70% of these pages were just me being cranky about how I didn’t have a phone). I had more time to ruminate about thoughts (i.e. stray cats) in my mind/journal, instead of immediately sharing undigested anecdotes via texts and blogging applications. Instead of listening to Destiny’s Child, I began talking to vague acquaintances I came across between classes. I began learning more about myself, and the people surrounding me, instead of using my phone as a shield from awkward encounters.
Performing the technological equivalent of “falling off the face of the earth” paradoxically brought me closer to the face of the earth. By the third day, I started thinking about my social “contacts” as corporeal beings in physical places, instead of as abstractions represented by pixels and text. They were no longer accessible at my leisure. If I wanted to make a plan to see someone, I had to arrange it in advance, and faithfully stick with the plan. Thus, if I made plans, I had to really make sure I was on time. There wasn’t the possibility of a “sry 5 min late” text.
Making plans like these proved difficult, and the isolation was starting to affect me. To counter this, I decided to strategically plant myself in central locations on campus in order to run into people more often. I went to the dining halls during peak hours, and I would sit in Frist to do work. By overcompensating for my lack of virtual accessibility, I made myself more physically accessible.
By “knocking out” my cell phone, I soon began to discern the ultimate function of it; I used it for more than making plans and checking the time—I used it to escape awkward eye contact, to appear occupied when alone in a public place. It has become socially acceptable to be staring down at this object at any time, with anyone. Staring at any other object while walking between places would be considered a form of dementia.
The “knock out” experiment also revealed to me that my phone did more than just update me with my messages. It validated my very existence. Without a constant reminder that there is someone out there that ‘liked’ my photo I would feel imaginary and out of touch.
I realized that my constant need to check my phone was out of obligation. If a message was sent to me, there was an expectation that I would receive it immediately and respond. A failure to do so would result in rudeness or careless. A lack of virtual availability in this generation is perceived as equivalent to illiteracy. By having a cell phone, it’s as if we’re entering a contract—to be available and accessible at all hours of the day, which is a dangerous, dehumanizing burden. How did it come to this? When did carrying a cell phone become a duty, rather than a means of security?
This is a good time to reflect on the purpose of my very first cell phone. I grew up in Manhattan, uncomfortably close to the twin towers. Shortly after September 11th, our school was doing practice bomb drills and my dad bought an inflatable boat and walkie-talkies. In my bag he put three things: some strange pill that helps prevent radiation sickness, a gas mask, and a brick-like Motorola phone, just for emergencies. So in other words, I was simultaneously ‘that cool kid with the cell phone’ and ‘that really weird kid with the pills and a sick-person mask.’
This cell phone has evolved from a thing that makes calls, to a things that makes calls, texts, BBMs, provides email, shares pictures, has games, etc. It became a brilliant exploitation of our need to feel connected and constantly amused.
Facebook has congruently exploited our need for connectedness; its rise to popularity, as articulated by The Social Network, is due to its ability to take the “entire social experience of college and put it online.” However, we must realize that Facebook doesn’t provide us with social intimacy. It provides us with social information, and there is a very important distinction. While seeing a photo of Bianca (aforementioned high school friend who emailed me) may make me feel like I’m up-to-date with her, it is in fact just an emotional illusion. Thus, when I left Facebook, this illusion was broken; Bianca actually took it upon herself to contact me. Facebook is not a replacement (OR even a supplement) to relationships. It is a distraction. We are so desperately looking for human connection, but we’re looking for it in the wrong place. Human connection surrounds you in Frist and in the mob of strangers at Terrace, not in the “Mobile Uploads” album of someone you haven’t corresponded with in years.
It would be unfair of me to leave you with the impression that my enforced lack of Facebook and phone was solely an epiphany of the damages they do to society. While knocking them out did enable me to gauge the ‘function’ of my virtual presence, it caused quite a bit of collateral damage; it prevented me from receiving a call from my grandpa, it made me forget the birthday of my friend, and it prevented me from getting a text from my poor roommate, begging me to take her problem set with me on my way down to Frick. However, though cell phones do serve their purpose in allowing us to communicate plans, we should recognize that it is not something to be taken for granted. Is it even possible to carry around a device with access to a 4G network, and not be constantly gawking at it?
Life goes beyond what is selectively immortalized in pictures. Memories and impressions of people are better preserved when online personas aren’t imposed on you. If human beings evolved to be able to withstand being away from people for prolonged periods of time, and still maintain intimate social connections, then why do we feel so dependent on these devices? Why take your phone out in the dining hall, when you are sitting with people? Why check your Facebook during lecture, when you can easily just talk to the person sitting right next to you? Instagram the disgusting (but actually, really cute) stray cat you see, when you can go up and pet it (joking, don’t do that). Pixels will never replace the human eye.