Friday, April 01, 2016

I am not alone. "I don't have a cellphone. You probably don't need one, either."

Via Vox: "But recently people have started asking me a different question — not why, but how do I live without a phone? It's as if they've met a monk or a child, lost and wandering in the big city. How do I find my way? What about my job, my wife, our 3-year-old daughter, Hazel? 

Smartphones, it seems, have gone from accessories to necessities, from sunglasses to shoes. Only monks leave home without them. And, as with monks and children, people are romanticizing my phone-free life. I wish I could do that, says one of my students. Good for you, says the incredulous restaurant host. This is bizarre to me, since I experience my own life as perfectly normal — hassle-free, fully modern, and no more virtuous than anyone else's. There are moments that throw my choice into sharp relief, but not the emergencies or inconveniences that people imagine. Rather, the airplane pilot makes an announcement, the subway doors open, and poof! — all around me smartphones bloom in perfect unison, a fleeting garden in which I am oddly barren. 

 Then the moment passes, and my decidedly un-monkish day resumes as professor, journalist, husband, father. I check email regularly at home and at work, meet people in agreed-upon locations at scheduled times, pick up my daughter from school, ask my wife about her day during dinner, watch Game of Thrones on Amazon, play a video game, scroll through Twitter. I catch planes without a hitch, get picked up when I arrive no problem, conduct interviews on Skype or my office line. means that for an average person like me, a phone is far from indispensable, even in situations that appear to demand one. I'm rarely lost, for instance, and never for long. I look up directions at home and memorize them or write them down. Occasionally I ask strangers to guide me. On long road trips I use a dedicated Garmin, which I would need even if I had a cellphone, in areas that don't get a good signal. Then there's texting, which is not a way I communicate. I'll admit this inconveniences members of my morning running group who have to email me separately with updates. (The genius of smartphones is how they magnify such tiny inconveniences into massive setbacks.) But overall I'm not impressed with texting's efficiency. 

Instead of going back and forth countless times to work out a location and a time to meet, I prefer a short phone call, made ahead of time, live. There are those, I know, who prefer texting to talking. That's fine, as long as everyone remains aware that texting, like owning a phone, is a preference, not an objectively better way to communicate. The same is true for those who say that texting allows them to stay in touch. I prefer to hear my wife's thoughts and experiences in person, not piecemeal, in texts, during the day. (Bonus: People can't text me to say they're running late, and I can't text them either, which I find makes for timelier meetings.)

...Perhaps the most common reason people give for having a phone is safety. But here, too, I'm confused. If safety is really a concern, why do nearly half of all Americans text and drive? Personally I feel safer without a blinking, buzzing distraction. And others are safer too, since distracted driving kills more than 3,000 people per year and injures 400,000 more. (Texting is apparently the worst, but using phones to navigate is also a risk.) For the vast majority of us there is no empirical foundation to the idea of phones as essential to our security.  That myth depends on something psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky call the "availability heuristic."  Our minds focus on unusual, dramatic possibilities: the broken-down car on a dark and lonely highway; a health emergency where immediate contact is essential. But in reality those scenarios are extremely rare — rarer, no doubt, than accidents while texting or muggers preying on distracted phone users. Focusing on them leads to biased assessment of risk, which, in turn, contributes to a biased assessment of smartphones' utility. 

I'm convinced that the necessity and advantageousness of phones is an illusion And of course, let's not forget that despite the perks, phones have serious downsides. At least, that's what I gather from the explosion of concern about their use, more often than not from owners themselves. Popular phone addiction apps now allow you to check your phone to see whether you check your phone too much. There are nearly as many phone detoxes as juice cleanses. 

Experts have even coined a term for phone separation anxiety — nomophobia — and some propose including it in the DSM. That's hardly surprising: The 68 percent of Americans who own smartphones (up a staggering 33 percent over only five years) check them an average of 221 times daily. My friends confirm the existence of nomophobia. Some of it, they say, comes from the thought of facing big fears — criminals and car breakdowns — without a phone. But I've also been told about subtler anxieties, over "wasted" events that might go unphotographed, uncommunicated, unquantified, as if reality depended on digitization. There's even a pathological aversion to plain old boredom. What if a few minutes waiting for a friend becomes insufferably dull? As one person put it to me: "I mostly use my phone to avoid being alone with my thoughts.""

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