Digital Distractions

When I tell people that I don't own a cell phone, I am usually met with one of two responses. More often than not, people say, "Wow, good for you." Otherwise, they ask, "How?" as if there's some kind of trick to it. 

To that, I explain that I get by a lot like people did fifteen or twenty years ago. In fact, about twelve years ago, I did have a flip phone, but I never used it, so it didn't make sense to keep paying for it. Then I lived in Moldova for a year, where cell phones weren't quite as common, and I had no discernable reason to own one, as I rarely called any local telephone numbers anyway. After that, I lived in Micronesia for a year, where there were no cell phone towers. Those two years living abroad were enough to remind me that I didn't actually need a mobile phone to get by. 

It's not like I'm anti-technology or anything. In fact, I'm actually quite adept at working on computers and have built several PCs from barebones components. However, when I came back to the US from Micronesia, one of the first things that I noticed was how everywhere I went, people were staring at their phones. I'd ride my bike through the campus of the university where I taught and earned my PhD, and I'd see undergraduates completely missing out on the world around them because their attention was focused entirely on their smart phones. From my perspective, this seemed like a sickness that affected just about everyone I saw.

When I'd go to restaurants or bars, I'd see people sitting around a table with their phones out, not talking to each other. In class, when I was teaching, every once in a while, I'd see a student who was very obviously looking at his or her phone under the desk, which was rather annoying. As for me, the only times that I wasn't at home, I was either teaching, in a class myself, out for a bike ride, or playing music. In any one of those scenarios, if I had a phone, it would have been shut off anyway, so there would have been little point in owning one in the first place.

I've read that the average American spends about six hours on their smart phones every day, and that's not including when it's being used for work-related functions. That, to me, is crazy... far crazier than not owning a smart phone. That said, since I do not own one, it's almost like I have an extra six hours in every day compared to most people. I generally try to use this time to write, make music, and do other things that involve creating, rather than consuming. This blog is just one example.

If you look at all that I have produced over the past ten years, you can really see how this "extra time" has helped me to amass a pretty substantial portfolio of creative and analytical work. Besides, if people need to reach me, they can call my internet-based landline number or send me an email. I am not so important that I need to be accessible 24/7, though, and I tend to think that social media is a kind of sickness in itself. I see how it warps people's view of each other and themselves, creating echo chambers that can validate just about anything, regardless of whether it's even true or not.

This isn't to say that I won't ever own a cell phone. If I had to be reachable for a specific job, then I would certainly make myself available in a way that does not inconvenience my colleagues. In other words, I would get a phone if I ever had to for work. However, since I've never truly needed one, and because I can see the damage that they do to the interpersonal relationships that form the basis of our society, for the time being, I choose not to own a smart phone, as I think that in many ways, I'm better off without one.

On a side note, one of the many negative side effects that I've noticed with the prevalence of smart phones is that people seem less inclined to memorize things. For this reason, I made a point to give pop quizzes in the Film History class that I taught, as this is a skill that I think students should have, even if they do have virtually limitless information at their fingertips at all times. Besides, Film History is largely about understanding the connections between a series of facts, so it's kind of important to know all of the pertinent information.

Personally, I also prefer to use an old school paper road atlas when driving, as Google maps and other such services don't factor in common sense when providing directions. Furthermore, I think that the ability to memorize facts and figures is a handy skill to have, even if it seems like I only ever use it when playing trivia or teaching.

Update: I finally got a phone, mostly so that I can text with my two teenage kids. Other than that, it spends most of its time charging. 

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