Phantom cell phone syndrome

phantomphoneI left my phone at home two days in a row last week: One morning, I completely forgot it on the bathroom counter, with the power cord curled up next to it. The next day, it sat patiently waiting for me on a chair in the living room. Where will I leave it next?

The first day, I felt naked for several hours. As if I had a phantom limb that needed to be scratched, I kept feeling the urge to reach for the phone: to check email, read the news, look up the weather forecast, check the bus schedule, make notes in my calendar or text message a friend. I would be waiting for the bus, or for a lecture to begin, and have the urge to reach for the phone.  Any moment I had nothing to do, I wanted to reach for my phone.

Without my phone, I had to pay attention to my surroundings: to the blossoms on the trees as I sat outside waiting for my next scheduled event, to the people walking by, to the students sitting around me. I watched how many people were plugged in on the bus — I even managed to interact with one young man before he plugged in, to ask about the arrival time for the next bus. As he hit play to listen to his music, I thought about how people plug in to avoid each other. What a relief it is to not have to listen to the horrible music on the bus, or to have to interact with some stranger spewing strange ideas.

I thought about having lunch with a colleague the other day: As I came back from the bathroom, her focus was completely concentrated on her phone as she checked Facebook.  She looked up for a moment and tried to talk to me, but soon enough was distracted by her phone again, deep in status posts.

I myself had that problem the other morning — I allowed Twitter posts to take over my phone, opening tab after tab of interesting links I wanted to read. A friend joked about how I had to “read all the Internet” before I turned away from the phone and the app. The ludicrousness of that made me laugh, but I cannot deny that urge: I want to know what’s happening, I need to know the headlines and what my friends and my community and the rest of the Internet are talking about. But I certainly cannot track everything.

So what did I really miss? I was delinquent in playing a few hands on the word games I have going with friends and family. I had to trust a stranger as to the arrival of my bus ride home (and simply zoned out while waiting for said bus). I didn’t read several articles I meant to read while in transit (and might instead have paid more attention to them when I read them later at home on a computer screen instead of on my tiny phone screen). I thought I might miss a phone call and some key emails, but in the end, it didn’t matter that I was a few hours late to check messages, and the phone call got delayed.

How does extreme connectedness (and hence disconnectedness) affect us? So many words have been digitized to address this question: how Facebook depresses us because of the relentless packaging and posturing of people’s lives, how overwhelming the flood of negative news online can be, or the escapist possibilities of being able to tune out and play silly “wall-building” games while avoiding each other on the subway. Is the Internet addictive? Well, yes. But as some writers have already noted, it’s part of our lives. Like all tools, our phones (and the digital existences they facilitate) are both good and bad.

I would also posit (as others have) that it’s good to go without your phone now and again, intentionally or not. It’s certainly enlightening. And even if you hate it, at least you will have that rush of hormones that make you feel happy when you finally have your device in your hands once again.

I cannot tell you how relieved I was to see my phone on the bathroom counter when I came home that first day without it — not only to know that I hadn’t lost an expensive piece of equipment, but to be in touch with friends, family, news, the world once again with the touch of a finger. I am contemplating if I might actually schedule those kinds of forgotten-phone moments again.

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