Do you ever tremble when you have an existential realisation? For instance, that a step backwards after making a wrong turn, is actually a step in the right direction? Or that we are who we are, and changing that isn’t easy? Whether you’ve had to take a moment there to think or not, those profound realisations aren’t why I’m writing this. You see, right now I actually tremble over another thought:
That smartphones are facilitating a world where time to yourself is harder to come by than its ever been.
It’s something I’ve thought about a lot. And by thinking, I’ve realised I don’t just tremble. I’m irked by it.
The world inside of our phones is one of ridiculous connectivity. It’s a world where productivity disappears. Social media. WhatsApp. iMessage. Email. I quiver. All of it’s a wormhole. But for what, exactly? We’re constantly connected but why? And hold up — the experts tell me these devices weren’t originally conceived to distract? I’m asking myself these questions in tangents, thinking: Am I crazy? Or is it my damn phone that’s driving me crazy?
So I did what any man should do when he’s being driven mad. Wondering where the root of the problem lies and setting about on a journey to fix it. The focal question was simply whether or not I could remain connected without being so constantly.
But first, a disclaimer: Those who know me, know me. But they are not in my head. No human being can really get into the head of another. Lovers and shrinks alike have tried, but the mind changes often. Personas shift daily, and sometimes (I’m told) with the moon and the stars. My thought process may therefore seem wild to you — the reader — so in this particular case I’ve tamed it.
Before embarking on my experiment of choice, I pulled out my smartphone. I took a look at it. Be rational Sam. So I thought of the past. The distant past. The past that always exists and yet never will again. This is pre-iPhone. Pre-android. Feeling brave, I checked out my daily screen time. It shocked me. After a day or so I felt better and braver. I turned off all my push notifications. That was a hard step. But I figured it’d reduce screen time (it did). And then, some weeks later? Well I hid my phone in a drawer. I wished to see how long I could pretend it wasn’t real. And meanwhile right now, with my device locked away for twelve hours, I reflect as follows.
Do you remember much of your life? I remember boyhood summer holidays. I remember a lot of my life actually. But it’s the fleeting English summers that I’ll dwell upon now.
Perhaps I was age seven, or maybe age eleven — in either case a kid — and I’d spend the warm days playing outdoors with my neighbourhood friends. Ensconced in velcro sneakers, wearing striped tee shirts or garish denim, we’d grab our bicycles and spend hours out riding. This wasn’t like some coming of age story. We were all innocent and the mean kids didn’t bother us. We lived in the country but it was the lovely country. There were no electronic distractions. The air we breathed was pure and bliss.
I always left home via the rear gate. I’d blow Mum a kiss and she’d peek out from behind the newspaper, the sun sunning her and she reminding me to wear my helmet in the annoyingly nice way that only Mothers can. I’d begrudgingly oblige of course, then heading into a local world of adventure. During this time, mobile telephones were far from commonplace. You’ll probably recall this too. Mum didn’t have one. Dad might’ve, but it was only for work. A total novelty. And it looked like a plastic brick with an antennae.
The internet was an infant too in those days, and we were yet unaware of its potential. I certainly didn’t carry its power in my pocket. Instead, the PC was our gateway, but it mainly served as mine and Dad’s evening entertainment. We’d play games and speed away from the police on Driver. Sometimes I’d watch my sister play The Sims and probably think that this was the pinnacle of technology. We simply had fun together. You didn’t login to send an email or check out if your crypto was gaining in value. We just weren’t connected then like we are today. We were present in the moments where we were actually there, and the connections were therefore far more meaningful.
Whenever I got home from those days out as a kid, I’d sit on the step of the back door, pondering whatever it is that children ponder. I’d watch the dust that powdered my legs turn brown as the sweat dropped from my knees. Up to that point in my life the concept of constant connection had never existed. One occupied oneself with wonder. Not onerous peering downward toward one’s smartphone. But perhaps I’m just being too wistful about childhood. Though, sitting here now with my phone in a drawer and my mind typing this, I realise that I’m not. I’m occupying myself with wonder right now. I’m a wizard and these words are my magic. It might not be good magic but it’s magic alright.
Thinking about life again, the feeling is that I’ve been in a state of perpetual connection since at least age-twenty. When you think about your life, when do you think your world of constant connection began? Social media being a part of the daily play. Group chats that ping with every waking hour. Tik bloody Tok. I could tell you now about all the other writers who languish over this. They like me must’ve gone crazy. They like me locked their phone in a damn drawer. Maybe it’s the fault of the artist? The artist who searches for flaws in insignificant things? Maybe it’s to do with the human condition. How we’re all so fond of the way that things used to be. When we weren’t all connected. I mean, it was a simpler time, wasn’t it? Is this why I’m crazy?
And then the twelve hours ends and I pick up my telephone — an iPhone XR — and I’m immediately aware of its weight and size. I look at it. You’re quite pretty you know. And then I put it down.
“You’re killing me,” I tell it. But it doesn’t respond.
“YOU’RE KILLING ME” — I scream — “You’re killing my motivation! You’re killing my creativity! You’re killing who I am!”
And then the gentle flash of a simple text message:
Hello son, how are you today? Just thinking of you xxx
And my madness ceases. Deep breath.
We are all seamlessly connected. We all know that. It’s the internet that facilitates this seamless world. Our phones carry its weight, and we carry them. It’s in your pocket. It’s in your handbag. It’s in your hand when you’re on the loo (don’t lie because I know it is). But it can be a mighty weight, and sometimes it’s too much.
I go back to my past once more. Climbing Mt Kilimanjaro, for eight days I endured no signal and no internet. My telephone was useless. I didn’t use it. On the summit day, I experienced one of the greatest days of my existence. There I was a god. I’ve never beamed like I beamed sitting next to that summit sign in minus twenty-three celsius with frozen hair and the world beneath me. I had no urge to inform social media of my escapade. I knew I could ring Mum in a day or so. I knew I could make Dad proud without texting him immediately. I knew my friends believed that I would make it. We are connected to the people most important to us because we tend to love each other. Smartphones aren’t love devices. All they do is facilitate loose connections that feel real. Sure, they can be authentic, but the need to have a phone nearby constantly is something that I am learning, isn’t necessary.
Now. If you would like to have an existential crisis of your own, please feel free to lock your device away for twelve hours a day and let me know how it benefits you. I did this for one week, and while my ramblings may seem mad, I assure you that my productivity is through the roof, social media use is down, and my mood is even brighter than usual. Most remarkable of all is my total indifference to whether or not I have any notifications. They will remain off. I cannot recommend this feeling of freedom highly enough.
Samuel Hodges, London, May 2021.