Tuesday, May 21, 2024

My Precious (the Sequel): An iPhone Escape Plan

We're in big trouble, my fellow humanoids. We are leashed. 

Yeah, I'm talking about the phones again. But bear with me. I'm going to do something, myself, that you might find interesting or maybe even helpful. 

Smartphones were best described by a former boss of mine -- the principal of my old school -- who called them: "The electronic leash." A description could not be better. A leash keeps a dog from going where it wants. Sometimes, it chokes him. But maybe the worst part (if I were a dog) would be the constant awareness of it holding me back.

That's where I am with the phone, now. I only have one "fun" app on it: Instagram. I dropped Facebook from it years ago, though I still use Facebook on the computer -- the idea was to limit diversions, but that's basic stuff. Time-wasters are easy to eliminate. But what about just dodging the constant presence of the thing?

How weird is it to have an object that you feel needs to be at your side, literally, at all times? -- to carry it from room to room in your house? -- to panic-search your pockets if you leave home without it? I think we should also consider how obsessively connected to it we are as an element of our life, as if is some functionless medication or a kind of worship. I think the problem is worse than simply an addiction to games and social media.  

An example: my wife and I were watching a TV show called The Knick -- a show run by Steven Soderbergh about a hospital in the early 1900s. Every once in awhile, I'd pick up my phone and look up something. Did they do plastic surgery in 1900? Did they really use cocaine as a painkiller? Did they use silver sutures? Ok -- great. The phone can answer all of those questions and educate me in the process. This is a positive. The problem is, though, that I am being pulled out of the moment of the show. The experience of the evolving characters and story are being interrupted and diminished. See, I am not watching the show to learn about the history of medicine. I'm watching it because I love story and character and theme. 

It steals from life's moments -- whether TV shows, parties, trips -- with the promise of giving me something -- information in this case -- but the trade-off is not worth it. It's similar to the phenomenon of trading a video of a concert for the experience of it. 

The phone (pun intended) stitches together things that ought to be compartmentalized. I can look up that stuff later. I can read a book on the history of modern medicine. I can dive deeply into it instead of skimming the Internet for tidbits of info I will probably soon forget. 

My wife, Karen, used to write a blog and she once wrote about the phone being like Tolkien's Ring. If I remember, she wrote about it kind of light-heartedly because of how cool the phone was. (This was pretty early on in the smartphone era.) In the books, though, the Ring operates by exploiting the tendencies of the wearer and it turns those tendencies to evil. Gandalf, a powerful wizard, is all good. He has even been sent by the Valar (the gods, sort of) to be a protector of the world. But he denies the powerful magic Ring when it is offered to him because he knew he would "use [the] Ring from a desire to do good. But through [him] it would wield a power too great and terrible to imagine." In other words, it would warp his strengths and turn them toward evil. In my hands, for example, the phone is a temptation to my greatest desire: to learn. "Look at all the information!" it whispers, constantly. But, Faust-like, the powers it gives me most often turn to ideleness or even an extended rabbit-hole detatchment from the world of the now. In the hands of a sex-obsessed person? Obvious. In the hands of a sports fan? Constant stat-checking. In the hands of a conspiracy theorist? Confirming biases. The phone really is so much like the Ring, it is frightening. 

The phone is a drain of mental energies; a constant pull. If it is next to me on the arm of the couch, sure, I can ignore a text. But it is there, like a pimple on the brain. It keeps asserting its presence with buzzes and flashes. What I need to do -- what I would argue we all need to do -- is to be able to forget about it from time to time.

A quick note here is that, first of all, one has to escape the games and social media and the notifications. That has to be phase one and I think I have done pretty well with that. Now, onto phase two.

Here's what I am going to do. If you like it, try it. 

When I am at home, I am going to turn my phone volume up and leave the phone on a cabinet in my house's entryway. I'm going to go back in time. If it rings, I will get up to answer it. If I get a text, I will decide whether or not to answer it. I'll be sure to tell my mom and my sister and my sons that if they really need me in an emergency, they should call, because I might not answer texts right away. And if there is something important pending, I can keep the phone with me -- if it is really important. The idea is break the leash and flip things: make the phone heel.

Fact: I never thought about my wall phone when I was a kid unless it rang. It never leashed my attention or stole it from anyone or anything else. I'm not a golden-age thinker. But, our minds are too constantly bombarded with input now. There had to be something better about that. 

Imagine the difference in mindset not so long ago -- even before answering machines. If I was watching TV and the phone rang, I had a choice: answer and miss the show -- you couldn't pause or record it -- or ignore the call and just hope they would call back if it were important. Was that better? I think so. Many times I or a family member would say, "Ah, they'll call back." That, in retrospect, seems like such a divine level of freedom...

We'd never survive it with today's FOMO. But I believe in balance. It can't be good to be tied to the electronic leash. And, if a hot chick is calling for a date, and you don't answer -- man, her number will be right there. The stakes just are not that high. Is it worth carrying the phone burden 24 hours a day?

I'll let you know how it goes.  

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