A few weekends ago, I hiked a deep canyon with a couple of friends. As has become my habit, I toted my smart phone along. I set it to mute so that I’d remain undisturbed by pings and rings, and I pulled it out of my pack only to take a few photos.
After the hike, my friend drove us back to our carpool spot, and after changing out of my hiking shoes, I reached for my phone to call my husband. Except it wasn’t there. It wasn’t in the front pocket of my pack, or anywhere else I looked.
Panic. Was it in my friend’s car? Or had I dropped it somewhere in the canyon? I reached to call the friend, who was now five minutes down the road in the other direction, but — oh right. I’d have to call her when I got home. Wait, did I know her number? No, I did not. It’s programmed into my phone. I probably added it to my contacts via email, never once dialing it.
A sense of doom set in, as I thought about all the other information I’d offloaded from my brain to that shiny glass rectangle. But the despair was quickly followed by a sense of release. I was suddenly free from obligation. I couldn’t check messages. No one could reach me. I was untethered.
It was Saturday afternoon, and I decided not to think about the phone for the next 24 hours. It sounds simple, but I kept reaching for the phone out of instinct. Standing in line at the grocery store on my way home, I was shocked to realize how long it had been since I’d waited somewhere without occupying myself with messages and other reading material on my phone.
Back at home, I ran around the yard playing fetch with my dogs, and when one of them curled up, so cute, next to some blooming daffodils, my hand fumbled for my pocket, trying to grab the phone so I could share a photo with some friends. That feeling of grasping for the empty pocket seemed like a question to myself — can I enjoy this moment if I’m the only one experiencing it? The answer, for the record, was yes.
The impossibility of sharing with the rest of the world whatever moment I was experiencing here and now was a powerful reminder of how much more I take in when I’m not relying on technology to document what I’m seeing. As much as I love photography, sometimes composing a picture can turn what I’m seeing into a product instead of an experience. Without the possibility of documenting the things I saw, I found myself observing them more carefully. If I wanted memories, I’d have to store them in my brain, not in pixels.
As it turned out, my phone wasn’t lost. I’d left it in my friend’s car, and I retrieved it at our previously planned dinner a few days after the hike. It only took about 24 hours for me to stop feeling naked without my phone on my person, and I almost hesitated to take it back. I did, of course, but I vowed to make myself less reliant.
I kept my pledge for almost a week, but soon enough I was back to my old ways. I got another wake up call when, walking around New York City with my face pointed down at my iPhone, I inadvertently walked into a construction zone. “Hey — the walkway is over there!,” a guy in a hard hat shouted to me as he pointed to the sidewalk on the other side of the barrier I’d just overlooked as I walked and texted simultaneously.
Mortified, I put the phone away and decided to navigate the city without step-by-step instructions from my extra brain. I’d never had trouble navigating Manhattan before the smart phone, and it seemed dangerous to let myself become stupid now. Sure, I still referenced HopStop and Google maps, but I used these to orient myself, then put the phone away and headed to my destination without relying on turn-by-turn instructions. It required more attention to navigate this way, but I absorbed so much more of my surroundings. I never got lost and could find my way around by landmarks, which too often become lost when I rely on Hal to direct me.
Image by Shutterstock.