Before I went to bed last night I read an article in the New York Times about a convoy of people in the States who are eschewing Smartphones. It was written by a journalist named Teddy Wayne. And yes. Instead of I-phones or Blackberries or watchamacallits, Wayne reports that many folks he’s talked to recently have bought old-fashioned cell phones that do two simple things: make calls and receive them. And boy are these people happy about it.
For a long time the idea of an old-fashioned cell phone has been sounding like a big relief to me. Because for an even longer time I’ve been feeling way too tied to an endless stream of pretty unimportant emails that appear on my Smartphone. I read these emails while I’m walking the dog. I read them while the pasta is boiling. I read them while my kids do their homework.
Why do I read them? I can’t really answer that. Because none of these emails is ever that urgent. I mean sure, there are work-related book emails that come in and teaching emails that need answering, but I can get to those in due time when I’m at a desk and I’ve put aside the time to actually answer emails.
The sneaky thing that my Smartphones does is make me feel like every hour of every day is the absolutely most perfect time in the world to get my email. Except it’s not. It’s really time to make the red sauce. Or time to read Aidan a chapter from the Percy Jackson Series. Or time to throw a stick to the puppy.
So for months I’ve been feeling stuck—I’ve got this snazzy Smartphone, and I should probably use it. And I’ve also been feeling a little worried—what is this phone doing to my brain anyway? Why do I have this email compulsion?
Around 9 pm I got to the line in Wayne’s piece about how Smartphones create a false need to constantly check our online life. Wayne sites a writer named Nicholas Carr who wrote a book called The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. Carr says Smartphones are making us better at multi-tasking but hurting our ability to sustain focus. Yikes.
And I’d been feeling scattered. I’d been feeling like all my thoughts were light. This could just be me. I can sadly be very light. So maybe it’s not the Smartphone’s fault, but Carr says that because of these phones, all of us “stop having opportunities to be alone with our thoughts, something that used to come naturally.” Double yikes.
Then I read the part in the article where the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer says he noticed a dramatic change in his ability to focus on his writing after he ditched his Smartphone. I felt a tingly sensation in my arms. I knew I was going to have to throw my Smartphone away too. Or give it to someone. My husband, I decided. I’ll give it to Tony because he actually NEEDS a Smartphone, and I do not. He is the one talking to China all day and making elaborate business plans. I am sitting at a desk in the attic, writing a novel about a poetry lover in France.
Then I had a dream after I finished the article. It went like this: I drove my car to Boston from Portland, Maine and took the wrong exit on the Tobin Bridge and ended up on a car ferry to New Bedford. I don’t think there even is a car ferry to New Bedford, but I was sitting on a vinyl white couch in a compartment that was completely enclosed like a submarine without windows, or a high-speed European train. Jonathan Franzen was sitting next to me. We talked. He said he’d thrown his Smartphone away too, just like the other novelist named Jonathan with the last name I don’t know how to pronounce.
The fact that both the Jonathans had been strong enough to walk away from their Smartphones made me feel enormously hopeful in my dream. Then I woke up. Where was I? And where was my car? Why had I taken that exit to New Bedford? The sun came up. My mind cleared. I trotted downstairs to make my children pancakes. My Smartphone was sitting on its little stand on the kitchen counter waiting for me. Calling to me.
Neither of the Jonathans had told me how hard it would be to walk away from my Smartphone. I could tell now that it was going to be trickier than I thought. I have a compulsion after all. My Smartphone has messed with neurons in my brain. But I am a stubborn one. Once I put my mind to something I don’t stop til I get there, and now I want my brain back please.
(Photo credit: Robert Fludd, 1619, courtesy Wiki Commons)