The Friday before Fourth of July week, I am in the city, with no particular plans, and no technology to assist me with my own life. I recently gave up my smartphone, and have been seeing what life is like without it.
What’s most interesting about this experiment (almost three weeks now) is how much I’ve learned from the experience of absence. We usually seek improvement on the assumption whatever we have is deficient, not that it’s too much. Our first instinct is towards abundance, rather than reduction. Aside from our cultural obsession with efficiency, we rarely consider elimination as a path to improvement. Why is this?
Living without a smartphone has been like entering another communication class. I’ve dropped outside of the tools, patterns, and expectations now common in my peer group: A friend of mine is several hours late to visit, I finally call her, slightly worried, and she says: I’ve been in terrible traffic, didn’t you get my texts? I miss my train, and now will be home several hours later than I planned. I want to let Brendan know this, but have no phone to call him. I find a payphone (a payphone!), which I think is a delightful novelty. Even more amazing, I have quarters with me. As I dial, I realize I know exactly three phone numbers, four if you count my childhood number for a house now inhabited by people I don’t know. Without technology to store, query, and display on demand, I have to be responsible for details of my life that I had become transparent to me. I have to remember more things, like what time the train leaves, and to check my watch.
All that pocketed availability, kept me slightly separate, slightly suspended from my physical, present, reality. The divide is so subtle, I could only see it once it wasn’t in front of me any more. As our technology gets more luscious – more vivid, more social, more soothing – we soften into it. As it becomes more ubiquitous, we forget what life was like without it – we forget that there even is a “without it”.
So I’m in town, and I decide to stop by the Pearson offices where I used to work and still have some friends, one or more of whom, I am hoping to coax into having some fun with me. I suddenly remember that the building is “secure” – the lobby will have a clerk, watching for the swipe of a digital key card. I do not have a digital key card. I do not have an appointment. I do not have a phone to call, or email, or text my friends, and circumvent the system. It occurs to me for the first time, that all that security isn’t to keep dangerous people out, it’s to keep non-dangerous people in. Digital bleeds both ways. It’s a seeping, creeping, invisible gas that wafts between the bricks and glass, and puts us back in touch with the people we willing lock ourselves away from, nearly every day of the week. It’s a tugging, hugging vacuum that bends us away from the people right in front of us who want and deserve our attention. In a meeting, on walk, out for drinks, in the kitchen, on the road, at the playground.
I meander through Boston common and the public garden. I consider trying to sneak in, verses following the rules. I decide to follow the rules because I think that will actually be a lot more interesting than gliding by. I’m giddy by the time I arrive. There’s a man at the desk in the lobby.
I’m here to visit someone at Pearson. I don’t have an appointment, so I’m hoping you can help me get in touch with her.
Who are you here to see?
Beth Porter. Can you call and see if she’s available?
Do you work here?
No, but I used. You could just let me go up, and I can track her down. Whatever is easier.
I can’t let you do that. He reaches for the phone, then stops and looks at me. The fastest thing would be for you to call her.
I don’t have a phone, smiling broadly.
He stars at me, nonplussed. If I had said: I don’t have a phone at the moment, because I threw it at a brain-eating zombie who was chasing me through the common, I think he would have been less surprised.
Isn’t that amazing? I say.
Yes. It is.
After another moment,Do you have a license?
Yes! Yes, I do have one of those.
I’m giggling now. I hand him my license. He looks at it. He looks at me. He rolls his chair over to his computer and types something.
Ok, there you are.
I realize he’s looking at my old employee profile, and I’m surprised that I’m still in the security system.
Why don’t you just let me go up?
I can’t do that.
What do you think would happen? Are you worried I’ll do something?
It’s against the rules. I don’t make the decisions.
I shrug, smile.
He picks up the phone and talks to someone. He says my name. He says Beth’s name. He hangs up. I stand. He sits.
What happens now?
They come and arrest you. I’m sorry, I’m just doing my job.
I smile. I love this guy.
Take this, just in case, and he hands me a guest pass ID to stick on my shirt. Ninth floor.
Thank you. As I head towards the elevators, he says something back, but I don’t hear it clearly. It sounds like Good tidings.
On the ninth floor, there is another man at a desk. He has a pad of paper next to him. My name is written on it. Beth’s name is written on it. He tells me Beth was not at her desk. Would I like him to send her an email? I consider this. I have no way to get the response unless I wait. I don’t have anything urgent to do. Beth is almost never at her desk, and when she is, she is often on the phone. I figure the chances are high, that if she is working, she will see an email quickly. Yes, sure, thank you.
He tells me it’s very quiet in the office today. I have forgotten it’s the Friday before a holiday week. I try to convince him to let me in. He won’t. He tells me it’s against the rules. He could lose his job. I have a nice face, and he doesn’t think I would do anything, but he could get in trouble just the same. I’m disappointed. There is a new, open layout that I’m told everyone hates, because there is no privacy and all the executives are working right next to everyone else. This doesn’t seem like it would be too big of a problem, because in my experience, startups are the only companies where the executives are in the office much. I have no way to know if the people that work there really hate this arrangement, because the only people I’ve talked to about it are people, like me, who don’t work there any more. I want to see what it’s like.
Beth is not responding, so I ask him to call some other people. He’s very obliging. It starts to feel like a game. Leslie, voice mail. Daphne, voice mail. Bob, strait to voice mail. No wait, let me try his other phone, voice mail. I remember that Beth, Leslie and Daphne all have summer homes. I don’t know if Bob has a summer home or not, but I’ve been told he has a new girlfriend, which is probably even more enticing than a vacation home. My friends don’t need rescuing. They aren’t locked up. They’re out in the world, and I wonder in which direction they’re bleeding, or if they’ve pressed and held, to stop the flow.