I believe this: what we hold closest to ourselves has the power to save or destroy us.
And I don’t mean what we think we hold closest to ourselves, or what we say is most dear and most precious. We protect ourselves with an armor of self-delusions, denials, and lies. Rarely do our thoughts or words wholly reveal the substance of who we are, or what we believe. But if we take account of our actions, and more importantly, the measure of our attention, that which matters most to us is made incontrovertibly clear.
Lately I’ve been afflicted with this sense that, if I don’t do something drastic, my phone will ruin me. It already takes up more of my attention than I want it to. I’m distressed by my reliance on and overuse of it. I believe phone addiction is a real and not-so-distant possibility for a majority of San Franciscans.
(And hi! You are probably reading this on your phone. And that's okay. Thank you for reading!)
In past efforts to be my own disciplinarian, I’ve implemented parameters around phone usage. Is it sad that most of it is actually common sense? (e.g. It’s not allowed in my bedroom at night. Never pull it out mid-conversation. Turn it completely off when I need to focus—it’s off right now) But still, the parameters are not nearly strict and expansive enough. I’m good when I’m around people—anyone who's remotely socially aware abides by some general phone etiquette, I think. But I’m more concerned that I’m losing the interstices of my life: the moments of boredom, of waiting around, of standing on the brink of some sadness that I don’t want to feel, opting instead for a faint hum of droll, useless, and mostly unexciting stimulation that is nevertheless reliably numbing and endless. The phone is a black hole, and its expanse is infinite.
It's not cool or sexy to talk about our relationships with our phones. The kind of people who are addicted to their phones are supposed to be weird and pathetic loners that you feel sorry for, like Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix's character) in the movie Her. You sympathized with him, but you definitely did not empathize with him. Because come on, he fell in love with a voice on his phone, an invisible non-person (Samantha) that he carried in his pocket—definitely not something that would happen to you. The movie seemed eerily accurate though, a premonition of a future generation perhaps, but wasn't it easy to distance ourselves from him? There was no way in hell that I resembled Theodore, that I was that emotionally, romantically, frantically invested in a smooth-screened, rectangular machine. It was uncomfortable to watch Theodore fall in love with Samantha; it was as if we were watching something illicit, something we weren't supposed to see. Because here's what's subversive about our digital habits: they're mostly conducted in private when we're alone. No one really knows how much time you spend online except yourself. No one knows what mischief or hanky-panky you're up to, and in fact you can live an entirely separate virtual life if you want to. It's becoming harder to distinguish between our virtual and non-virtual selves. Which one is real? Does the distinction even matter?
In the realm of relational dynamics, there's a strange social currency that we derive from being aloof, unavailable, just a little bit more removed than everyone else. But here's the thing: the aloofness of your digital personality (you say you're not great at responding to texts, you rarely post on Instagram) has very little correlation with how much time you actually spend on your phone. Some people are aloof as a matter of playing it cool, conscientiously absenting themselves from the social media terrain—this is a fact that they wield both as a badge of pride and as social currency—but who knows how much time they're actually spending on their phones? You can only speak for yourself.
So while the least cool thing to do is to admit that I spend more time on my phone than I'd like, that it occupies a greater measure of attention than what I think is comfortable or healthy (though I will admit I have high and stringent standards for myself), I'm bothered enough to write about it. In fact, I’ve noticed that turning to my phone has become a weird, kneejerk response that I have to intentionally obstruct. Perhaps I’ve become conditioned in this way because my phone facilitates, in large part, both my work and social life. Among my work colleagues, texting is on par with email. Notification of events, even by very close friends, often happens exclusively on Facebook. Breaking news is on Twitter. You can literally find the physical location of your friends on your phone! Can you even imagine what it'd be like to meet up with someone—anyone—in Dolores Park without your phone? But what I fear most, in my annoying reliance on my phone, is that I’m tuning out, that I’m only half-conscious, semi-feeling, that my senses have become dulled and inadequate. I want to experience this world physically, viscerally, immediately, fully, and I want to experience people in the same way. But I suspect my phone has become the bane of a totally conscious existence.
My phone has certainly had a damning effect on my brain. I’m much more distraction-prone. Finding my way into any kind of meditation or stillness feels increasingly difficult. Real solitude often evades me, in part because technology has made it easier to avoid real solitude (You can text a friend, or even more pathetically, see what your friends are snapchatting, tweeting, eating, etc.).
The hapless state of my phone-addled brain is probably best explained by my friend Alice Gregory, who, in one of the best book reviews I’ve ever read, writes:
“In the past year, I graduated from college, got a desk job, and bought an iPhone: the three vertices of the Bermuda Triangle into which my ability to think in the ways that matter most to me has disappeared. My mental landscape is now so altered that its very appearance must be different than it was at this time last year. I imagine my brain as a newly wretched terrain, littered with gaping chasms (What’s my social security number, again?), expansive lacunae (For the thousandth time, the difference between “synecdoche” and “metonymy,” please?), and recently formed fissures (How the fuck do you spell “Gyllenhaal?”). This is your brain on technology.”She writes about the digital-intellectual equivalent of FOMO—the anxiety of not being able to keep up—, which she chalks up to the “primitive pleasure of constant and arbitrary stimulation.” She calls the iPhone “that little monster in my pocket ‘pushing’ me an uninterrupted stream of distractions,” which is a brilliant and fairly accurate description.
I return to this passage every time I feel that some human part of me—my soul perhaps—, is being eroded away by the ubiquity of technology. And I’m almost certain it is:
“Opening Safari is an actively destructive decision. I am asking that consciousness be taken away from me. Like the lost time between leaving a party drunk and materializing somehow at your front door, the internet robs you of a day you can visit recursively or even remember. You really want to know what it is about 20-somethings? It’s this: we live longer now. But we also live less.”I don’t wish that iPhones didn’t exist—I rely on mine for transportation, for maps, for FaceTime with my grandmother in Hong Kong—all of which have made my life better and easier, though the two are not the same thing. But I’ve been imagining what city life would be like without a phone. It’s nice to be able to get away for a weekend and let all your friends know that you’ll be unreachable because you’re out of service. You end up being grateful for the forced absence from technology. But it’s another thing to have reception, to be living ordinarily (without the thrill of vacation or camping or backpacking), and to be navigating your social life in a city, without a cellphone at all (And imagine, this was life for everyone before the aughts!). The practical reality, for myself at least, is that during the day, work would make total phone abandonment impossible, but I’ve been contemplating an experiment of a similar order: I’ll get a landline and turn off my phone after work. I’ll make myself reachable—call my landline or show up at my doorstep—but in very narrow and specific ways. The landline is meant to preclude total isolation of course, but who knows—I live alone, and there's a good chance that inconvenience and habit would diminish the casual friendships I have in this city. But something about the minutiae of my existence would feel more real, I think. I imagine I'd write more, I'd read more. Even if for a little while, I'd be better for it. (Updates to come. In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts and comments.)