By Julie Flynn Bada
When I bought my first iPhone years ago, I got a little giddy. The feeling was something akin to marriage. The purchase was like a promise of fulfillment, a guarantee against boredom, loneliness and confusion.
Never again, would there be a subway ride without a soundtrack; or a question Google couldn’t answer in the same instant it was asked. With my palm-sized companion, I’d never absently stare at the floor while standing in line at the grocery store or feel awkward in a restaurant waiting by myself for a friend. Now I’d always have a map on every street corner of the world and never be forced to ask a stranger which way to walk.
Yes, the iPhone was going to help me become my best and brightest self. It would orient me in space and time, help be stay informed and culturally relevant.
With its camera always within arm’s reach, I could begin to see differently and appreciate the tender or bizarre moments of city life unfolding before me. Maybe I’d start a blog and become that quirky outsider artist I’d always wanted to be.
I knew people had their gripes about smartphones, but I vowed that mine would only enhance my life.
This sturdy conviction soon gave way to a more fragile reality. It turned out my iPhone only enabled me do what I always did — just more frequently and everywhere. In other words, I basically checked email and Facebook countless times a day and took thousands of pictures of my children.
There’s no doubt many people use their iPhones purposefully. I’m sure somebody out there has found a way to ship surplus grains to drought regions or organize labor movements or access ancient Tibetan meditations. But that somebody wasn’t me.
Did the iPhone fulfill my life? I didn’t need to tell me it was never satisfying. It was like sitting in a chef’s kitchen with a refrigerator full of food and eating cheese and crackers every night.
Recently, the website Upworthy posted a video that went viral that satirized our collective use of iPhones. The short video cleverly illustrated how iPhones have come to dominate the most sacred spaces in our lives in the dumbest possible ways.
After I saw the video, I remember walking outside after to a beautiful clear September morning. I stood on a New York street corner and all I could see everywhere were people staring down at their phones. Later, I took my daughter to swim lessons and sat in the bleachers to watch. Most of the parents or caregivers were looking down into the screens in their hands instead of at their small child flailing in the water.
Maybe it was no coincidence that I lost my iPhone a few days later. I didn’t rush to replace it. I was nostalgic for a more innocent era, when text messages were clipped because they were so tedious to tap out. So I opted for an old-school cell phone that cost all of $14. I wondered how well I could function on this outdated technology.
There was only one way to find out.
For the first few days, I found myself apologizing every time I took out my dumbphone. I felt compelled to explain I wasn’t completely out of touch. I simply made a different choice. But eventually I realized I was no longer in high school. No one really cared whether I had a smartphone or not. And if they did, they probably weren’t worth talking to anyway.
I stopped apologizing and began listening. Without ear buds and playlists, I began connecting to the sounds of the city. The sigh of buses. Snippets of conversations. Sirens in the distance. The cackles of teenagers on their way home from school. The cacophony of the city often feels more evocative than the music on my iTunes.
When the new iPhone 5c came out days later, long lines formed outside the AT&T and Verizon stores at 8 o’clock in the morning. Almost everyone in line thumbed their now outdated iPhone as they waited to purchase the new one. What compelled them to spend half the morning in line to be one of the first to have a new version of a phone they already had?
I thought of the clunky dumbphone in my purse. It was entirely uninteresting. Had zero appeal. That was the beauty of it. I couldn’t get hooked. There was nothing to tinker with or absently scroll. It was just a bare-boned device for making phone calls and sending the most primitive text messages. In fact, texting became so tiresome on the dumbphone that I simply threw in the towel and made actual phone calls. People seemed alarmed to hear my voice on the other end of the line. “Is everything okay?” friends would ask.
In the absence of portable access to my email, the compulsive need to check messages vanished. In the month without my iPhone, I didn’t receive a single email that demanded an immediate reply. I don’t run a news organization or a rescue effort. So what message could be so urgent that it is worth interrupting my connection with what is right in front of me?
Sure, life was not as convenient or seamless without the clever device. I get lost more frequently and have to ask for directions. I forget appointments or double book them. In other words, I’m fallible. Isn’t that what means to be human?
Without a quality camera on my phone, the near-constant photo shoot of my children came to a halt. Although I wish I’d had a photo of my daughter’s first day of preschool, I think we’ve all been better off without the camera running interference between us. I stopped directing and framing my children and began to really see and enjoy them.
A part of me must have believed that the photos would somehow safeguard us against the cruel march of time. I wanted a complete archive of those priceless early years. I imagined my daughters as adults retrieving images of their young selves with spaghetti sauce on their faces or sipping pink lemonade from fancy teacups.
Now I can see what my children really need is me.
Recently, my daughter wanted to ride the carousel in our neighborhood. I fastened her harness on the pretend pony and smiled at her. She asked, “Aren’t you going to take picture?”
“I’m just going to enjoy the ride this time,” I said and climbed on the horse beside her.
That old tinkly music began as the carousel turned. We beamed at each other as we went up and down on the horses. Without the pressure to catch the perfect smile, or light, or angle, I felt so awake and free. I took in all faces of the people standing by, and the majesty of the nearby bridges, and the ferries streaming through the water.
I felt a flood of emotion. This time with my daughter was so precious and it was quickly slipping through my fingers. I couldn’t hold on to it, no matter how many photos I took or how many people I shared them with.