Maybe we don’t need to phone home

The technician who installed the first cell phone in my Porsche in 1984 warned me that it would change my life. You will find yourself using it much more than your ever realized," he said.

Five members of part of the crowd at a regional basketball game in Floyd this week. Four on their smartphones as the game is played.
Five members of the crowd at a regional basketball game in Floyd this week. Four on their smartphones as the game is played.

The technician who installed the first cell phone in my Porsche in 1984 warned me that it would change my life.

“You will find yourself using it much more than your ever realized,” he said.

He wasn’t wrong. I spent most of my driving time on that phone, receiving calls and returning others while driving to the office each morning, heading home at night and going from appointments.

Car phones were a status symbol back then, even in Washington, DC. Every time I gave anyone a ride in my car, they would ask to use the phone and their side of the conversation would normally be “you’ll never guess where I’m calling from?”

One night, late, driving home, the phone in it’s cradle by the gear shift, rang. I figured it was my wife. It wasn’t.

Instead, a male voice bellowed: “Who the hell is this?”

I answered his question with one: “Who are you trying to call?”

He answered by asking if the phone number he recited was the one he had called.

“Close,” I said. “You are one number off.”

“Thank God,” he said. “I was calling my wife, who is apparently running late, and the last thing I expected was a man answering her car phone.”

He apologized and hung up. I laughed and called my wife while still on I-395 to tell her of the call.

By 1987, my car phone became a “portable,” with the phone hooked to a large, totable battery that could be slung over my shoulder, followed next by early “hand-held” models where signals were less clear and battery life was questionable.

Then came the “PCS” (personal communications system) digital phones that were small and had longer battery life. I came across the receipt recently for that first cell phone in my car and realized that that I have been using such phones for 35 years.

I would talk on the phone while driving, in the subway (Washington’s Metro system installed cell phone antennas in the tunnels), walking on the street, in restaurants and in bars (until I quit drinking in 1994).

The iPhone now clipped to my belt is also a “smartphone” where making phone calls is almost an afterthought. I get more text messages from my adult daughter than phone calls from her but I also get more calls on the iPhone than we do on our home, wired-in, phone.

“Needed to reach you this week,” said an email this morning, “but I didn’t know your number.”

When I called the person back, I asked her if she checked the Citizens phone book for our number.

“Didn’t think of that,” she said. “Nobody has a land-line now.”

At the basketball regional playoff match in Floyd Thursday night where the Lady Buffaloes beat Giles, many in the crowd spent more time on their smartphones instead of watching the game..

At breakfast this week at Blue Ridge Cafe, I realized three of the people sitting at the table had their smartphones lying on the table by them. Invariably, at least one would ring during the meal.

Other might check the weather and report that rain is scheduled to start shortly. Another reports a latest news bulletin.

One of that group, however, is Greg Locke, who doesn’t carry a cell phone and does not watch the news.

“Too depressing and too much garbage,” he says.

Remember Palm Pilots, the digital calendars? I had one in 1985 that also had an antenna to receive messages and information. A news bulletin let Amy and I know that the Supreme Court had paved the way for George W Bush’s election in the infamous “hanging chads” Florida recount situation.

Six years later, I had a Blackberry clipped to my belt when it vibrated with an alert of an explosion at the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. Thirty minutes later, I was on a grassy bank above the building taking news photos of the aftermath.

Nowadays, there’s a lot of attention the “addiction” of smartphones and other digital forms of communication. Kevin Roose of The New York Times writes about that on this Saturday under the headline of “Do Not Disturb: How I Ditched My Phone and Unbroke My Brain.”

He writes:

My name is Kevin, and I have a phone problem.

And if you’re anything like me — and the statistics suggest you probably are, at least where smartphones are concerned — you have one, too.

I’ve been a heavy phone user for my entire adult life. But sometime last year, I crossed the invisible line into problem territory. My symptoms were all the typical ones: I found myself incapable of reading books, watching full-length movies or having long uninterrupted conversations. Social media made me angry and anxious, and even the digital spaces I once found soothing (group texts, podcasts, YouTube k-holes) weren’t helping. I tried various tricks to curb my usage, like deleting Twitter every weekend, turning my screen grayscale and installing app-blockers. But I always relapsed.

In December 2018, Roose called Catherine Price, author of How to Break Up With Your Phone.” Price is a science journalist who wrote the book, she says, as a “30-day guide to eliminating bad phone habits.”

“I begged her for help,” Roose says.

At the time, Roose spent five hours and 37 minutes on his smartphone every day and picked it up about 101 times, mostly to check an “app.”

“That is frankly insane and makes me want to die,” he wrote to her in an email.

“I will admit that those numbers are a bit horrifying,” Price admitted.

Price recommended that three questions appeared each time Roose unlocked his phone for use:

What for?

Why now?

What else?

Roose wrote:

Mostly, I became aware of how profoundly uncomfortable I am with stillness. For years, I’ve used my phone every time I’ve had a spare moment in an elevator or a boring meeting. I listen to podcasts and write emails on the subway. I watch YouTube videos while folding laundry. I even use an app to pretend to meditate.

If I was going to repair my brain, I needed to practice doing nothing. So during my morning walk to the office, I looked up at the buildings around me, spotting architectural details I’d never noticed before. On the subway, I kept my phone in my pocket and people-watched — noticing the nattily dressed man in the yellow hat, the teens eating hot Takis and laughing, the kid with Velcro shoes. When a friend ran late for our lunch, I sat still and stared out the window instead of checking Twitter.

Roose deleted apps, including Facebook, Twitter and links to other social media. Same for news apps and games.

“I pruned my home screen to just the essentials: calendar, email and password manager,” he wrote. “And I disabled push notifications for everything other than phone calls and messages from a preset list of people that included my editor, my wife and a handful of close friends.”

He also found studies show people who don’t charge their smartphones in their bedrooms are happier. Price charges hers in a closet. She recommended Roose buy a “mini-safe” and store and charge his phone there.

Like most addicts who face withdrawal symptoms. As a newspaperman, he worried that he was missing something important.

“I liked having a constant stream of news at my fingertips,” he wrote, “and I wanted to do more of the things I actually like about social media, like keeping tabs on my friends’ babies and maintaining ambient Kardashian awareness.”

His wife felt otherwise.

“I’m sad that you’re having trouble with this,” she said, “because it’s been great for me.”

Roose adds:

She explained that since my phone detox started, I’d been more present and attentive at home. I spent more time listening to her, and less time distractedly nodding and mumbling while checking my inbox or tapping out tweets.

Psychologists have a name for this: “phubbing,” or snubbing a person in favor of your phone. Studies have shown that excessive phubbing decreases relationship satisfaction and contributes to feelings of depression and alienation.

As a long-time user of such devices and someone who felt a need to always be “connected,” I understand that Roose is going through. When we left Washington and moved to Floyd in 2004, I still had a Blackberry smartphone clipped to my belt, one that worked in most parts of the world.

In recent years, however, have found my current smartphone, an iPhone, stays home when I leave for a short trip into town or longer forays into outlying areas.

Such phones aren’t allowed in courtrooms and I spend time in one at least once a week covering cases for the paper. At movies, I leave the phone locked in the console of our car.

If the phone vibrates with a call while I’m engaged in a conversation with someone over breakfast or lunch, I ignore it and let voicemail let me know later. In many cases, the caller does not leave a message so I figure the call wasn’t important anyway.

On my last coast-to-coast airline flight 15 years ago — following the presidential election — I worked on my laptop to edit a final set of photos and then used the airline’s “air phone” to send them to my employer.

My seatmate, a DC attorney, spent about 45 minutes on another air phone to participate in a conference call with her office. When she hung up, she asked: “Do you remember the good old days when we got away from all this while flying?”

Since that was my last coverage of a national election and would be leaving Washington, I thought I would also be leaving the 24/7 news and information cycle.

Wrong. I still have that appendage clipped to my belt. I still have news and information flowing in from around the clock on multiple computer screens, around the clock news channels.

More needs to be done to get back to a simpler life.

So I’m trimming back on social media use, both on my smartphone and on my laptops and home computers. I don’t follow the Twitter tweets of our president or any other elected official. As Clark Gable said near the end of Gone With The Wind, “frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. “

2 thoughts on “Maybe we don’t need to phone home”

  1. This is one of your finest articles Doug! For all of the reasons you note, I have not, do not, and will not own a smart phone. I recognize their value in certain circumstances and have access to my wife’s smart phone for the very rare occasions when needed, but the addiction factor is too great to risk carrying one. Everywhere I go I see zombies with their noses in their i-thingies, brains engaged elsewhere and blind to the present. Maybe I’m just too old, but I prefer the real world and real people, eyeball to eyeball and smile to smile.

  2. Never owned one, never will. For all the reasons you mention. I do have a Tracfone which I have in the car for emergencies but I always step outside the car if I have to use it because all the metal in the car magnifies the intensity of the radiation.

    But you fail to mention one of the main reasons for being wary of cell phones. If they are misused then they have been proven to be a major cancer risk. Much of the world except this country accepts this but here it is suppressed to enhance corporate profit. I had a relative who held the phone to his head for five hours a day – until he died of a brain tumor – at exactly the point where it was next to his ear.

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