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I Made Myself Lose My Phone

Beneath our dependency on smartphones lies a seething resentment at what our devices are turning us into

Illustration: Joe Melhuish

FFor Christmas 2018, I booked a trip to Thailand on a whim — keen to escape work and the annual family gathering. Nothing good tends to comes from hasty decisions. Jetting off to the other side of the world because I couldn’t deal with real life would come at a price.

Sure enough, soon after landing in Bangkok, things started to go missing. I left a copy of Lord of the Flies in a restroom, forgot to retrieve my credit card from an ATM, left a pair of earphones in a restaurant. This losing streak reached a peak when I misplaced two cellphones in two days.

The first was a recently upgraded iPhone 8, already cracked on the back. It fell out of the pocket of my swim shorts while I was riding a scooter from the beach. I got back to my room and noticed it was gone. The second phone, a battered iPhone 6 kept at the bottom of my travel bag for emergencies, disappeared in exactly the same way.

When bad things happen we tend to get derailed by emotions. I spent several hours feeling gut-punched, convinced of my own uselessness. But once the pity party was over, I started to wonder if there wasn’t a more profound explanation for losing all this stuff in such quick succession.

The uneasy, immature, and overwhelming relationship we have with social media is at the heart of the conflicted feelings we have toward our phones.

Smartphones are, of course, powerful gadgets that have allowed us to do things which, just a few years ago, were unimaginable. But they have also become the gateway to social media, a place that has made a great number of us increasingly unhappy over the years. In an effort to fit in, most of my posts felt forced, out of character for who I was in real life. Every time I found myself on a bus or train somewhere, scrolling without a purpose, I knew I should be doing something better with my time. There was a war going on for my attention, and Twitter and Facebook were winning.

The uneasy, immature, and overwhelming relationship we have with social media is at the heart of the conflicted feelings we have toward our phones. We know that we check them an average 80 times throughout the day, adding up to some 30,000 twitchy phone checks every year. In my case, many of those twitchy phone checks have come at completely inappropriate moments: while walking the streets of Florence, or while not watching a spectacular sunset in Rio de Janeiro.

After Thailand, I didn’t replace my phone for three months. We’re so used to everyone knowing where we are and what we’re doing that it felt both isolating and liberating to disconnect. Quitting Facebook and Twitter meant that I was less aware of what was happening in the world — but also that I barely heard from any of my online friends. It’s a dilemma almost as old as social media itself: Does Facebook and the like really bring us closer together, or are we just hiding behind computers, pretending we have friends?

“We think we have a relationship with someone [when using social media] but what we have is a connection,” explains Larry Rosen, an expert in the psychology of technology at California State University. “Connection is part of communication, but it’s not all communication. Communication is pulling in various cues about the person you are communicating with that include things like body language, tone of voice, a roll of the eyes. Through social media, you don’t get that. You are reading what they wrote and then jotting down a few words of comment, but it’s not the richness of communication.”

The German philosopher Arnold Gehlen used the term mängelwesen — or “deficient creature” — to describe what he saw as the vulnerability of humans compared to animals with inherent survival skills. Man’s fabled power of thought is a substitute for our many physical shortcomings. To liberate ourselves from our inferiority, we developed tools like language, gossip, and technology. Gehlen’s vision is a prescient one of a world where we are only as good as the technology at our disposal, clueless on how to go through life without it.

TThere are two main theories for why we lose things. Science tells us that losing objects represents a failure of recollection or attention. That sheds no light on how it feels to lose something and provides only the most abstract, impractical notion of how not to do so. (“Focus! Pay attention to what you’re doing, retrace your steps.”)

Psychology, on the other hand, says losing things is, in fact, the success of our subliminal desires over our rational mind. In The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Sigmund Freud describes “the unconscious dexterity with which an object is mislaid on account of hidden but powerful motives,” including “the low estimation and pity in which the lost object is held, or a secret antipathy towards it.” When it comes to my phone, Freud might be onto something.

Quitting Facebook and Twitter meant that I was less aware of what was happening in the world — but also that I barely heard from any of my online friends. What does that say about the value of these relationships?

Our smartphones encourage vanity, futile nostalgia, and distraction. We spend a great part of our days romanticizing the past, lusting after things we can’t or shouldn’t have. This had seeped into how I saw the world; I felt devastated at losing my phone because it meant I had lost my way of controlling my surroundings. My reliance on it was such, that it felt like losing a part of myself. And now that I recognize that seething resentment, losing two phones in two days no longer feels like an accident.

Over the years I’ve grown used to walking away. In the last decade, I have left countries, jobs, people — at times to my detriment. Three weeks before jumping on that plane to Thailand, I deleted my Facebook account. Two months later, in South Africa and still without a phone, I turned to my girlfriend and said, “You know what, I’m getting rid of Twitter.” Sometimes, you just have to rip off the band-aid. In the months that followed, there came a sense of security and serenity I hadn’t felt for a long time. Humans may be tool-using animals, but there are some tools we simply don’t need.

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