03/11/2014 07:36 pm ET | Updated May 13, 2014

Life Without a Cellphone -- Part 4-B: Um, Okay? (Psychosomatic Confusion)



Click here for the previous part of this series and here for Part 1

It was clear I lived in a daze.

It should be clear to you that I blamed the device.

But it was unclear to me, and still is, what portion of my daily stupor stemmed from device as apparatus and what portion from the supplies of human-contact and digital-data that device delivered. Was there simply something in the confluence of content and object's physicality, so exquisitely intermixed, that proved corrosive and impossible to resist? Something beyond just the sum of two toxins? Was each even relatively inert on its own? Or was one or both animate and powerful in their own right? If one, then which? And if both, could I sight a worse half of the ingredient pair, a main malefactor? In this hunt for control, what, exactly, was I looking to control?

Was I addicted to the communications and information and games at my fingertips? After years spent with Internet and smartphones and with the supply of content multiplying, nudging ever more at brain's territory, would I now kill to get my data fix, irrelevant of apparatus or type of data available to me? Was delivering hits of data -- any data at all -- now the device's prime directive, what it was designed to do best and most? This implied a flattening of content. It implied that activity on phone -- even voice calls -- by virtue of being put on phone, by having to submit to device's form and fulfill device's function, acted as undifferentiated anodyne. (Let me clarify conjecture with speculation, by way of circular logic: If, as I just noted, it was necessary for an activity to submit to device, then the amount by which new apps and technology molded device and how it was used had been far outpaced by the need for the new to conform to what device already did and how it did it. Therefore the issue of what device "did" was largely settled and unlikely to change significantly. As such, new uses for device, rather than creating novel user experiences, would end up as superficially different ways of doing the same thing. In my opinion, that "same thing" equals "zombifying users." Said zombified users, however, would swear the new app changed everything. Literally.)

Or was I an infant, instinctually drawn to the lights, the clicks and swipes and magical gestures, the sounds and vibrations, the colorful icons, and the ergonomic pleasures in hand that device proffered? The implications of this latter scenario were less convoluted but more frightening: The irrelevancy of content and a reality where economic/work/social/personal structures and activity are built upon our need to literally be button-pushers.

(Please excuse the absolutes in the phrasing of the above implications. The sentences sound crisper and are clearer in meaning without the needed but awkward-sounding quantifiers and qualifiers: "This implied, to the degree that it were true, a partial flattening of some content (for me)," e.g., You can fill in the rest as you see fit.)

Which thought to pursue? My target was mobile, thinking only gave it time to escape, time to plot for our next encounter, when it would sink its teeth yet deeper. What did all this mean? Not even the spoors of an answer could be whiffed. Both scenarios, however, seemed to track the same path: While I knew I often used the device needlessly and solely out of compulsion, I had never assessed my abilities to recognize when I had thus sinned. Perhaps, unbeknownst to me, far more of my activity on device could be classified as useless than I had ever imagined.

In other words, checking the review of tonight's restaurant on Yelp, posting a "happy birthday!" on a friend's Facebook wall, reading about healthcare legislation on the New York Times app--how could I know if these weren't just excuses to let me play with the device? How could I know if, once an activity had migrated onto device, once it had had to submit to device's form and function, it had not become yet another data drug or yet another excuse to push a button?

And what of that important email you just sent out, did it have a point? Following Approach 1 -- man as junky -- perhaps you just needed to feed on incoming content and demand more content be sent your way. Taking Approach 2 -- man as baby -- perhaps you just lusted after device's physicality... wanted to feel glass above "Send" icon, watch icon be marked by highlight, witness images on screen vanish just before new images popped into view, hear a satisfying "whoosh" announce your exploit -- congratulations, another successful operation completed. Was your whole conversation, even, really just that for all parties? Just addicts shooting up or infants pushing buttons, all convinced their little exchange was necessary and vital? Would you even create work or plan a brunch with friends just to have more exchanges through the device?

In fact, was content not just the adult version of the infant's flashing lights? "Oooo information!" Suck suck suck. And at what point in their evolution did cool graphics and tactile pleasures evolve far away enough from, respectively, their info-delivery-method and navigational-tool roots, so that they themselves amounted to content? Were not both Approaches then really one? Just delusions springing from action... false equivalencies between activity and accomplishment, viewing data and learning, clicking links and the marshaling of resources... the intoxicating power one can extract from endlessly repeating a simple "I saw I did I now know"... yes, the socks are rearranged... it's all a game... but... "well-played, sir!"

I am not saying that each action on device must rescue the princess and that every piece of a message or conversation need be vital info incarnate -- this series stands against the primacy of utilitarian exchanges that deliver only the integral bits, the tweet versions of life (though these certainly have their place) -- nor that minimalism has no place, nor that nothing of importance or necessity is done with device, nor that there is anything wrong with some mind-numbing stimulation from trashy content, nor that I can define what is and is not pointless, what is or is not trashy for a given individual. What I mean to say is that, in varying degrees from person to person, some (and by that I really mean "much") of what is presumed with certainty to be informational/conversational/vital/caring/friendly/entertainment/nonsense/etc. on your mobile device might be just the spinning of a mobile, lulling you to sleep.

Was I just spinning my wheels with pseudo-theory and exaggerations, however? Perhaps. But there was evidence (anecdotal) and there was a purpose (mediocre).

First the evidence (anecdotal):

My time in finance began in May of 2000. As such, I both worked without a Blackberry and participated in my bank's transition to Blackberry not long after that device's debut. It is important to note that, at the time, the Blackberry was not a phone -- just an email-only device with some minimal organizer-like functionality.

Shortly after adoption, before most of our clients had Blackberrys and before my job could have reasonably had the time to change (and it is questionable whether it ever really did change in any fundamental sense) in response to the new technology, the number of emails needed to do the same work increased and the expectation that I answer at any time, even if I were asleep, normalized. An increase in opportunity to email seemed to coincide with an increase in email. Of course, correlation does not prove anything (noting its impotence, however, does cover one's ass). Perhaps I was simply integrating into my group, becoming more of a resource -- banker-speak for slave -- and so naturally my use of email was increasing. Or perhaps email itself was simply increasing everywhere.

There was also the matter of my small sample size -- I was mostly seeing people within my bank and regularly observing only members of my team -- and the lack of any tracking method outside my gut. But there is also the reverse process to consider, the ridding of anytime reachability (I should clarify that I left finance years before this ridding). Now, post-phone-abdication, I have seen that I can do the same things I was doing ante-phone-abdication, but with far fewer emails and without response times measured in nanoseconds; the rash of emails once "required" to do anything is no more. I have also noticed, in myself and others, a dramatic decrease in activities and behaviors I am happy to do without, perhaps indicating that my phone may have caused--or at least enabled--these activities and behaviors. (If you are wondering what these activities and behaviors might be, see: the rest of this series.)

Because previous and future chapters deal primarily with the ridding experience of anytime reachability, let me return to the acquisition stage -- i.e., to the Blackberry. In many ways, the Blackberry came at a precipice for technology. Texting was not yet a thing. Not everyone had cellphones. Bosses that had cellphones were hesitant to give out their numbers even to coworkers but especially to clients. No one requested that I get a laptop with remote access or buy a cellphone, even though these would have been easy fixes to increase my reachability outside the office. In fact, it wasn't like I had been needed but unreachable pre-Blackberry -- I'd always had a beeper and a home phone. But no one had seen the purpose in reaching me quite so often and at all hours before doing so was frictionless and impersonal; that is, before the Blackberry. Furthermore, by rendering anytime reachability acceptable, the Blackberry pushed technology into a free fall towards its inevitable smart-device future.

In the pre-Blackberry era, I don't know if I received more than one or two pages and I cannot remember being called at home. In those prehistoric times, I don't remember calling or beeping my coworkers when they were away from their desks, though it may have occasionally happened. Somehow, however, the presence of a Blackberry changed everything. Somehow, whether for work or for conversation, we suddenly needed to reach each other over and over and at all hours. (A parallel personal need arose when my then-girlfriend joined my bank and was handed a Blackberry but that is another story.) (Actually, it's the same story.)

But why? What made a Blackberry "so" frictionless and impersonal? After all, how was it "any more" frictionless and impersonal than a beeper or non-smart phone? There is an obvious impersonal distinction: with the phone you actually had to have a verbal conversation and the beeper often led to a verbal conversation. There would need be a back and forth, and one would always be on the spot, so to speak, with only split-seconds to think of responses. Not so for the Blackberry -- at least in theory one would be given some grace time before a response was necessary (though the opportunity to mull things over, even when taken advantage of, did not create a utopia of well-thought-out responses). More generally, however, these older devices were meant to interrupt. When you beeped someone or dialed their number you were hoping to get their attention, to do so immediately, and, further, to monopolize that attention. All these factors made one more likely to reach out judiciously rather than compulsively. And, on the flip side, fear of the above interruptions made one less likely to carry a cellphone/beeper or give out its number freely.

But the Blackberry allowed a measure of cognitive dissonance that encouraged frequent use. On the one hand, you weren't directly sending someone an interruption -- transparently demanding immediate satisfaction -- you were just placing an incorporeal communication in an impalpable pile of email. And presumably others were doing the same at the same time so you weren't unambiguously staking claim to the recipient's complete attention. Hence the Blackberry was impersonal and thus one felt no compunction about sending out multitudes of missives to the masses. You could sit there, mindlessly firing off messages, suffocating loneliness by pinging the world one person at a time, with only a tissue paper of ostensible purpose, without that guilty feeling stemming from the imposition on others to curb you. You couldn't and wouldn't do that with calls and beeps. And, to return to the aforementioned flip side, the thought of taking on this new device did not progress into panic because the Blackberry felt less intrusive than a phone, as receiving an email would theoretically constitute less of a direct claim for your attention than a call or a beep because an email would just go sit nicely in your pile and stay. (I should note that some even thought this new device would allow them to leave the office earlier and more often. Maybe it did at first, but very quickly it just turned into an addition rather than a substitution.)

On the other hand, you expected the recipient to rifle through that unearthly electronic pile immediately as it was always on their person and to respond to your generous addition to their pile in short order as the alternative would be to ignore you and so insult you. And so you checked your device over and over for the responses to the many messages you sent out (though perhaps this was just an excuse to let you play with the device). And every time you checked your pile you were more likely to email someone else and add to another's pile. And once you heard back from someone, well, you might as well answer... or you felt compelled to answer, either by the new electronic decorum or by the device's mysterious powers. Perhaps an exchange started out as necessary, as something that would need to be dealt with at some point but, necessary or not, soon enough the only thing causing email was email; mysteriously, an email chain chained on, operating under unseen forces and propagating through space forever. Of course, once device was in hand for one purpose a reply to another thread or the creation of a new thread suddenly felt necessary. Thus, the email that reconnected you with device, in addition to perpetuating its own chain, indirectly added to other existing email chains and spawned new ones. And emails from these existing and new chains behaved likewise -- so that what we have now is less individual chains and more ever-increasing-in-size-web; all email causes all email. (It should also be noted that, in short order, as email begets email in escalating orgiastic glory, culminating with that empty feeling as Blackberrys are temporarily tucked back into pants, more email very quickly turns into more work. More work, however, does not necessarily turn into anything.)

And it was precisely this impersonal nature of the Blackberry that made it "more" frictionless, more integrated into the realm of unconscious human activity, than the predecessors under discussion. After all, while the Blackberry was well-conceived in physical and software design and easily carried on one's person, so too were certain models of the phone and beeper. But these had not the impersonal nature of the Blackberry, that which would have given the user license to fire away at will. This removal of an emotional barrier in addition to a physical one, whereas previous devices had removed only the physical barrier -- i.e., clumsy user experience and the difficulty in easily carrying a device on one's person at all times -- was what made the Blackberry "more" frictionless than its communication predecessors.

Though, and this will dent the facade of the argument I just put forth, there is more to consider. Cellphones did not yet have consistent reception nor blanket coverage. This made the cell less than reliable and using it an often unpleasant, scratchy experience. The Blackberry, however, did not require perfect and constant reception as it dealt in bursts of data; pockets of availability would suffice. And a beeper was not painless either: The sender had to place a phone call to send a message and the receiver had to find a phone to act upon said message. The Blackberry nixed these extra steps. All this as well made the Blackberry "more" frictionless. I mentioned earlier that, by rendering anytime reachability acceptable, the Blackberry helped the cellphone continue on with its infiltrations (i.e., it helped evolve us towards reaching out to all people and the Internet-as-human-surrogate at all times and in any way possible). I should now amend that earlier mention to read: "by proving anytime reachability possible and by rendering it acceptable and easy, the Blackberry helped the cellphone continue on with its infiltrations." But, if we examine the logic of smartphones, we see that that too is wrong. Really, the cellphone died, as it was not the phone that eventually swallowed up the Blackberry but the other way around.

Now the purpose (mediocre):

I said in Part 4-A that I wanted to leave distance between myself and the aforementioned human-contact and digital-data supply chains. But this could be accomplished in many ways, depending on how I answered the above questions. Could I safely carry an iPod Touch, despite its physical appeals and apps, seeing as it didn't have a cellular connection? Or were the device's aural/visual/tactile pleasures so sublime that I would gorge on its offerings and barrel towards Wi-Fi for more? Conversely, could I throw an old flip-phone into my backpack, given its lack of physical satisfactions (though even old phones have their pulls, satisfying ways of nesting in hand and snapping open and shut, say, or strange pleasures from scrolling aimlessly through backlit contacts to a music of tactile clicks and high-pitched beeps), even though it has always-on supply-chains (albeit limited in content and speed by dated technology, technology that operates even slower now than when it was cutting-edge as it must now handle more than it was designed for, and that is made even less sufferable once compared to its sleek successors)? Or would I accustom myself to a small screen and awkward graphics to feast on on-demand content?

Much more can be said about all the topics raised above but that should properly wait; I must at present confess that, in writing this section, I have jumped too far ahead of my actual thinkings during the time period under consideration. But even the simpler version of this section, the version I was actually processing at the time this section is supposed to have taken place, but one I can no longer segregate from the tale you have just read, seemed beyond my then-current ability to suss out. I accepted that an alternate strategy would be needed and, though I can't say why, I eventually reached in the opposite direction for answers: rather than stripping down my technological profile, subtracting the harmful bits as I found them, I could build from the bottom up, defining what functionality was necessary and then adding the minimum technology required to perform the needed functions.

Click here for Part 4-C of this series