A Week Without a Phone in Los Angeles

A tech cleanse may be better for your spirit than any juice fast.

Take out your SIM card for 5 days and you’ll see what I mean. Life without a phone is a fundamentally different way of being.

My phone bricked itself a week ago. Just died. Some kind of logic board failure. Instead of panicking, I took the measured approach of ordering a replacement on Amazon Prime. That replacement being a dud resulted in a full week with no device.

This lack of phone has affected me in surprising ways. I anticipated inconvenience, but this did not come to pass. Very few people get in touch with me via phone these days. I may have missed some calls, but that doesn’t worry me very much. The truth is that I lean so heavily on messaging these days, backstopped by email, that almost nothing important goes through my phone.

I expected to feel myself in the clutches of some dependency. To feel a nagging urge to check social media. However nothing of the sort occured. As a person who hops on his phone to check news, Instagram, etc the moment he leaves a room, I was surprised. I am in front of computers most of the time, and apparently that is enough for me.

The problems I predicted did not arise. My dependency did not rear its ugly head, life continued as-is more or less. What I found instead was a deep and profound sense of loss. Like a child without a security blanket, I found myself clutching for something to ease a deep longing.

At base level, my loss was felt at the level of touch. My phone is a physical companion. I take it in and out of my pocket every day. I frequently hold it, rub it. This strange physical token is my dearest companion. More loyal than any hound, even my notoriously clingy Italian Greyhound. My phone is by my side every moment of every day. My dog Cornelius only wishes she could be.

Relaxing with my closest and second-closest companions

This physical bond we have with our phones is a quasi-religious experience. In the world’s great faiths, objects such as the Mormon temple garment, Jewish kippah, tandhe Sikh turban after decades of practice establish a deep physical connection with the wearer. Wanna understand the loss such a practitioner would feel if deprived of their sacred object? Ditch your phone.

My lack of phone delivered plenty of nonsensical insecurity. I took a Lyft crosstown with a plan to train back. Could I do such a thing without a phone? What if the Lyft broke down or I got lost going to the station? Even after thinking through the solutions to these rare possibilities, I found myself perplexingly worried without a device.

Despite no shortage of confidence I could not shake this visceral sense of lack. A blindness. I could not see where I was, immediately know all businesses in the vicinity. I could not communicate with anyone in an instant, if the itch arose. I missed the ESP (extra-sensory perception) provided by the curious telepathic apparatus we call the smartphone.

Even classical senses like sight are affected by the lack of phone. How can I explain, to a citizen of 1989, the pain I felt seeing a curious sidewalk scene and not being able to capture it. Was my memory crippled? Or do I suffer from a curious ritualistic desire to own whatever I see? If I do, we all do.

To lose a phone is not to lose function, it is the loss of a deep friend. A part of me? It is fair to say. Myself-without-phone is different than myself-with-phone. The phone doesn’t complete me, but it pushes me to a place entirely different.

As my week progressed, a sense of exclusion replaced my sense of loss. A smartphone is not cocaine but coffee: a mild habit that can be overcome in a couple of days. Settling into this new life, I started to feel like the odd one out. Why could I not look things up? How come everyone else is so immersed in whatever’s on the other side of those scraps of plastic and metal they hold in their hands?

My lasting sentiment was one of exclusion. Information poverty is no doubt a major barrier to progression in society. I was relaxed and happy without a phone, but definitely less capable than those around me.

Phones are not tools that we use. It has become more accurate to call them a part of us, a sensory organ through which many things can be perceived and communicated. Limbs that can affect change in the world. They might as well be implanted.

If you think I’m exaggerating, try it yourself. A technology cleanse may be better for your spirit than any kind involving juice. Five days will be enough to give you the sense. If you took take such a dive, please drop a comment below letting me know how it goes.

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Steven Schkolne

South African/American Caltech CS PhD, turned international artist, turned questioner of everything we assume to be true about technology. Also 7 feet tall.