Kansas City, MO. Some months ago I wrote a column bemoaning the invasion of smartphones as digital distractions – things that kept us from being alone with ourselves, our thoughts, and our neighbors.  I ended the piece with a resolution to unhook myself from my six-year Blackberry addiction.  Lest I think myself unique in my resolutions, NPR’s Morning Edition some weeks ago featured a story on Hamlet’s Blackberry, a book by a father who forces his family to take “internet sabbaths” by turning off the modem on the weekends.  It is in the zeitgeist, no doubt.

As I have coordinated with my employees the logistics of how to communicate with me sans Blackberry, I have also been taking practical baby steps by restricting my personal email.  I started small.  I cut off Blackberry access to my personal Gmail accounts.  Gmail has an application for the Blackberry Storm that allows you to access multiple Gmail accounts (of which I have 4 – all differently purposed).  When I deleted this app, it meant that for the first time in almost two years, I didn’t have access to my personal email until I got home from work (I didn’t allow myself to check it while there).

The first week was fascinating.  I periodically checked the phone in my hand for the mail that wasn’t coming.  I had deleted the application so I didn’t know whether I had new mail, but the vestigial reflex kept prompting me to check.  I was reminded of the first month after I got Lasik, when I kept touching the bridge of my nose, my muscle memory adjusting the glasses I no longer wore.

In that first week I still faithfully checked my email twice a day and I found that this regimentation allowed me to be more efficient and thoughtful with my responses.

After three weeks, I actually didn’t check my personal email for a day or two.  And the world didn’t end.  In fact, I was perfectly fine.

As this breakthrough happened, I realized something deeper about the way we use phones – not just the smart ones:  we are their slaves.  We jump whenever they call because we never, ever turn them off.  They only get turned off if we run out of battery life, and even then we become desperate for a charger and can think of little else until our depleted child has the charging indicator safely blinking and is serenely drinking its electronic milk.

We have allowed ourselves to become 24/7 radio beacons.  We are always on.  Always ready to transmit or receive.  There is a nervous habit that the younger generation has of checking their cell phones every 90 seconds or so.  Just watch them.  They didn’t hear a text message notification, but they are checking their phones just in case.  And who knows, one might feel the urge to send a text message because heck, it’s been 30 seconds since one was sent.  Watch people in airports, or in the auto repair shop, or on a university campus.  There is a constant need to check to see if they are still plugged in.  It is a nervous tic that they don’t even know is a tic.

In previous times, when we were more tied to place and limits as a society, people were reached at a specific location.  Letters came to homes.  Telegrams came to homes.  Phone calls were placed…to homes.  The cell phone, the harbinger of the always-on internet society, unhooked the anchor of place from communication.  And when communication is not limited, is not circumscribed, it becomes unlimited and tyrannous.

In the face of such tyranny, and as I made the changes to my email life, I became even more radicalized.  I changed my cell phone voice mail recording to notify the hearer that I no longer kept my cell phone on at all times and that if they needed to reach me, they could leave a message with a good time for me to call them back.  I would turn my phone on periodically to check for messages, I would return those calls, and then I would turn the phone back off.  If they needed me urgently they could call me at my office.  I’ve had this in place for the last week and it is a remarkably exhilarating feeling.

Irresponsible?  I doubt it.  While people always cite “emergencies,” more often than not the singular reason that a cell phone exists in their lives is to give them a crutch to prevent them from being alone with themselves, their thoughts, and their fellow human beings.  Going to the gym?  Call a friend.  Running an errand?  Send a text.  Eating something interesting?  Take a picture and show the world on Facebook.  We are incapable of living outside the virtual cloud that surrounds us.  We can only fully live if we are constantly connected.

Or we can turn it off, put ourselves back in control of the machine, and take back the solitude and dreamy quiet of our thoughts: the beginnings of a recollection that lends itself to prayer and conversation.

(cell phone powers down)

Stephen Heiner owns a test prep company with offices in Kansas City, Omaha, and St. Louis.  While his BA is in English Literature with a minor in Catholic Studies, he is currently working on his MBA in Management at St. Louis University.

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  1. I must be in the wrong century. I can’t fathom checking my email more than about once every 2 days. I always miss cellphone calls cause I leave it somewhere. I can’t imagine telling the world via facebook what I’m eating no matter how tasty (though I am on facebook). How do people talk on the phone all day? Don’t they run out of things to say?

  2. I check my email everyday, but thankfully I only get four or five a week. Come to think of it my cell phone hardly rings either. I guess that’s what happens when you move to a small island. I heartily recommend it for anyone looking to disconnect.

  3. This story stands out in my recent memory as an absolutely affirmative example of your diagnosis:

    I attend Eastern University in Radnor, PA, and recently had the rare opportunity to attend a poetry reading down the road at Villanova University by two magnificent Irish poets, Peter Fallon and Seamus Heaney. Three other friends and myself grabbed modest but perfectly suitable seats near the back just in time for introductions to begin. I remember a group of students one row back playing out those very tics you mention — the non-stop checking of the cell phone, the apparent need to send a text message, the redundant tick of keys, at least once a minute. This was, however annoying, not particularly unbearable until Peter Fallon took the stage, and the texting continued. With no exaggeration, these kids were looking at their phones more than they were watching this beautiful old Irishman wax lyrical about the land, place, and community. The trying of mine and my friend’s patience came to its apex as Fallon was reading an excerpt from his splendid translation of Virgil’s Georgics. My friend broke first, asking one of the young girls to please step outside if she needed to text; the incessant click-click-click made the poetry, which we are all, supposedly, here to experience, impossible to remain focused to. The most surprising part of all of this was how absolutely confused she seemed that we had levied such a complaint to begin with. She seemed to struggle simply to comprehend what we meant by it, as if she could imagine no other way to compose herself than the way she had been.

    Something is terribly wrong when we are coming to such magnificent celebrations of the written word, and are able to concentrate on nothing but that little glowing screen we just can’t seem to keep in our pockets.

  4. Don’t forget Instant Messaging. At my office IM-ing is a major distraction with constant messages interrupting my ability to concentrate on the task at hand.

    The worst thing about IM is there is no regard for what you may be doing at the moment. You are simply expected to drop everything and answer your colleague’s hail and these conversations are usually for things that could be handled via email. With IM (even more than text messaging) you are expected to respond quickly and if you don’t you are usually viewed as rude for ignoring your pest. These technologies are nice tools but highly abused.

    I long for the days of having to get up from my desk and walk down the hall to have a conversation about something.

  5. This past 4th of July, I saw the fireworks from a beach house down here in paradise. During the fireworks display I walked down to the sand where the crowds were, and was taken aback by all the little lighted screens dotting the beach like a thick swarm of fireflies. I suppose everybody was taking snapshots with their phones, but I wonder if they were so distracted by it that they missed the REAL fireworks!

  6. I felt this way about land-line telephones, and still do feel this way about the telephone in general. A ringing telephone is a rude, nearly unforgivable, intrusion into my life perpetrated by the person on the other end. I’m doing something here – living life – can you please stop interrupting me? I equate it to a dog nudging you awake each time you go to bed for the night simply because they want to play fetch. How long would you put up with that? Yet some permit, even long for, the same thing in their waking life. That others have a different attitude regarding the phone (i.e. getting out of a shower to answer an unexpected phone call not even knowing who the caller is) strikes me as utterly bizarre. Have some self respect. Be more selfish about your time and your life…it’s your possession, not that of those who wish to chat.

  7. On one hand, I LIKE BEING PLUGGED IN! I have more interaction with long lost friends and am able to keep friends I would have lost (like when you leave a job) thanks to facebook. I love hearing that my friend Diana in Seattle got rained on during her morning run, or that my friend in Texas was reading an old journal and was inspired by something I said to hear a few years ago. And I love seeing friends’ families and vacations. Why is it “wrong” to experience life in this virtual manner? It’s cool and it’s the reason a billion people are on facebook.

    On the other hand, I love putting my phone down and having a camp fire and a drink with my neighbors. I like going on a date with my wife where we both promise to ignore our iPhones. Going to the pool is nice because I never take my phone.

    BUT expectations are different than they used to be too. I was in Mexico for a week this summer and returned to nearly 300 emails. Knowing that they were adding up like that was stressing me out while I was trying to relax with my family. It would have been nice to have just plugged in for a few minutes a day to keep that under control. (Of course, I work in the internet marketing field so 95% of my job is accomplished via email.) I feel that I simply can’t unplug because people expect so much from me in the virtual world. Maybe I should be more selfish, but it could be costly in my field.

    Never the less, I think it comes down to making a choice as to when you should plug in or unplug – and finding balance in that choice.

  8. I wonder, do you front porchers have any thoughts on good careers for a young, liberal arts degree-holding professional, that would exclude technology as much as possible?

    I wanted to go into journalism– because I’m curious, and thought I’d be able to delve into interesting issues and learn a lot about them–but I can’t delve too deeply while having to Tweet and Check In etc etc all day long. The constant intrusions take the joy of focused learning and creating right out of the work, so I’m reconsidering.

    What are good, intellectually-challenging jobs out there right now can you just focus on a task and complete it, without staring at a screen (or 3) all day long? Any thoughts?

  9. good reasons to get rid of blackberry.

    i hope fpr runs more articles by asian americans. i appreciate the asian american perspective.

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