Learning About the Virtues of Leaving the Phone at Home

Last weekend I headed out for dinner and drinks with friends. I was on my bike and had made it about a quarter of the way to my destination (at a good pace) when I realized I had for forgetten my phone. I could turn back, and be late for dinner, or I could spend the night without my phone… it was a tough call.

I thought about it, and after a busy week of work I opted to leave the phone behind. Sure, I wouldn't be able to call or text anyone to make or adjust plans. I'd have no way of sharing pictures of my foodie adventures, and no way of knowing what important emails were pilling up in my inbox (on my first night off in a week). But I decided to forget about all of those things and spend the night completely offline.

I know what you're thinking: why is this significant? A few years ago, people got by without smartphones just fine. I remember my first pager, my first Nokia cell, and my first smartphone, and at each step thinking, how did I ever live without this? SInce then it's become this constant connection, really something I'm dependent on. When my smartphone is not with me I feel anxious, like either I've lost the phone (because it's never not in my pocket) or that somehow I'm missing out on something.

It's unusual and somewhat disturbing to me how habits I've formed using my smartphone have become so ingrained. As the night progressed, I kept catching myself grabbing for my phone to tweet an interesting conversation point. A strange impulse, and with no means to satisfy it I was left questioning what need it actually served to be always broadcasting my thoughts. Is it not enough to just think or say something clever or poignant and move on?

We were out at a fun restaurant I enjoy quite frequently called the Imperial (in Ottawa, Canada's capital city). The food is great, and the walls are adorned in genuine vintage B-movie posters. I'm a big fan, and in fact I'm there so often that I'm well on my way to Foursquare mayorship. I thought about how I missed out on the check in; the oportunity to let my friends know I was out should they care to stop in, the opportunity to earn a badge, to gamify my life. Do I really need to check in somewhere to prove I was there?

Out on my bike, in the city, I love the mobility of being able to ride from one location to another quickly. I'll take any opportunity when something comes up in a different neighborhood, just for the opportunity to ride. I had no texts, no Foursquare to see if my friends had checked in somewhere cool, and no Facebook events to see what venues were offering something interesting (and different from what I was doing) to check out. I felt stuck or even trapped somehow. What about the people I was with, the event I was sharing with them? Does it really matter what else is going on?

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Even in casual conversation, my phone was missed, as I'm always first to try and trump an argument with a quick Google search. What was the name of that actor? What was that movie? Who wrote that book? There was a time where I would win arguments by the merits of my knowledge and experience alone. Sure, I might have been wrong more often then not, but it says something about how human conversation is evolving. When a quick Google search can end an argument or provide more insight on a conversation than just talking it out, what does it say about our ability to discourse? Thankfully, Google hasn't (yet) built algorithms to synthesize all this data into poignant analysis, in which case there may come a day where we just set up two cell phones to argue with each other; Android vs. Apple.

Now don't read this the wrong way, I love technology. I owe so much of what I do and enjoy to the access to information that growing up on the web has afforded me. And despite all my waxing philosophical on the topic, I don't really lament the effect carrying a smartphone has on my life. It's just one of those thing where in noticing the absence of something, you notice your dependance on it. Though I felt alienated in some ways, I also felt unencumbered. Free from my inbox, my notifications and my checking in, enjoying the company of those around me felt more natural. I remember seeing others entrenched in texting while walking down the street and felt oddly satisfied that I wasn't.

It's something to consider: next time you have a night out, consider leaving that phone behind. Make plans with someone, stick to it, and pay attention to them and the people and places around you. If you think to share your amazing diner as a photo Instagram, discuss your meal with the person across from you instead. Perhaps you might strike up a conversation with the waiter, the chef or even another patron about how you enjoyed your order. Love the atmosphere in a restaurant or bar you're at? Why not save that little tidbit for the next time someone asks you for a good recommendation of where to go out in your city? And if you get into an argument with someone, stick to what you know, or just ask more questions. Bring the people around you into it and see if you can avoid a Google search to prove yourself right (or wrong).

In my case I did this unintentionally, leaving my phone at home as a matter of circumstance, but it did get me thinking. If a notification chimes in an apartment and no one is there to check it, does it even make a sound? As busy as my digital life has become, I may consider going without more often, if anything just to really engage the world in front me. As much as I love being an uber connected denizen of the 21st century, it's also important I not let my social networking supplant that deep need for real human interaction and experience.

(Images: Sean Rioux, Gregory Han)

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