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In late December, while home for the holidays, an old friend and I set out for a café we'd been meaning to visit since high school. Thirty-five minutes into what should have been a fifteen minute drive, we accepted that we needed help. "Just look it up on your phone," my friend said from behind the wheel.
"I can't," I replied, waving my Samsung flip phone, sans Internet capabilities, above the dashboard.
My friend sighed. We were lost.
I seem to be one of four people left on this planet (or at least in this country) who has yet to buy a smartphone. Or at least it can feel that way. In reality, about 50 percent of Americans and 66 percent of adults aged 18 to 29 own smartphones. My own reasons for abstaining are numerous, and range from the practical to the ideological.
On the practical side, I’m deterred by the cost of a monthly data plan (and the cost of the phone itself), my own lack of technological savvy, and the fact that I have a propensity for being, shall we say, a bit "uncoordinated" — meaning I drop my phone. A lot. And while my tank of a flip phone has thus far survived the violence, I’ve seen enough people’s shattered iPhone screens to know "smart" technology is not necessarily "durable" technology, particularly in the hands of a klutz.
Honestly, these are all things I could learn to live with. I could rearrange my budget (maybe) to include a data plan; I could learn how to use new tech pretty quickly; I could be extra, extra careful while using the phone (or smother it in bubble wrap). And certainly there are perks to having a smartphone; I’m sure it would make some aspects of my life exponentially more convenient.
But what it really comes down to, for me, is the ability to get lost.
Off the Grid
In a literal sense, what this means is that I don’t want to know where I am all the time. I don’t want to have a map app at my disposal. I think it builds self-reliance to have to navigate on one’s own, to read paper maps, observe street patterns, and rely on one’s intuition and (gasp) maybe the kindness of strangers.
It connects me to other people to have to ask where the park is, how to get to the intersection of streets X and Y, or where the nearest subway stop might be. Wandering cities and suburbs and sometimes forests, unassisted by smart technology, I am always a little afraid of getting lost — and excited by the challenge of finding my own way to wherever it is that I’m going.
But perhaps the greatest thing about occasionally getting lost is this: Sometimes, I find myself in an even more exciting place than the one I’d planned to visit. I’ve stumbled across a city café with the best tres leches cake to ever grace the planet, an old Maine cemetery packed with moss-covered statues, and a crumbling castle near the banks of a river in Ireland. These are all places I likely would not have seen (and stories I would not be able to tell) if I’d had a smartphone keeping me on track.
The idea of “getting lost” has meaning beyond the literal. Without a smartphone outside of home or the office, I have the ability to get some much-needed alone time, to be “lost” from (read: out of contact with) friends and family for a while — and to escape my own online personae.
It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the social capital of it all: checking in to the hottest bar in town, touting one’s weekend plans or midday meals on Facebook, tweeting a friend’s funny comment the moment it’s uttered. This sharing overload isn’t necessarily “bad” — social media has its considerable benefits — but I’ve found that when it’s always at my fingertips, it starts to pull me out of myself. When it’s easy to share, it’s easy to share without thinking, to get caught up in sharing for its own sake and not because I truly have something to say.
In a similar sense, I value the fact that my "dumb" phone lets my friends drop out of constant contact with (read: "be lost from") me as well. As a result, our time together feels that much more valuable when we connect in real life. I don't want to know what my friends are up to because I've been following them hour by hour on Instagram; I want to know because we've had a conversation. And I don't just want to know what my friends are doing; I want to know how they feel about whatever's going on in their lives, how it's challenging them and making them grow — a level of information that's difficult to glean just by checking Facebook statuses during a commute.
In short, my dumb phone makes it harder for me to be a lazy friend. This is both a blessing and a curse: On busy days, it means I'm more likely to fail at making connections with the people I care most about. But it also makes the "good days," when I reach out to friends and we share with each other in a more emotional way, even more important.
Finding My Smarts
Because I cannot connect with my friends through media while I’m out and about, because I cannot play Angry Birds or browse emails on the subway, I am stuck with myself, and no one else. Getting lost, both literally and figuratively, has forced me to cultivate my relationship with myself. It requires that I be present with where I am, what I’m doing, and who I’m with, even when it sucks. In the process, it has afforded me the opportunity to learn that I will always be okay on my own — and that regardless of the technology at my disposal, I will always find my way back home.
Photo: J. McPherskesen
This article was originally published in January 2013.
Have you embraced smart technology, or are you choosing to "stay dumb"? Share in comments below or get in touch with the author on Twitter @LauraNewc.