An iPhone Addict Goes Abroad

On Technology, Travel and Being “Social”

I used to think that being alone meant having no cellphone service. But after living abroad for a year (the better part of which was spent with a locked iPhone; thanks AT&T), I know that being alone really means being in a foreign country where you don’t know anyone…and also not having access to 3G or wifi. It’s terrifying yet also liberating, and even empowering.

I can sit and enjoy a meal on my own without the crutch of a device to distract me. I know that the world won’t end if I don’t check my email every so often, and instead of using my phone as a shield to deflect unwanted attention — pretending to be suddenly absorbed in something when I spot someone approaching — I use my voice. Of course, it’s much easier to deny a friend request or opt not to mutually follow someone than to look a person in the eyes and say, “Look, I don’t mean to be rude but can you please fuck off.” However more than anything, being untethered not only forced me to take in my surroundings, but to take part in them as well.

A common sight everywhere I traveled: groups of friends gathered but not interacting with each other because they’re all looking down at their smart phones. Maybe they’re secretly messaging each other or commenting on the nearly identical #foodporn images that they just posted; I doubt it. I wonder if I’m like that with my friends at home. I hope not.

There’s nothing worse than trying to have a serious conversation with someone who periodically pulls out their phone to check it. I think that’s what I enjoyed most about seeing my therapist. It was unnerving in the beginning, the way she rarely broke eye contact, and throughout the first few sessions I squirmed uncomfortably under her gaze like a child who knows she’s in trouble. Yeah, I was paying for each session but, damn, I’d forgotten what it felt like to bask in such pure, undivided attention.

It’s not lost on me that I’m so busy recording life, I don’t have time to really live it. I’ve become like one of those people I hate, the sort who go to the museum and, instead of looking at the magnificent Brueghel, take a picture of it, reducing it from art to proof. It’s not ‘Look what Brueghel did, painted this masterpiece’ but ‘Look what I did, went to Rotterdam and stood in front of a Brueghel painting!’ — David Sedaris in “Day In, Day Out”

We joke about FOMO, but the individuals who are the subject of all the envy — the ones who get the most likes and who always seem to be in the right place at the right time — are missing out too. I get that you want to capture that Instagram before it becomes a #latergram (I’m guilty of it myself), but in the time it takes to choose the right filter or compose the perfect sub-140 character witticism, you could have had an actual exchange with the people right there in front of you. It’s not always such a drastic trade-off, of course, but when you’re updating you’re not engaging with the real world — not fully, at least. Call it the paradox of social media, I guess.

When I go home in a few short hours I’ll be returning to reliable 4G coverage and an unlimited data plan, effectively making me online and available all the time. I’m not sure if I’m ready for that. Because looking back, putting the phone away and living a little led to some of the highlights of my time overseas; undocumented moments that live offline and only in the memories of the people involved.