This disconnect wasn’t one of experiments where people turn the phone off for a day, and then peter around the house streaming Netflix and ordering takeout on Alexa. No, I was forcibly unplugged from our always-on world for practically three days.
Transferring cell phone service is relatively simple nowadays. Do some paperwork, get a SIM card, call customer service, restart phone, and boom, you’re off. Not this time.
Despite restart after restart plus a total restore, my phone had “no service.” Unless I was near Wi-Fi, I received zero phone calls, text messages, and emails. No social media, no news, no streaming HISHE on YouTube. And for two of those three unplugged days, we were camping in the real backwoods. No Wi-Fi. Effectively unconnected, for real.
Day 1: A “Soft” Disconnect
I was mostly home. Within my domicile, I received FaceTime audio and video calls, iMessages and emails. Out the door, my phone functioned as a shopping checklist and camera. Life continued as normal. We continued to troubleshoot the problem, but by bedtime continued unresolved.
Day 2: A Throwback in Time
Today I had to drive four hours across Kentucky to meet my husband at a predetermined to time. Once I exit Lexington, it’s all rural country driving: farms, rolling hills, dilapidated frontier housing, and forest. Some exits are miles apart and if you’re lucky, they’ll have one still open gas station. No big deal except that’s four hours, alone, with a two-year-old and a one-year-old dog while pulling a camper.
So, as I pulled out of the driveway, I became an unplugged citizen of the United States. No cell phone service providers tracked my location, no weather notifications, no checking social to see the smiling pictures of your babies.
And it was eerie. I left late and my final message to my husband didn’t get through. There was no way to tell him I was running at least an hour behind before stops for gas and lunch.
It was like high school again, except pay phones are nonexistent. I remembered waiting for my parents to pick me up from track practice, sitting on the wall in front of the auditorium, wondering if I’d been forgotten.
No Apple music streaming. I kept changing the radio stations as we approached and distanced from major towns, just like we used to do in the 90’s and 2000’s. There was no point in sneakily checking my email or for text messages while driving because I didn’t have any.
No Google Maps. Unlike the old days, I did not have a printed map with me. The best I could do with my husband’s complex car navigation was to input an intersection with the street his hotel was on. It boiled down to guts and memory. In town, I relied on my memory of the text messaged map. His hotel was on the waterfront. I found 4th street and stayed on it, keeping the river to the right.
Good news! I found him, and only about an hour and fifteen minutes late.
Even he found the experience of me driving across the state without the ability to talk disquieting.
Day 3: Total immersion
The whole weekend continued in that vein. My phone served as camera and stroke coach. Otherwise, no uploading adorable kid photos on Instagram, no texting my parents to say we were having a great time, no Mumford & Sons at the campsite. No streaming Paw Patrol for the kid, no tweeting about the Game of Thrones series finale.
On the four-hour ride home, we regained cell phone service and managed to get to the right people to fix the service. (The problem? A system error with IMEI numbers.)
What did I get out of this losing my cellular service besides a time warp? A deeper realization on how much our constant connectivity drives our lives.
As someone who grew up with a rotary phone and who was gifted a typewriter for a birthday, I’ve lived in a world without cell phones. Nothing has transformed how we live and operate in the last two decades like cellular service. We think we’re being good about not being glued to our phones, but we’re not.
It was weird not being hooked up, but it made me consider the importance of my phone in my life. Before losing service, I averaged about 3 hours of phone screen time a day. That’s not including time spent for work on the computer or any television shows. Since coming back to the real world, I’ve used it a little less. We talk all the time about being purposeful about our screen time, but the hard disconnect really forced the issue.
My husband and I believe we’re probably better at disconnecting than most people. That’s a horrifying thought, because we spend a lot of time with eyes on a screen.
Even if I never used Google Maps or streamed music during my journey last weekend, the ability to connect is still there. Since it’s available, I’m thinking about using it. My mind is turning over, “who can I send a text to? What’s on Facebook I’m missing? What interesting video will I discover on YouTube today?” My husband would have used location services to see where I was in the journey. We would’ve called and chatted for a bit. Siri’s voice would chime, “in two miles, take the exit.”
I wonder how my son would approach a similar problem two decades from now. Will he have the tools and mental problem solving to figure out how to get from point A to point B without having a device tell him how to get there? Will he be able to entertain himself without a screen?
I hope he does.