One morning my smartphone wouldn’t charge, and though I fiddled with it and nudged it and bit it and did all the other things a technically inclined person is supposed to do, it seemed utterly indifferent to electricity, as if suddenly it was made of special non-conductive material, like a telephone pole insulator. I experimented with different chargers and electrical outlets, to no avail. Slowly the battery life drained away — 11 percent, 10 percent, 9 percent, a countdown of doom. I felt a reciprocal increase in consternation and anxiety. How could I possibly get through the day without my phone?
Sure, I could get it fixed somehow, but that might take many hours, or even days, and in the meantime I would surely miss a lot of important calls and texts, and I couldn’t make calls from my car via the Bluetooth connection or listen to the music stored in the phone, and while commuting, I would be forced to scavenge for entertainment on the radio dial or, if that didn’t work, focus on the driving. And then what would I do at lunchtime while waiting in line to buy my rabbit food? What would I do in the elevator when standing next to strangers? Talk to them?
What if that snowy owl came back and perched once again on the ledge outside the office and I couldn’t use my phone to take the photo? How could I prove it happened and that I had been there for this sublime encounter with nature? What would I even do? Just stare at the bird like an idiot? What’s the point of that?
Pondering these looming disasters, it crossed my mind that my relationship with my phone had perhaps become abnormal.
In the old days a phone was just an object. It was not an entity. It was not a second self. It did not live in your pocket. You didn’t have to worry about losing it because it was literally tethered to a wall in your house.
Now our phones are not only mobile, they’re smart, and super-smart, and holds huge amounts of our identity. It’s where our Contacts live, and our photos and videos and music, and our notes and audio recordings, and it tells us the news and even shows us exactly where we are, physically, on a map, and if necessary will show us the nearest place to get ice cream, or how to navigate our way back home. The modern smartphone is less like a child than like a parent.
This is part of the inexorable reversal of humans and technology: The tools are becoming the masters of those who own them.
So anyway, back to the exciting narrative: My phone was about to die, and I turned it off to conserve the final dregs of battery life. But this put me in the uncomfortable position of being a person with his phone turned off, which is to say, someone who might as well be asleep, or in solitary confinement in a Supermax prison, or aboard a nuclear submarine cruising beneath the ice of the North Pole. So after enduring this technological purgatory for roughly half an hour, I turned the phone back on to check for any messages, and then the battery went paws up and the phone died in my embrace.
So I drove to work listening to the radio. Traffic and weather on the 8s. Traffic bad. Weather stormy. Ten minutes later I learned that the traffic was still bad and the weather still stormy. I surfed around and found a rock station playing Led Zeppelin and remembered that I needed to call the Achenbro, the rock guitarist, in Colorado, but I don’t actually know his number even though I’ve called it a thousand times, because only the phone knows these things, and I just tell Siri, the lady who lives in the phone, “Call the Achenbro.”
If I could call him from my car we could reminisce about how, growing up, we had a “party line” telephone. Kids, this means that when you picked up the phone you didn’t hear a dial tone, but rather heard the jibber-jabber of total strangers. You had to hang up and wait for them to shut up.
Before we had cellphones, the way we would find people who were on the move was to go to a place we thought they might wind up, like the high school parking lot. In fact that’s where we always went, every night. If there was no one in the parking lot we would just wait there for a while, and then they’d show up. Oddly, no one ever said, “This life would be less absurd and boring if we had cellular telephones.”
Thinking back on it, much of my life seems to have been barely survivable.
Anyway, so you’re wondering what happened to the dead smartphone. In a heart-warming turn to our narrative, the tech support people at the office were able to use compressed air to blow out the crud that had clogged the charging port. Naturally I was embarrassed — you don’t want to be a person associated with crud — but I was also whole again.
Still, this nerve-jangling experience made me realize that my phone and I need to see a therapist. We need to work through our relationship, starting with the fact that I consider it a relationship at all. I don’t have a relationship, for example, with my refrigerator. (Or I could be simply in denial about that.)
We’re going to fix the power imbalance. I’m the human, the phone is the object. The human is in charge. And I’ve decided that the “missed call” message that flashes on my phone is overly judgmental. Maybe I didn’t “miss” the call, maybe I just declined to answer the call. Why not just say “Achenbro called” rather than harangue me about how I failed to answer the phone?
And sometimes I’m going to turn it off and leave it off. For, like, an entire hour — even if there’s hell to pay later.