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The few, the phoneless

| 28 Dec 2015 | 07:09

There aren’t many left. But ask around long enough and you can still find a few free thinkers who never jumped on the cellphone bandwagon. Just as tourists sometimes have the clearest-eyed perspective on a culture, so can these holdouts offer insight into what the “shining things in your pocket that everyone stares at all the time” are doing to us.

The folks Dirt found had a few things in common. One, they don’t have kids. Two, their work lives generally conform to a routine, and they’ve got phones at work. Three, they came of age in the time when people made plans and stuck to them, when they did not feel compelled to text en route to the place they were supposed to meet, to let you know they were on the way, and were actually, still, probably going to meet you there.

Elisabeth Ladenson, 54, teaches French and comparative literature at Columbia University, and except for a period while traveling, has made it thus far in life without the convenience of a cellphone — a fully functioning member of society who had never sent a single text. When we spoke (via landline), she was on sabbatical in France, writing a book. The most obviously dangerous thing about cellphones is, in her eyes, the texting while driving scourge. Ladenson will lay on the horn when the car in front of her starts meandering in that suspicious manner. But then there’s the more insidious threat, whose outcome we don’t yet know.

“About six months ago I saw someone who was staring into a cellphone and pushing a baby,” she said, “and the baby himself was clutching a cellphone. This was a six-month or nine-month old, definitely less than a year. He was not even sitting up, lying back in his stroller. Instead of looking at the world going by, he had been given a smartphone and was staring into it. What is this going to produce? I cannot even imagine what is going to happen to this world. Kids, when you stroll them around, they look at the world and generally it shuts them up. I just thought, hell in a handbasket.”

Tracy Snyder, who teaches high school science in Connecticut, also has a front row seat to the transformation taking place with the youngins – Generation Z or iGen or post-Millenials. Basically, the phone generation.

Neither Snyder nor her husband Ryan, a mechanical engineer, has ever owned a cell. “We just never bothered to get them when they first came out. We didn’t see any reason,” she said, talking on her home phone as she fixed dinner. “Since then we’ve just watched other people get addicted and spend a lot of money on it. I’ve actually seen people walk into things because they didn’t see where they were going.”

Snyder’s students are “totally freaked out” when they find out she doesn’t have a cell. What if there’s an emergency, they ask. She points to the phone on the classroom wall. What if your car breaks down? I live nine miles from work, she answers. It would be okay.

“Cellphones seem to make people less confident in their ability to take care of themselves,” Snyder emailed a few days after our conversation. “Without the phone, they don’t know what else to do. They have lost the resourcefulness that they used to have because they are too reliant on that one tool for everything.”

There will always be moments when a smartphone might have come in handy. Ryan Snyder would’ve liked to look up good restaurants when he and Tracy were in the Poconos. A smartphone would have saved Amy Fiumarelli, a cellphone-less New Jersey pet store owner, four hours at the airport when her flight was cancelled at the last minute.

But it’s the hypothetical car breakdown that looms extra-large these days. If you’re over 30, you learned to drive before phones and cars ever went together, or else at that transitional moment when the car phone was a clunky novelty that might be found mounted between front and back seats in a limo with tinted windows. From ridiculous toys, phones in cars have in two decades become integral — in our imaginations at least — to our ability to pass safely from point A to B. (Let’s not overlook the irony that something like a quarter of accidents today are caused by texting while driving.)

When Snyder was planning to drive two hours to meet girlfriends in Boston, one of them kindly offered to overnight her phone to Snyder so that she could call them if she ran into a problem. Snyder declined. “If you guys remember when there weren’t cellphones and we all went everywhere and it was fine?” she told her friend. (It was fine.)

“Oh geez,” laughs Fiumarelli, owner of Amy’s Animals, when that argument comes up. “Where am I going to break down” that’s not in walking distance from a house or someone who’s going to stop and help me? Now that her new car has OnStar, about the only times she’s off-grid is when she’s out in the garden or riding her horses.

It was 10 years ago now that Amy’s husband, Rich Fiumarelli, gave her a cellphone, put her on his plan, and convinced her to take the phone with her out riding, for safety. The phone rang in the middle of the woods. Where was she, Rich wanted to know, and what time would she be home? That was that. From then on Amy’s phone stayed in a drawer, until Rich decided he might as well stop paying for it.

“When you have all that connectedness and talk to people all day long every day, like I do, when you’re out you don’t want to be connected. That’s all there is to it,” Fiumarelli said. “There’s no reflection time anymore. No time to be alone or in nature.”

And incidentally, Snyder once asked her high schoolers, how many of you have actually ever used your phones in an emergency? Two raised their hands. Snyder asked one: What was the emergency? He had lost his younger brother in the mall. How did it turn out? The brother, who was 12 (not 3), turned out to be inside the store the older sibling was standing in front of. In other words, not exactly life or limb threatening.

What does “emergency” mean these days? For Snyder’s students, being separated from their phones is up there in terms of stress.

The reception is terrible in the school building, so “every period they run to stairwell” to see if they’ve gotten a text. Snyder has tried to reason with them: there’s nothing you need to know right this second. You’re all in the same building. What could happen between now and lunch? It falls on deaf ears. This constant separation anxiety is stressing them out, Snyder thinks. And wearing them down – because they’re up until two, texting each other, probably about how they’re bored and not doing anything.

Ladenson sees the same thing with the 18-year-olds in her lectures. “It used to be that when the teacher got into the classroom, the students would all be talking, possibly about what a bitch the teacher is, or how much they hate the class, or whatever. Sometimes they would stop when I walked in, or continue, totally ignoring me. Now I’ve found more and more that each of them is just staring at their phone.

“They’re like pacifiers. God knows I’m not the first person to have said this, but I think that learning to deal with boredom is an important and useful developmental phenomenon, and it will have disappeared. People can’t not do anything. The spectacle of almost every single student in my classroom immediately pulling out their phone and staring at it [when I say let’s take a break], it just makes me wonder. It seems very weird.”

It’s gotten to the point where Snyder has to remind her students, before they hand in a test, to go back and make sure they didn’t include any text-speak. Not that her students were spelling bee phenoms in the past, but now, it’s “very hard to get kids to spell out Y-O-U.”

I mention this to my own husband, soon to be 40. He agrees. With the ninth graders, that is. “I feel so formal and old-fashioned when I do it,” he said, “it” being spelling out all three letters of the second-person pronoun.

Maybe it’s just the way of the future. Language is a living thing, a malleable organism. Maybe “y-o-u” is going to look like “thee”, “yours” like “thou,” in a decade or three. What will a date look like, or a party?

“I don’t want to come across as being a total curmudgeon,” said Fiumarelli, who laughs a lot and is not even a little bit scrooge-like. And yet sometimes she’s gotta speak up. Like at a Christmas party where the six women ended up at one table, and one of them pulled out her phone to show another a video, and two minutes later everyone buy Fiumarelli was on her phone, silent.

“Hello. This is pathetic,” she finally burst out. “We’re all sitting around. We’re supposed to be socializing.” What was intended to be a tool for staying connected has instead become an excuse for being disconnected from the people near us in favor of being connected to people far away, she told Dirt. “It goes against everything I think is right.”

Further, what was supposed to be a way of increasing our intelligence by having access to all this information is instead dumbing us down, thinks Fiumarelli. Her friends like to chide her when she asks a question, telling her that she could Google this or that piece of information if she only had a smartphone. “We’re all losing our sense of thinking by not having to think,” she said.

Even in hallowed university halls dedicated to thinking, we’re outsourcing the task. Ladenson’s own students have learned to keep their phones out of sight (yes, this professor really will answer a phone that rings), but when Ladenson guest lectures, often a student will put out a tablet or phone, reassuring Ladenson that it’s okay, she’s looking up something Ladenson just mentioned. As if whether a work of literature was written in 1853 or 1854 were the point.

“One of the many things that drive me crazy about those things is if you say, what year was Moby Dick published or Cary Grant born, somebody always pulls out their phone to put an end to this uncertainty, which really annoys me, because who f***ing cares what the answer really is?” said Ladenson. “It’s more about the conversation and trying to figure it out. That’s the thing about the tremendous connectedness, among the fine useful things that it does, it also short circuits thought.”

A thinker by trade, Ladenson knows owning a phone could be perilous. “I really do not want a computer in my pocket all the time,” she said. “It’s just the same reason I don’t have TV, because I love TV and I would spend all my time watching it. Not because I feel that I’m above TV, but specifically because I know that I’m not. I have a computer; I have to do email. But I’m a huge procrastinator and I’ve found that the internet – and I don’t even venture very far, just looking at the occasional academic blog – is just an astonishing waste of time. If I had that in my pocket I would just never have a thought again.”

The problem, increasingly, is that “you’re screwed if you don’t have one,” said Ladenson. Visiting her girlfriend in Pennsylvania, for instance, Ladenson used to call her from the train station. Now that the station has pulled out the payphone, she uses the phone at a video store, where she knows the owner. “So that’s fine, but how much longer is the video store going to survive?”

“Basically you don’t have a choice if they take all the payphones out,” said Ladenson. “A network of resources will have disappeared. The only thing you can do other than get a phone is to ask someone to use their phone. And if you’re going to do that on a regular basis you have no excuse. You have to get a phone.”

That’s where Ladenson and her fellow holdouts part company. Fiumarelli has no problem asking strangers to use their phones. “It’s almost like immunity of the herd type of thing,” she said. “If everybody around you has one, you don’t need to.”

The five times Snyder has used a cell phone in her life, it wasn’t an emergency – merely convenient. “I said to the person next to me, lemme borrow your cell phone for a minute.” When we spoke, Ladenson was about to make a major change, and she was nervous about it. “Absurdly enough, your message coincided with the very moment when I was out actually getting a cellphone,” she emailed. “I should add that it’s what might be called a dumbphone, that is, the simplest possible thing I could find, and I got it because I’ve found myself in too many situations in which it would have made things easier to have one, and I got sick of making things more complicated for others as well as myself by not having one.”

The phone she’d picked out was “big and huge. The woman laughed when I picked it up because it’s actually made for construction workers. If you drop it it doesn’t matter. It’s got every characteristic that people don’t find groovy in cell phones. It’s not a smartphone, doesn’t have a big screen, it’s heavy. I found it charming.”

PQs: “If I had that in my pocket I would just never have a thought again.” – Ladenson

“Everyone I talk to, they all agree, they wish they didn’t have one either.” – Fiumarelli

“I’ve had students who’ve had to look up their home number on their phone.” - Snyder