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My smartphone died, and I (almost) didn’t miss it

Generic mobile phone photos. 9 May 2014.The Age. Photo:EDDIE JIM.Two weeks ago, my smartphone shut down because of a low battery as I was about to board a flight to Europe. That seemed odd, given that I had barely used it that day. I plugged it in on the plane, but seven hours later, it still wasn’t functioning.

When I arrived at my hotel I tried a different charger, to no avail. The phone was dead – terminally so, it turned out.

I hadn’t brought a laptop, so I had no access to the internet or email. I had no camera, no guidebooks, no maps.

I took a deep breath and decided to make the best of it. I’m hardly a smartphone addict. I rarely look at social media. I had happily travelled in Europe in the years before mobile phones. I decided to emulate the movie star Eddie Redmayne, who last year said he had given up his smartphone in order to live “in the moment.”

For the next 10 days I lived without my phone or any other connection to the digital world. There were indeed many compensations. But it was hard to shake a free-floating anxiety that some disaster loomed. (How would I retrieve my return flight reservations from a nonworking mobile phone?)

Lately the big internet companies have come under a barrage of criticism for invading privacy, carrying fake news, spreading hate messages (and selling ads against them) and undermining democracy. What I learned is that, for better or worse, they have so changed the world that life without them is all but impossible outside a monastery.

Road maps, a mainstay of my pre-mobile phone trips to Europe, were nowhere to be found, nor were the bookstores that used to sell them. The rental car agency in Milan offered a guide for getting out of the airport, but that was about it. Everyone assumes you have access to Google Maps.

Once you’re off the major highways, Italian roads are a spider web connected by roundabouts, bristling with signs pointing to the nearest tiny villages but lacking any route numbers.

The tried-and-true method of asking for directions prompted some human interaction and gave my travelling companion the opportunity to practice his Italian. But it was a reminder that human beings are often unreliable.

The rental car agent in Milan gave us directions to Siena via Genoa, a route, we later learned, that added about two hours to the trip.

Trying to find a house in the Tuscan countryside by asking passers-by was futile. No one in rural Italy seems to use street addresses, which, in any event, don’t correspond in any rational way to actual streets.

Living in the moment isn’t so great when you’re lost.

While I had no phone of my own, others with me had theirs, and I had to rely on them on several occasions, starting with simply finding our house. We had to call the housekeeper for directions (three times).

After that, I relied on borrowed phones, and we used Google Maps for navigation.

I shared my experience this week with Adam Alter, an associate professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business and author of “Irresistible: the Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked.”

“One problem for people who choose to be without phones is, as you found, that people expect you to have one, and infrastructure is designed with the knowledge that almost everyone does,” Alter said. “You’re borderline forced to carry one for basic utility even if you’d prefer not to.”

Without access to texts or email, I couldn’t see or respond to any messages, no matter how important. I waited three days before breaking down and (again) borrowing a mobile to check email. But to gain access to my email from an unfamiliar device required a code sent via text to – where else? – my dead mobile.

Once I gave that up, I was fine, perhaps because I didn’t feel any guilt – it wasn’t my fault the phone failed and I couldn’t check messages. For others, this may be difficult: Alter’s book reports that checking emails has become a widespread addiction.

At first I missed my phone’s camera feature. I was on holiday in a beautiful country, after all. But after a few days I stopped thinking about documenting the trip and simply enjoyed it.

Without internet access, I had no access to travel mainstays like TripAdvisor or OpenTable. But there were some old guidebooks at the house where we stayed, and major historic sites, tourist attractions and even restaurants don’t change much in a place like Italy.

I found it’s not hard to sniff out a promising restaurant that appeals to your personal taste, as opposed to crowdsourced recommendations. We made some wonderful discoveries. And afterward there were no emails asking me to review the experience (and provide sites like TripAdvisor with free editorial copy).

Alter pointed out that “this sort of serendipity is often the route to novel, exciting, trip-making experiences.”

He added that “phones overschedule and over regiment our lives, which robs us of these opportunities.”

I quickly grew accustomed to having no news, sharemarket quotes or weather forecasts. I’d never want to live permanently without them, but checking out for 10 days was therapeutic.

I read nothing about Donald Trump.

Still, I broke down midweek when the housekeeper asked me what I knew about Harvey Weinstein. The allegations of the movie producer’s serial sexual misconduct had broken the day after I left, and was now blanketing Italian media. I knew nothing. So I borrowed a phone and read The New York Times account and then The New Yorker piece that followed. Both were riveting but interfered with what had, until then, been blissfully untroubled sleep.

After returning the rental car in Milan, I realised that no phone meant no Uber app. That meant we did a lot of walking in what turns out to be a fascinating city. And my anxieties about my return trip proved unfounded. I skipped the check-in kiosks at the airport, went to the check-in counter and got an old-fashioned paper boarding pass with minimum fuss. Time for self-reflection

I’d never leave home without a working smartphone again. But denied access to the internet, I had time to read several books. I focused more on the people with me and the beauty of my surroundings. I was more open to unplanned experiences. I had time for self-reflection. I’d like to think that, on future trips, I’d use the phone only when essential.

It turns out there’s an app to help people do that.

Called “Moment,” from the software developer Kevin Holesh, it is designed to curb smartphone dependence and promote “a sustainable work life balance,” as he puts it, by letting users set limits on their phone and internet use. (Put aside, for the moment, the paradox of needing a phone app to break you of your phone addiction.)

“Recently, I spent two weeks in a place without mobile phone coverage and had a similar experience to you,” Holesh told me. “It was really inconvenient not to have Maps, but refreshing to not constantly be worrying about what’s going on.

“It was literally the longest stretch of time I’ve not accessed the internet in 15 years,” he continued. “The first few days were tough, but after that, I got used to the lack of connectivity and loved it.”

The New York Times

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