Life is an experiment

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Unbearable Lightness of Giving Up A Cellphone

The least expected element of the original Gubbins Experiment in 2009 - not riding in cars - seemed paradoxical: That giving up, or restricting use of, something can be liberating. How can limiting your access to convenience be liberating? That's completely antithetical to everything we're told in this marketing-consciousness-driven world where what we're told by corporations is what we believe.

It is not easy to describe why giving up cars was liberating. It was and is a very "feeling" experience and not easily captured by words. Perhaps the liberating comes from no longer identifying with something that bothered my conscience, or from standing far enough back to see the possibilities of a world not ruled by cars, or frankly just from living more - experiencing the elements, enjoying my own ability to get around.

The Gubbins Experiment for 2011 is replacing my cellphone with a landline telephone, which happened last Friday. I would have waited a little longer to gather more anecdotes about my experiences, but the days have been so exciting that the truth must come now. Below, I'm going to outline some negative experiences I was having with the cellphone, and then some positive experiences - many unexpected - of "reverting" to a landline.

Cellphones: A Bad Reception

1. Just work properly, dammit!

This problem may not be experienced by everybody, but my phone would often not tell me someone had just called, even if the ringer was on. Then there were the more common problems, such as unpredictable battery life and reception issues in my house. The cellphone just wasn't that reliable, which was really irritating.

2. Addicted to your love

Like many people, I often fought temptation with the cellphone. Should I check my messages? Has it been long enough since last time? When is X or Y going to call? Did my phone just vibrate in my pocket? Nope, but I thought it did. And so on...

Wherever I went, my cellphone and its attendant temptations followed me. I could receive a call or text at any moment; it could be from someone unexpected. I was never free. I wouldn't say I was obsessive, save for rare occasions when I was waiting a particular person to get in touch, but I was never off the hook.

3. The robots have landed

When you next have the chance, just before the beginning of the work day visit a stretch of street where people wait for public transit. Does anything look strange to you? Perhaps something reminiscent of a Dr Who episode where everyone is acting a bit odd?

You may have noticed how engrossed people are in their gadgets. It looks like their souls have been sucked into their iPhone, iPod, or iPad (damn you, Apple!). People's faces are dull, they are mute and isolated. Let your gaze wander further up the street and you may see folks all around in a similar condition. Walk into a cafe and see previous vibrant spaces turned into computer banks of drone workers. Have we become robots?

Techno-soul-sucking is claiming lives everywhere. It is a good reason to give up the cellphone.

4. Cellphone or cystphone?

Numerous friends of mine know folks whose doctors told them that their brain tumor arose from their cellphone use. Many of those people were early adopters of the technology in the early 1990s. Although mass adoption of cellphones occurred too recently for us to know for sure the link between cellphone-originated electromagnetic radiation and cancer (such a link might take several decades to manifest), the conversation is beginning to gather pace, spurred in thanks by a new book "Disconnect" by Dr Devra Davis (and by my friend Josh Hart!)

However, some facts are harder to dispute. One: The majority of industry-funded studies have not found a link between cellphones and cancer; whereas the majority of non-industry-funded studies have found a link (see here for more on this). Can't trust the corporations, can you? Two: Some people are electromagnetically-sensitive and become ill when near cellphones or cellphone towers or even other wireless devices. Do the rest of us also experience adverse effects but are just less sensitive to it?

I could not cite health concerns as a concrete reason to abandon the cellphone but it was a contributing factor. I am more cynical than I used to be: We live in a world of lies and half-truths created by the government and corporations (pretty much the same thing by this point) through advertising, propaganda, and endless entertainment. The power elite only tell you what's necessary for them to hold on to their power and wealth. Truth is not paramount. I do not trust the makers of these complex machines with my health and am more likely nowadays to kick it to the man on a whim.

The Lightness of a Landline

Why am I so impatient to tell you now about the landline-only experience? Here's why...

1. The thing actually works

No reception issues, no spent battery, every call is heard, the sound quality is back to acceptable, and the phone doesn't become a firebrick after half an hour. I'd forgotten what a reliable phone is.

2. I'm actually alive

Being out and about is a much more pleasant experience. When I'm in, I'm in; when I'm out, I'm out - it's that simple. There is no nagging concern about messages, no corporate machines tugging on my conscience, just the freedom to enjoy what's around me. It is interesting how subtle the bondage was when I first started using a cellphone back in 1999 and how obvious the freedom from it is now. It took me a while to identify the slavery effect but now I'm a free man. It is a great feeling.

3. Home means home

Perhaps the most fascinating effect has been how the landline has "grounded" my conception of home. Now that talking to someone not in my physical presence is exclusively a home activity (excepting using callboxes or others' cellphones, which I've not yet done), home feels more like home. It has more unique, definable qualities. Also, coming home is more pleasant because there is often the gift of a message waiting for me on the answermachine, which is a kind of "welcome home!"

4. I am using my brain again

Man, you have got to try using your brain - it feels great! I'm actually remembering numbers again (how many of your friend's phone numbers do you know?) and am enjoying once more spotting interesting patterns in people's numbers. And when leaving the house, I make sure that my journey is planned correctly and that I know where I've got to be at what time and have coordinated properly with other people.

5. Goodbye flakes

And no more last-minute flaking - take that, San Francisco! Once I'm out the door, I'm committed to fulfilling my promise to show up somewhere. Nobody can flake on me either and hide behind a subsequent wimpy text message. In fact, no lame text message conversations at all - woohoo! People may curse the day that my ditching the cellphone stopped them ditching me last-minute, but their honor may remain intact, which I hope they'll appreciate in the long term.

A Good Signal

Perhaps this had been coming for a while. In 2009/2010, for a while I developed a funny habit: If the situation permitted it, I'd throw my cellphone as far as possible. This was most common at the beach, where sand allowed a soft landing. It was a small gesture of rebellion against the cellphone. I enjoyed not sharing with others the same reverence for, and subservience to ("My preciousssssss"), the phone. Now, all this time later, the cellphone has truly been tossed.

Let me be clear that I am not making any predictions about the future. I may partially or completely change my mind about using cellphones and alter my ways again. That is my prerogative as a free man.

And I'm also not falling over to worship the landline either. Although its benefits compared to the cellphone many, I wonder what it was like when telephones first emerged in people's lives. Did they get lonelier now that neighbors weren't visiting as often? Did the process of techno-isolation that keeps so many people locked in their rooms in front of televisions and computers begin with the phone? Certainly, phones are marvelous devices but what communication gadget hasn't taken a piece of us in return for its power? Look at children today, born into a cellphone world, and tell me if you like what you see.

There will certainly be many occasions where lacking a cellphone may result in inconvenience. Perhaps I'll be waiting around for an hour without knowing where the other person is. Maybe I'll be stuck somewhere, unable to find a payphone, and needing to reach someone asap. Or I might trek hours to a destination, only to discover that the person couldn't make it and had been unable to reach me with the news. Those situations will happen. On the other hand, I doubt that anybody will suffer injury or death from me not owning a cellphone.

But must I enslave myself around the clock just for the odd occasion where a cellphone might save me? I would rather be free and take a rough edge now and again. The downsides are occasional, the upsides are constant. It feels like a little piece of me has been rescued and delivered back into freedom. The Sound of Music is playing and your Gubbins is a-skipping through the hills.

I can already predict the reaction of many. It will be exactly the same response as when I gave up cars: "You can do it, but I can't - my lifestyle won't allow it". Okay, I cannot claim that everybody's lifestyle will be as unimpacted as mine has been. Sure, many people could give up their cellphones, or limit their use, or try either course for a limited time. But the main purpose of this blog is not to encourage you to do what I've done; this blog is merely to get you thinking. If any of this sparks interesting thoughts in your own mind, mission accomplished my end.

I'll leave that to you. I'm off a-skipping...


  1. Your post made me think. I like your experiments. Have you already given up your TV?

  2. Hey Dr G - I haven't been in a TV household for a long time, but I guess that's kind of irrelevant now that the internet is TV and more. I'd certainly never watch actual TV but even using the internet as TV is something I never really do. It's hard not wasting time online but I try hard to avoid it.

  3. Hey Adam.

    I can understand why you discarded your mobile.

    A change of habit whilst still keeping the mobile may also bring the same results. Personally I get on fine with my phone. I use it very rarely spending about £20 a year on pay as you go. If you don't engage in inane text message conversations, and only use it when it is really necessary then you wont get into the habit.

    It does wind me up though that some people seem to think that it is one of their basic rights to be able to get in touch with me whenever they feel they need to. It is probably why I have a habit of leaving my phone lying around and not always keeping it on my person.

    Dan Bishop

  4. Bless you, Adam. I could actually be near you in public and feel fine.
    One more thought: Do you think cell phones are as addictive as nicotene???

  5. I am thinking letting my cell phone go very soon, and have already installed a land line. The cell phone is good, but has turned so many people into walking zombies and slaves to their phones. It is so liberating to be out of reach! I think the worst is text messaging at all hours of the day and night for something stupid. No telling how many times I've been interrupted in the middle of a piece of fried chicken by some text, and it is much more irritating than a phone call. Just call me, say what you want, and hang up.

  6. Thanks for writing such a good article, I stumbled onto your blog and read a few post. I like your style of writing...