Verónica Pamoukaghlián has spent the past several years without a smartphone. She doesn’t miss it at all and recommends that you try it too.
A few years ago, I had a number of readings around the West Coast. I had written a short story featuring poems by me and my ex, which had been published in a book by a well-known publisher. As my ex stayed behind in Seattle, I packed my bags and flew to San Francisco and Los Angeles to promote the book. My editor had also invited me to read in Oakland and, realizing I could take a short train ride from San Francisco to Oakland, I said yes.
I was planning to stay with my friend Brian in Sausalito. The Oakland reading was before the San Francisco one, so I rode to Oakland, put on my alter ego’s wig (I had published the story under a pseudonym), read, sold some books, and off I went to meet Brian at a train station where he would pick me up.
Before flying out of Seattle, I had just gotten one of the latest Samsung phones. My ex called it “a portable computer” and I was really pleased with it. As I arrived at the station where Brian was supposed to meet me in his car, the sun was setting and I started noticing dodgy characters around the platform and its surroundings. Brian was nowhere to be seen.
I needed to have my SIM card fitted to my new Samsung, so I used an old phone to call Brian. He told me he was waiting in the parking lot. I had to cross a dark passage covered by trees to get to the parking area. Brian wasn’t there and I started going back and forth in the hopes of finding him. The second time I crossed the park, a number of strange men, who seemed to be just standing there with nowhere to go, started scaring me.
Half an hour and one more train ride later, when I finally managed to meet up with Brian, I watched him getting out of his fancy car and realized why it had taken him so long to meet up with me. Since I had last seen him, he had aged like 30 years. He was stooping, he looked disoriented, no wonder I had a phone conversation where he claimed to be in a parking lot that was in front of me when he was actually five stations away.
(Oakland train ride selfie)
When we got to his marvelous place on the slopes of Sausalito with a perfect view of the San Francisco Bay, I realized my precious smartphone was missing.
Somewhere between the train ride and the ghastly park, the fading sunshine, the unfriendly faces, and the menacing shrubbery, the device had been taken from me. My first impulse was to go online and get the same exact phone from Amazon. But I was only at Brian’s for a day, so my resolution would have to wait.
Without a smartphone, I was able to survive San Francisco, find the Center for Sex and Culture where the reading was being held, got some great feedback and even an invitation to return with my ex for a reading of our mutual poems, and met up with Brian for a concert at a posh new restaurant.
Without a smartphone, I was able to complete my trip to New York and Miami, arrange my tickets back to Uruguay, organize my visit to my Los Angeles friends, stay in touch with my ex in Seattle, and manage all my work with my online writing clients.
Without a smartphone, I could live just as well as everybody else, keep my appointments, find places in cities I didn’t know very well, book ferries, find cool coffee shops where I could write and writers’ meet-ups to attend. I was, in short, a functional human being.
That’s when I came up with a revolutionary idea. What if, instead of replacing the smartphone, I did away with it altogether? I still had an old thing with no keyboard, no camera, no photo viewer, and no Internet access. I could still make calls and text with it. In the stolen smartphone, I had an essay I had started writing on airplanes and trains. The thief probably formatted my phone and didn’t give the essay a second look. To me, it was the most invaluable thing I lost.
If somebody stole my new “non-smart” phone, I would never have to regret having lost an essay. That was a big one for the pros column. Fortunately, that essay in particular somehow caught up with me on a Uruguayan beach and a new version of it is now published on The Acentos Review.
I have lived for exactly two years without a smartphone now. Whenever I meet someone new and they watch me pick up my cell phone, I can always see the bafflement on their faces. People think I’m poor, strange, outmoded, and probably a bunch of other things. They are more puzzled when I tell them I make my living as a freelance writer with most of my work taking place online.
During these two years, I have never missed a job because I was not connected 24/7, I never missed an opportunity. But I gained lots of time and moments I might not have been aware of if I had been staring at a digital display.
One of the things I value the most is being beyond limits for chain WhatsApp messages. Some of the dullest things I have ever heard or seen in my life involved a friend reading something out loud to me or playing me a video from a forwarded WhatsApp message. I don’t wanna see cute cat acrobatics. I don’t want to hear bad jokes. And I certainly don’t want to see a few boys taking sexual advantage of a drunken teenage girl (sadly, a real life viral WhatsApp). In today’s world, I feel that propagating that kind of banality is one of the most damaging things we can do for humanity.
The Allure of Telescreens
In 2011, I went to see Purple Melon perform at Bardot in Los Angeles. After the show, there was an incredible drummer who was creating music over the tracks the DJ was playing. He was big, tattooed, shirtless, and he was hitting those drums as if his life depended on it. Coming out of the trance of watching him, I looked around the posh room. There were people sitting on luxurious sofas, people standing, people sipping multi-colored drinks in tall glasses. Yet, nobody was looking at the drummer. Nobody was looking at another person’s face. Everyone was looking at the glowing screen of a phone. And I felt like I was the only person who was there, right that instant, experiencing the moment.
The scene has become commonplace now, but for a Uruguayan in 2011, it was a first. I supposed I was all the more impressed because the drummer was just such an amazing spectacle to watch and the bar was so cool and hip, but for all those people, it might as well have been a dumpster. All they wanted was to be fed by the screen, to have their faces illumined by it. To show off what a cool apparatus their standard of living had enabled them to purchase. Everybody was somewhere else, except for me.
Since 2011, smartphones have learnt to do lots of things and people have become increasingly dependent on them. But, as Jonathan Franzen said so eloquently in his New Yorker piece on an Antarctica cruise, “I got the impression that other people in the lounge had a clearer grasp than I of the point of coming to Antarctica. Evidently, the point was to bring home images.”
Today, people do not seem to go to concerts to enjoy music. They go to concerts to publish YouTube videos and Instagram photos. They take vacations in Mykonos to bring home photos of the whitewashed houses and the windmills on the hills. They go to New York to take pictures of the skyline and to Paris to add a picture of the Eiffel Tower to their Facebook photo albums.
(We finally took an eternal love selfie on a Seattle ferry, and then we broke up)
I am an artist. I communicate with words and images. I still take lots of pictures, just not with my phone. Sometimes I find myself thinking, What a lovely sunset, I wish I had my camera on me, and then I realize that if I had my camera, I would be looking at the digital display instead of the actual sunset, and the longing quickly vanishes.
When I fell in love for the first time in 2012, I spent two of the most glorious weeks of my life with my beloved in Montevideo. I treasure countless images from the experience in my memory, but I took only one picture. It was a picture of a sunset at the beach. We didn’t take a single picture of us together, of the amazing places we went, the concerts we saw, the perfect smiles that true love put on our faces. It was then that I realized that happiness doesn’t need to be advertised.
When a couple is truly happy, they’ll be making love in the woods rather than taking pictures of the trees. I have been smartphone-less and single for over a year now. I must confess that I am filling the void of not making love among trees by taking pictures and posting things on Facebook. But I still haven’t felt the need for a smartphone, not even once. In a way, getting a smartphone would be like renouncing the wisdom I have acquired, choosing selfies from Antarctica over the actual experience of being surrounded by frozen divinity. When the eternal happiness I lost is restored, you will hardly ever find me on Facebook and my Twitter will be out to lunch, indefinitely. I hope it will be a lunch that lasts forever.