Cell phones today in America are of course endemic, if not epidemic. On one of the thoroughfares in the youthful neighborhood in which I live, I can sometimes walk an entire block without passing anyone not on or gazing down at or thumb-pumping his or her cell phone. Everyone has seen three or four people sitting at a restaurant table, each one of them on a cell phone. Or a young couple who should be looking longingly into each other’s eyes looking instead into their cell phones. Just yesterday a homeless man, in front of the Whole Foods in our neighborhood, his cup extended for change in one hand, was talking loudly into the cell phone held in his other hand. Contemporary America might have a homelessness but certainly not a phonelessness problem.
The homeless man’s cell phone was not a smartphone, but a flip phone, rather, I am a touch nervous to confess, like my own. My nervousness derives from my being so out of date as still to be toting around a flip, or what I have taken to calling a dumb, phone. Taking out a flip phone in some circles is tantamount to carrying an ear trumpet—it’s almost quaint.
Only two people have my cell phone number, and weeks go by in which I never use my dumb phone. Still, I don’t often leave the house without it. I carry it around in case some strange emergency should occur in which I would need a phone: I get a flat tire in a distant part of town, I fall and injure myself, I lose my wallet. The one thing I don’t have to worry about is thugs mugging me in order to steal my phone, at least not when they notice it isn’t a smartphone.
I bought my first cell phone roughly 20 years ago. I bought it for my wife, who was traveling frequently between Chicago and South Bend, Indiana, where her aged and ill mother was living. The point of having the cell phone was security. If her car broke down on the Indiana Toll Road, she could use the phone to call for help. The car never did break down, but we kept the cell phone, on which I paid a monthly fee of $36, or roughly $400 a year. Then someone told me that I need pay only $25 a quarter if I went into a nearby AT&T shop and “refilled” my phone every three months, at $25 a shot. At $100 a year, I acquired a second dumb phone—one for me, one for my wife. But the bargain isn’t what is at stake.
The truth is that I am wary of having a smartphone. I already feel sufficiently enslaved by computers and digital culture. I can no longer write at more than a few paragraphs’ length except on my computer. (Solzhenitsyn wrote a good portion of his Gulag books in the smallest possible hand on toilet paper.) I must check my email 20 times a day, including first thing in the morning. I do not myself tweet, but I read the tweets of a few friends and also their Facebook pages. I spend roughly 40 minutes early in the day getting my (mostly unsatisfactory) news online. My computer pings and I rush over to learn the Wall Street Journal has discovered another hedge-fund guy guilty of insider trading, or three bombs have gone off in downtown Islamabad, news that could have waited. Digital life, with its promise of keeping one up to the moment, is very jumpy.
So why, then, do I need to carry a computer around with me, for smartphones have of course become portable computers. Do I require Google in my pocket, a permanent aid to memory, so I can check something as important as who pitched the fifth game of the 1945 World Series? Do I really need apps that will give me stock-market quotations, or let me play video games, or provide Baroque string quartets while I am in the bathroom? I have no need for these artificial distractions.
The mind, the rabbis tell us, is a great wanderer. In its wanderings it often comes upon memories of dear but now dead friends, interesting connections between dissimilar notions, random observations, ideas for stories and essays. No app exists to organize the wandering mind, thank goodness.
Early in the twentieth century, Degas was dining at the home of his friend the painter Jean-Louis Forain, a man who prided himself on keeping up with his time and who therefore had one of the early telephones installed in his house in Paris. In the middle of dinner, the phone rang, and Forain leapt from the table to answer it. “Ah,” said Degas, “the telephone. Now I understand. It rings, you jump.”
Think I’ll stay with my dumb phone.