It was a summer afternoon in Chandigarh, India, like any other — unbearably hot and uneventful. I was home for summer break and was waiting outside the local market for my cousin, who was buying groceries.
I sat on my car’s trunk with my iPhone beside me while waiting for my cousin to bring the food. He finally came out, and we headed home. It wasn’t an exciting drive, but I always looked out for one sharp turn that was perfect for burning some rubber as we drove into my neighborhood.
After reaching home, I realized that my iPhone was missing, and I completely freaked out. I quickly mapped its location on Apple’s Find My iPhone app to track it down. To my relief, the phone was nearby — only a couple hundred meters away.
But for some odd reason, it was lying at the entrance of my gated community. I realized that the phone might have been on my car’s trunk the entire time I was driving — at least until I made that sharp turn.
I rushed to the spot, only to be told by an onlooker that a guy wearing blue shorts had cycled away with my phone a few minutes earlier. Leaving my cousin behind, I drove frantically, chasing the device’s trail until the phone’s location froze. I guessed the phone was either turned off or disconnected from the Internet.
In the days that followed, losing my phone bothered me a lot. Of course, my little piece of technology helped me organized my calendar, emails, photographs, videos and more. But what I felt was more than just losing an organization tool; it felt like I had misplaced my digital passport.
I noticed that I felt compelled to check my phone every few minutes for notifications or updates, even when nothing was happening. After a few days without it, I realized that I had developed an unhealthy addiction to the device, to the point where I couldn’t imagine spending a single day without it.
I felt ashamed at how important the loss felt to me. It was trivial compared to larger and more serious issues such as extreme poverty or racial discrimination. After this realization, I couldn’t sum up the courage to ask my parents for a new phone. I started using my old Nokia — which didn’t even have a QWERTY keypad, let alone Internet capability. I could only call or write short text messages, a clear downgrade.
I was stripped of my favorite apps: Instagram, SoundCloud and Twitter, which brought me the latest music, news and photographs. Now I felt extremely disconnected and isolated with my life suddenly devoid of the usual constant virtual activity. I felt uneasy.
Then something else started happening: Over the next couple of weeks, I slowly realized that I was talking more to people in person. I was giving them my complete time and attention.
No more constant inflow of news updates, notifications, emails, texts and electronic reminders: Instead of listening to podcasts and music while browsing the Internet during bus rides, I started spending time looking out the window. Doing ordinary things in the real world seemed so new and unfamiliar without a smartphone.
However, I wasn’t happy and enlightened all the time. I’d go out with my friends and not know what to do when they were engrossed in their cellphones. I’d flip through magazines or read menus, even after we had already ordered food. I sometimes even felt like an outcast, just because I didn’t have a phone with the latest technology. My phone had defined me in more ways than I liked.
I did appreciate my new perspective over family dinners. Before I lost my phone, our dinner table conversations had become dysfunctional with my older sister and me so preoccupied with our phones. I remember itching to reply to text messages during meals. My parents would gently remind us to put our phones away and ask about our day. I would usually answer quickly and grab my phone again. Dinner was the only uninterrupted period of time we got to spend together, and I let most of that time be taken up by my silly phone.
Now, I was more than happy to talk with my parents about anything that they wished to discuss while my sister still sneakily texted away. I could see in her what I was only a few weeks ago — someone urging to escape an immediate reality through virtual means. It was a bit scary.
What I learned was liberating: I didn’t need a smartphone to make me feel occupied or accompanied. I started enjoying life without a smartphone so much that I refused to get a new device a few weeks later when my father offered to buy me one. I didn’t feel I needed it anymore, and I was noticeably happier without it.
Soon, my summer at home in India came to an end. And the reality is that I couldn’t imagine life without a smartphone in college, with stressful assignments and deadlines. When I returned to school at Penn State in August, I finally bought a new smartphone.
This time, I was determined not to become a slave to it again. It’s been a month since I’ve owned the phone, and I make a conscious effort to remain signed out of apps like Instagram and Facebook for a significant part of my day. I try and check them two or three times a day as a reward for completing an assignment or a small project. It usually works.
I want to ensure that I don’t get untimely notifications and alerts during classes, meals and group meetings, so I mostly keep my phone on vibrate. Apart from that, I also prefer using a paper notebook for my to-do lists, calendars and notes. It helps me visualize my tasks better and keeps me away from my phone.
And although it’s true that I have my iPhone connected via Bluetooth to speakers as I write this story, I’m trying not to skip the song on my outdated playlist. It’s a work in progress.