What I Learned by Giving up my Cell Phone for Three Months
By: Mariana Bockarova

It was around this time last year that the unprecedented ice storm hit Toronto and I found myself, like thousands, without power for a staggering 85 hours in the freezing cold. Within the first 12 hours, I sat in my living room bundled in blankets, shivering, but finding comfort in the dim glow of my cell phone. I cleaned up my email with a sense of satisfaction; the proverbial ‘break from life’ the otherwise heinous ice storm had given me allowed a surprisingly high amount of productivity. As hours passed, I searched through my Facebook newsfeed, visited friends’ profiles who I hadn’t recalled in some time, and read through my twitter feed, with the hashtag #darkTO proving particularly entertaining. With a slight smile noting the communal outrage that was experienced towards the ice storm, though I was without power, the little device in my hand kept me feeling well connected to the rest of the world.

I felt alit, that is, until the “spinning wheel of death”, as it is known in the iPhone community, became the last light I saw that night. Then, everything really went dark: Within the first hour of being cell-less, I felt okay. Although, that isn’t to say I wouldn’t habitually check my phone to see if I had any incoming text messages, only to be cruelly reminded that while my phone was physically there, I was, for all intents and purposes, cell-less. The second hour was full of self-distraction by the means of contemplating how to cook in the cold and trying to clean my house with only a candle in hand (which never bodes well). I found myself routinely wandering into my pocket and digging at my phone, wondering whether it had miraculously sprung to life. It really wasn’t until the third hour that I became desperate – who had called? Who had texted? Despite it being two o’clock in the morning, how many “important” emails had I received? Yes, I gather from staring at my wristwatch that night, it had taken me a total of three hours to feel totally and completely severed from humanity.

I woke up the next morning with thoughts sprinting about my flatlined connection to the external world: I wondered how many laws of social etiquette I had violated by not having replied to an email or text in an appropriate amount of time. After all, in the context of social game theory, taking too long to respond could constitute a chief offense. Early that morning, then, I found the dissipation of my distressing thoughts to be proper justification to walk a half  hour in knee-deep snow to a local library where I planned to charge my phone. Upon arrival, and subsequent realization that the library was not yet open, I stood outside for hours, burrowing my feet in the snow, contemplating how it was possible that this little device had such a hold over me.

Marshall McLuhan, famed Canadian scholar and writer, wrote that technologies become an extension of our physical and mental selves. I had become so reliant on my cell-phone, on this seemingly wonderful extension of myself, that I never once thought of the ramifications of this over-reliance: In storing numbers, and using Siri to voice-to-text record notes, I no longer used my memory in order to recall thoughts, but rather I would refer back to my saved data. Through using my cellphone’s built-in GPS, the navigation portion of my brain, which should have evolutionarily been fine tuned in providing a sense of direction by now, had likely weakened as well. I thought about McLuhan’s words and how many times I had wandered on Facebook mobile, particularly during a tiring or boring moment to watch other people live their lives instead of truly living my own.

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Perhaps it was a moment of learned helplessness, knowing the batteries of my cellphone would continuously die and I would be launched into cell-less despair again, but I decided in that moment to bury my phone in the folds of my purse, walk home, and embrace my newfound cell-less existence.

The next three months were met by confusion, anger, and – surprisingly – admiration, by both myself and anyone who had attempted contact with me. Not having a cellphone meant not having instant access to my social and professional network, not receiving information at my fingertips whenever it was wanted or needed, and not being able to respond to emails and text messages within seconds. These were all matters of efficiency and productivity, but the poignancy of not “being connected” really boiled down to having to re-awaken the uncomfortable feelings we have whenever we reach into our pockets to distract ourselves from the harsher realities of life; the moments wherein we’re awkward and feel alone. The first time I came to this realization was at the two-week mark, during my daily subway commute downtown.  By this point, the novelty of being cell-less had worn off. I looked around at the bizarre nature of what is a human with a cellphone; each passenger connected to a world of their own, together. Surrounded by each other, the only interaction each had would be an accidental bump and a half-hearted apology. Though they were all connected – pods in ear, cell in hand – they were inevitably alone, the cellphone a crutch to make it seem otherwise: As a man sitting next to an attractive young woman peered at her cellphone, she jerked up in surprise. He had violated her somehow just by a glance. He then noted something about the nature of Candy Crush and for a brief moment, she looked up at him and smiled, albeit reluctantly, before slumping back, eyes to phone, gawking. He re-initiated contact a few times, before her response was clear: No, thanks. To anyone observing the interaction, her phone was not merely an escape, but a protective friend replacing a physical one. Where she felt she couldn’t speak, her cell did all the talking. With every rejection that faced him, he, as well, would turn to back his phone; too important, too busy to care: The avoidance of those uncomfortable feelings substantially mediated by a cell in hand.

Next, I learned that people are, in fact, wonderful, only they aren’t given ample opportunity to express this quality. This recognition came as I stood outside a subway pod, waiting to be picked up by a friend for dinner. I had no way of alerting her that I had arrived a half-hour early, so I resolved to stay and wait. As I stood there, a middle-aged woman coming out of the subway rushed towards me; “Do you need a token? I have plenty.” I hadn’t approached her, but she must have seen a mark of disappointment on my face and assumed it was due to financial reasons on my part. I explained to her the situation I had put myself in, and she was quick to offer me her phone, as well as admiration for the project I had undertaken. We exchanged numbers – home phone, in my case – and have been friends since. Without my phone, I made a greater effort to connect to friends and saw the quality of my social and family life improve…all without lifting a finger – no pun intended.

Lastly, I learned to sleep. The blue light emanating from our screens suppresses our production of melatonin, a hormone which helps us fall into restful slumber. Decreased melatonin has been linked to higher rates of breast, ovarian, and prostate cancers, and studies have found that wearing amber glasses, which block blue light rays, is linked to lower cancer rates. This particular blue light exposure has not only been found to directly correlate with higher cancer rates in mice, but it has a profound effect on mood as well, being linked to higher rates of depression in mice.

My life without a cell phone lasted a total of three months. I feel like I could have extended it for more, had I not recognized that in unfortunate times of urgency, when needing to be reached is essential, a cell phone proves to be an invaluable tool. Nevertheless, I learned lessons I had forgotten for years in my voyage of cell-lessness, which I hope to remember for many more years to come. If not, a three-month cell-less retreat would do just fine.