I Hate My Phone

Is this thing the bane of travel?

I hate my phone.

Well, not just my phone, but all phones that fit in one’s pocket.

There’s a direct correlation between the portability of one’s devices and the sense of obligation other people have for your attention.

For brevity’s sake, let’s just refer to this as Murd’s Law.

You’ve all heard of Moore’s Law, right? It states that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles about every two years, thus exponentially increasing both computing power and storage space.

Well, Murd’s Law is sort of related to this. It says, “Technology gets lighter and smaller, but the weight of obligation attached to it grows.

What began as a helpful device — real-time online mapping, for example, and the ability to Google restaurants in the vicinity rather than ask around — quickly became the bane of travelers, and a curse for anyone who writes about place.

I realize I sound like my father when I talk about that distant time known as “the good old days”. But I’m going to anyway, because it really was better in so many ways.

Ready…? Okay.

Back in my day, we didn’t have mobile phones. Internet came on the scene when I was in university, and was chiefly used for following martial art newsgroups and looking at images of naked ladies. Even the naked lady photos seemed like a gradual striptease compared to now, because they loaded so slowly.

When I started traveling, there wasn’t 4G. There weren’t even internet cafes. Contacting people back home meant finding a government phone centre in a larger town, filling out a paper form, and paying to place a call. No one from home was able to call me. Unless I checked in — which I did very rarely — I was off the map.

In recent years, the only two times I’ve been able to drop off the map like that was 2013 and 2015. Both of those trips were expeditions into the central Sahara. We carried a satellite phone for emergencies, but otherwise, when we drove out into the desert in our Land Cruisers, we were out of reach for a month.

Yes, it was painful coming back to hundreds of emails. I was tempted to just turn around and go straight back to Uweinat again. But nothing burned down because I was offline. The world didn’t end. There weren’t any issues that couldn’t wait, or crises that couldn’t be solved by someone else.

The most startling thing that happened when I was cut off like that was stopping for fuel in a town in Namibia and seeing a newspaper with “Kim Jong-il has died” on the front page. I could see that the world had changed while I was off the map. But I had changed more.

Those periods of total immersion in another culture and another landscape have become incredibly rare in today’s hyper-connected world.

The home phone doesn’t just ring for someone in the house anymore (usually my sister — she had very chatty friends). No, that thing in your pocket is ringing just for you. And don’t even think of ignoring it. You will be bombarded by “Where are you? What’s going on? Why don’t you answer?” on 83 other channels, from social media to Skype chat.

Technology brought some convenience, but it also brought a creeping sense of entitlement that presumes you should be available at any moment and any hour of the day. If, like me, you leave your phone face down on a desk in another room and tend to forget about it unless you want to use it for something, you will be regarded as an eccentric or an annoyance. Probably both.

But here’s the thing.

I don’t want to be tethered to my phone when I travel. If I’m writing about a place, I need to be immersed in that place, to look around and observe rather than stare at a screen. Getting emails or phone calls pulls me out of that place and completely shatters the notion that I am somewhere else. Physically, yes, but mentally, no, I’m still back at the office or in my hometown. I can’t capture the mood of a place if the phone keeps buzzing and yanking me away.

The most life-changing experiences I’ve had on the road were the result of dropping off the map in a place where no one knew me. Being left to my own resources to figure things out as I moved through places that felt like another planet. The plains of Mongolia, or the endless Martian flats of the Gobi desert. Life was different there in ways I could hardly explain.

I dream of the day when I can walk away from my internet business and do a book-length trip like that again. A few months across Central Asia, perhaps, by local bus and on foot, or a journey by Land Cruiser through southern Africa. But the longer I put that off, the more thoroughly enmeshed I seem to become. This web of technology clings. It’s like walking into a spider’s web on a forest trail. The more you struggle, the more it clings to your face.

These days, I have a very cheap monthly phone plan from Tchibo, the German coffee company. My data roaming never works outside Germany, which is a pain sometimes but it’s also a blessing. I can’t rely on it even if I wanted to.

But even when I’m traveling in Europe, I leave that irritating smartphone in my room when I’m out wandering around. I don’t want to see the thing. All I need is a paper map, a notebook and a pen.

I’m forced to compromise by checking messages first thing in the morning and last thing at night, but this is my limit.

I’ve managed to travel like that even with an online business to run, in part because I’ve got great systems and great employees, and because I had a business partner who understood my need to go away. But also because I remind myself of my priorities. Life is short, and I might never have a chance to experience that place again.

If everything falls apart because I’m out for a few hours, then I guess it falls apart. But nothing ever did. Most of those urgent emails and questions weren’t very urgent after all, and if they were, they could be solved by someone else.

This notion that we have to be connected 24/7 means that we live our lives according to other people’s demands, whims and sudden inspirations, and not our own.

I wonder if I would have understood this if I hadn’t travelled in the pre-internet age?

 

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Comments

  1. Rob Cameron says

    I would be curious to know if Tomoko feels the same way about her camera. Does the act of taking photos distance her from the emotional/feel of the scene? Although as a professional, perhaps this doesn’t come into play.

    For my self, I love having the photos but I always feel like I have missed being in the moment by taking them.

    • Ryan Murdock says

      I’ll ask her to reply. I think it’s different when you’re on the road for a job. I’m walking around with my notebook, waiting for something to happen but trusting my instinct to see it when it shows up, and to follow that thread. Very similar to the way I traveled before publishing anything. But all the photographers I worked with were focused on capturing the place, always looking at frames, images and light.

      For me, when it comes to photos, I regret not having any photos from high school, all the idiotic things we got up to. But I also treasure the few photos I have from my earliest trips. Those 4 or 5 rolls of film that covered 3 or 4 months of travel, printed on the road and cherished because there were so few of them.

  2. Tanmoy Sadhukhan says

    I also hate my phone, specially I’m hating since it got smart. I cannot ignore emails, IMs, Skype etc. Every day of the week and almost 18/20hrs a day is now my office time.

    I wish I could get back to the era without a smartphone.

    • Ryan Murdock says

      I know what you mean. There’s no space, no escape from it. It’s like a prison we carry around.

      As far as I’m concerned, unless the building is burning down or there’s a major crisis, anything I send you should wait until sane daylight hours. Few things are urgent enough to shatter my writing mode on a trip, or to shatter your sleep. Life’s too short for that.

  3. A brilliant article, you have absolutely spoken my mind! There was certainly something very special about the time when you could go away and be completely ‘off grid’. I live in the UK, and growing up we would always take holidays to places like France and Germany, so nowhere too far away but without the technology we have now, it still felt it!
    I won’t forget being on a trip a few years ago and logging onto Facebook to see about negative things that were happening at work. It caused me quite a bit of worry and ruined part of my trip. I suppose it was my own fault for logging on, I certainly know for next time to do as you suggest and leave it in the room whilst out and about. It’s just alarming how easy it can be to be manipulated by phones / technology.

    • Ryan Murdock says

      That’s it. It’s so difficult to get away from it now, even when on vacation from work. Because we’re never out of touch, there’s an assumption that we’re always within reach and a feeling of obligation that goes with it. Sometimes it feels like not answering is a deliberate slight.

      I find the same can happen at home. If I can avoid checking email until late morning, then I can immerse myself in several hours of productive writing. But one look at email and all those backlogged demands and I’m knocked out of that pleasant writing frame of mind for the rest of the day, forever hustling but never catching up.

  4. Geoff Wilson says

    I totally agree and yet totally disagree.

    I love my phone. I’m in awe that I have such a glorious cornucopia of resources available to me, whenever I need them. But there’s the key: I. I have the power to utilise the device when it suits me. And I have the power to ignore it when it suits me too.

    My phone has been set to silent for the last 3 1/2 years. If I happen to see your call coming in, and I want to talk to you, I’ll answer. Same goes for every other form of communication the thing facilitates. The device is in my pocket for my convenience; not yours.

    But that’s only half the transaction. To optimise our behaviour, I have to respect your right to do exactly the same. If I send you an email at midnight, it’s because that’s when it suits me to send it, not because I expect a response by 1:00am. I have to be prepared to wait for you to answer me when it’s convenient for you to do so.

    The people I communicate with regularly have become accustomed to this. I have established their expectations. Of course spending lots of time in a different hemisphere made that exercise a bit easier.

    It’s our behaviour we have to modify, not our tools.

    • Ryan Murdock says

      I love my laptop for that reason — for the incredible wealth of information at my fingertips. But I don’t need it in my pocket.

      I don’t use my phone to read, consume news, video, etc, and I can’t type on its tiny screen without extreme frustration. I don’t follow social media either, apart from posting my article links on Facebook. And I don’t even use my phone to listen to podcasts or music. I have one of those old square ipods, the really tiny ones, to listen to podcasts at the gym. It can’t connect to internet, and no one can interrupt me even if they wanted to. The phone stays in my locker.

      Like you, my phone ringer hasn’t been switched on for years. No one has my number either, and I don’t answer if I notice a call coming in. Unless I have to use it, it sits in another room face-down. I avoid connecting to internet when i’m out too, unless I need to use it for something specific.

      I only take calls that are scheduled in advance, or at least confirmed with a quick email first. And I would never dream of interrupting anyone else with nagging calls either. Like me, they might be writing or reading, and I know how such interruptions break the spell.

      We’re on the same page as far as that goes. I would dispute this point, Geoff: “It’s our behaviour we have to modify, not our tools.” These devices are changing our brains in ways we’re just beginning to understand. Shorter attention spans is just one of them. But that’s an aside from the main point we’re talking about.

      My criticism isn’t so much the device but the result of never being out of reach, something made possible by these things and their coverage.

      The biggest issue for me is with work and expectations of constant availability. Friends contact me by email, and they don’t expect instant replies. I’ve run an online business for over a decade too, working with a team of 10 in multiple time zones, but apart from the first few years, it eventually settled down into a pattern of established channels of contact. Where I struggle is on the freelance side. The expectation that I should be within reach anywhere and at anytime, apart from when I’m sleeping, even if just for “quick questions” is really oppressive for me. I don’t know why that triggers me so much, but I loathe it. Maybe I feel trapped by that because I need the money freelancing offers? I agree with you that it’s a matter of setting firm boundaries, of behavioural modification. That requires constant vigilance, which is a drain. And it’s very different than working 9 to 5 and punching out at the end of the day.

      But my main critique of these devices is with regard to travel. Traveling in an age before internet was so different. And I don’t just mean that we didn’t have to wade through crowds of screen-gazers who are busy posting selfies on social media at every “site” they saw in a guidebook. I mean in the way that being completely cut off forced me to grow. That’s no longer possible in the internet age, not unless you’re beyond all coverage.

      If I had a smart phone with internet on my first trip to Central America, I would have huddled in my room each night, talking to my girlfriend back home or surfing social media, rather than sit with my loneliness and fear in that strange place. I would have had an escape from the situation I’d placed myself in. Being cut off forced me to turn inwards and find new depths within myself, and to turn outwards and engage with a strange and sometimes frightening world. Sure, you could just switch off the phone or the wifi, but not having that crutch at all is very different. It was a different world.

      On that note, I’m closing the laptop and heading over to Tempelhof for a bike ride that leads to a biergarten.

      A pleasure to bounce around ideas with you, as always. You’ve got me thinking of cancelling my data plan entirely, and leaving the phone behind when I travel.

  5. We are definitely on the same page. I hate unpacking my laptop and charging it, so I choose to put up with the phone. Typing in this website is the most frustrating thing I’ve had to do on it in a long time.

    Another trick I’ve adopted is to use a local SIM when I’m away so that nobody has my number unless I’ve given it to them – which also means no calls from home when I’m in a different timezone.

    I hope you enjoyed that bier!

    • Ryan Murdock says

      Sorry about the site issues, I’ve never tried looking at it on mobile. I know it’s due for an overhaul. It hasn’t changed since they designed it for me in 2009. That’s on the discussion list for this year.

      I’ve been relying on wifi rather than a local SIM when going to Japan or back home. But when traveling in Europe, my German SIM is supposed to work exactly the same in all EU countries, and for the same rate. The EU passed data roaming laws a while back. My data never works outside Germany, but that’s sometimes a blessing. One of the main freelance jobs I’ve taken uses Whatsapp for internal communication. I loathe that it automatically reveals my phone number to anyone in those groups. It’s also incredibly intrusive. (my wife’s company uses something called Slack at work — that sounds even worse! constant nagging chat messages when you’re trying to focus.) I’ve always avoided such things in the past because I find that if people can’t contact you instantly, if they have to wait for a reply, they tend to solve their own question instead. Most of those impulses that prompt an instant message aren’t very important, but the interruption kills someone else’s train of thought.

      I’m stuck with it for now. But this discussion has given me new ideas and new motivation to set firm boundaries, and to refocus on what’s most important and most fulfilling for me, which is finishing my next book.

      Until then, I’m dreaming of the day when I can walk away from my business — or at least, hand it off for a year — cancel my phone plan, and go back on the road like I did 17 years ago. Life is short, and it isn’t waiting around.

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