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.
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?