Out Of Touch

"Hey, do you have the time?"

She doesn't, because, like me, she's ditched her phone for the festival weekend. For me it's an experiment, an attempt to find out whether I'm using the grid, or it's using me. For her, it's routine, just something you do at festivals. She turns to someone wearing a watch; we're just on time for the workshop we're waiting for.

Afterwards we get to talking, sitting next door in the tea tent and comparing notes on meditation, travel, on the experience of disconnecting. Mel tells me about another workshop the next day, one she's been to before but wants to repeat. We want to stay in touch but, without phones, we agree to meet there.

The second workshop is a defining experience, far outside my comfort zone and something I'd never have attended without a strong recommendation. If I'd been carrying my phone the day before, I wouldn't have been there. I've been aware of the first-order effects of having a smartphone all the time; the momentary distractions, the social damage of being only 95% present. What were new to me were these second-order effects, experiences built on experiences that get pruned before I even knew they were there.

I wait for her, but Mel doesn't show - probably she forgot the time. I don't see her again. The tool that would have allowed us to stay in touch would have prevented us from meeting.

For the rest of the weekend I watch for these second-order effects, and I keep seeing them. Due to a change of plans, Viv needs to head home on the Sunday, not the Monday bus we've booked. Normally, my first instinct would be to pull my Galaxy S3, look up our location and distance to the station on Gmaps, check the train timetable out of the nearest station, pull together a plan, call in a minicab, and set an alarm to start the run to the gate. Solitary and supremely efficient.

Instead, I use a 'burner' dumbphone to text another friend. She's leaving too, so we wander up to the gate together and lie on the grass, starting up at the rare blue sky and waiting for the shuttle bus which, we're told, will leave eventually. At Market Harborough, Viv and Emilie figure out the trains together. It's neither efficient nor solitary.

Back in London and fully equipped again, I'm sensitised to tiny behavioural changes that come from being a connected, distracted, know-it-all. I don't talk about the weather; I know. I can't remember the last time I asked someone for directions, or chatted to someone in a queue (I'll be reading my email, instead). If I need to know something about the world, I don't ask people. I ask google.

Carrying a smartphone gives me more ways to talk, and less reason to.

But blaming the device is the coward's way out. Being aware of this effect makes it possible to counteract it, in the same way that giving up alcohol has forced me to train myself to be sometimes spontaneous, casual, even reckless by sheer force of will. It's not that, knowing the time, I could not have started that first conversation. It's that I wouldn't have, and that's fixable.

I'm looking forward to enjoying the best of both worlds.

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