Why I Don’t Have a Cell Phone

You can view it as a personality quirk, a protest against the establishment, an annoying denial of the era we live in, or a symptom of insanity, but I don’t own–and have never owned–a cell phone.

This fact alone puts me in a distinct category, especially considering my age. Most holdouts from the mobile-toting trend have several decades more life experience than me. As a millennial (technically–but I resent my generation, so that redeems everything), choosing not to waste my time and money on a cellular device is a social statement as much as it is an eccentricity that inconveniences my friends and family members alike.

As such, I thought it was time that I articulate exactly why I haven’t given in to the “necessity” of cell phone ownership.

FAQ

Before I justify what many consider an untenable position, let me begin by addressing a few of the common questions that people usually ask once they have recovered from the shock and dismay of learning the truth.

Q: How do you navigate?

A: If I’m travelling alone, I look up where I’m going (online–I’m not a caveman), memorize or write it down, and then follow those directions to my destination. Yes, it requires use of my brain, but failing that, there used to be things called maps, remember?

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/shut-and-listen/201604/how-using-your-gps-too-much-could-kill-you

Q: What do you do in case of emergency?

A: Fair point. Luckily I haven’t had any, but previous generations relied on good Samaritans to not screw them over. Cars broke down for a solid century before cell phones became commonplace. I like wearing ties and fedoras, so I look inherently trustworthy.

Q: How do you contact your friends?

A: Mostly through Facebook Messenger. I have to make some concessions. I got a Facebook account because one of my friends made it for me and gave me the password. Otherwise, I’d still be using smoke signals. In terms of social plans, I am the old fashioned sort–date, time, location, show up.

Q: What do you do if you’re running late?

A: I’m not. I’m habitually early for everything, so if I’m delayed, I’m just on time.

Q: How does your wife know where you are?

A: I’m probably the most routine-oriented (read: predictable and boring) person you’ll ever meet. Give her a day of the week and a time, and my wife can name exactly where I would be.

Q: Why!?!

A: Hold onto your fedora.

Ludditism is Genetic

I fall into the category of a Luddite, someone who doesn’t believe in adopting the usage of newfangled technology, though I acknowledge its utility. However, I have to admit that some of my reluctance was influenced by my upbringing.

One of the first disputes I remember my parents having was about whether our rotary phone needed to be upgraded or not. The cottage where I’m writing this from is still equipped with a party line and a rotary phone, which is a hilarious source of entertainment when friends visit and have to figure out how to use it.

Oh, to be young and ignorant.

My mom briefly had a pay-as-you-go cell for “just in case” purposes, but otherwise none of my grandparents or parents ever had one. We got a home computer when it was needed for school assignments. We used to rent a VCR on special occasions like birthdays so we could watch a movie at home.

In short, technology was never a major part of our lifestyle. It was mostly associated with work or school–intrusive things that restricted the time we spent actually living.

That has changed, to a degree. Netflix and blue rays are part of family R&R (aside from the cottage, which is still a screen-free zone, i.e. a real vacation), but growing up with limits on how technology was used, and learning that happiness wasn’t associated with the newest device, was important in establishing my attitude towards it today.

Efficiency is not Quality

I enjoy meaningful conversation and discussion. It doesn’t need to be on a profound topic, or an attempt to unravel the mysteries of life, but I enjoy talking to intelligent and insightful people who challenge my assumptions. This can be done through text (of course–I’m a writer), but it is more personal and more intimate done face-to-face.

In our busy lifestyle, we text because we think it saves time, but I find it often leads to deeper miscommunication, and then the need to clarify and contextualize more. Twenty minutes of messages can usually be replaced by two minutes of actual conversation, with the result being more stimulation and greater transparency.

Interestingly as well, at the risk of descending into the anarchy of footnotes and internet scholarship, rates of depression, anxiety, and ADHD have spiked in the years since smart phone and social media use became ubiquitous. Correlation does not prove causation; however, based on this trend, I think it is difficult to argue that these devices are improving our connections to fellow human beings.

Do One Thing At A Time

Human beings suck at “multitasking” (a misnomer: we actually “task-switch”). It’s just a question of how much we want to suck at it.

Growing up in martial arts had a profound influence on who I’ve become as an adult, influencing my work ethic and personal philosophy in myriad ways. At the start of every class, the practice of zazen (sitting meditation) is supposed to allow a practitioner to clear away all sense of distraction, disregard regret, procrastination, and anxiety, and stay in the moment, your entire being consumed only with the task at hand for the duration of training.

It is an aspiration that I routinely fail at–but worth pursuing nonetheless. This attempt also influences all my endeavours: I try to focus on doing one thing to the best of my ability, before moving to the next. This includes moments with people, too. I try not to split my concentration, to be grounded and attentive, even if we’re just chatting about the weather.

I’m far from perfect. My brain is certainly consumed by the future, the past, and what might be unfolding elsewhere just like anyone. However, not having a cell phone puts me miles ahead of where I would be with the distraction-machine in my hand.

Funny enough, I don’t really mind when my friends or family members check their phones or text while I’m around–providing it’s a relatively brief intrusion. Social norms are changing, of course, but it is generally still held to be rude to use your phone when interacting with a stranger or acquaintance, so when someone is comfortable doing this in my presence, it is a symptom of closeness. I take it as a compliment.

However, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the ironic corollary to this: we are increasingly growing comfortable neglecting the people we claim to have the deepest and most meaningful connections to.

Teach People How to Treat You

If you are one of those people who are always connected, your social circle will learn quickly to expect an immediate response when they contact you. Mine has learned the opposite: I’ll get around to it, but when I’m free. It’s not an insult, it’s a fact–I’m doing something else, and I’ll respond when I have the ability to give you my undivided attention.

Personally, I don’t like the notion of being at the beck and call of anyone who has my phone number. I like having the luxury of prioritizing my communication, with the people physically in the room with me being number one.

Conclusion

For the people who I’ve maintained close relationships with, I’m sure this is comparably difficult–and yes, I have purposely made it that way. However, it is not a test of anyone’s willingness to accommodate an unusual quirk, nor a way of defining the criteria for me to reciprocate a friendship. It is simply a way of ensuring that my lifestyle aligns with my values.

A cell phone is merely a tool, and like any other, it can be used well, badly, or–the most likely for our flawed species–some combination of the two. There may be a time when I have to give in, kicking and screaming, to the world’s expectation that I am constantly connected to the rest of the chaos.

On that day, despite having lost a unique tidbit that separates me from the crowd, I hope at least to be someone who controls the usage of this wonderful mind-numbingly stupid device, rather than having it control me.

The Self-Promotion Paradox

We live in an era of rampant narcissism. The word “selfie” has ingrained itself in our lexicon, our social media feeds are full of celebrities with no discernible talent except egotism, and both mainstream sensationalist media and the average consumer have to scream over one another to get anybody to listen.

I hate it–and I’m the problem.

Both of my passions, martial arts and creative writing, face the same dilemma. If you don’t promote yourself, then who will?

We post pictures or videos ironically with the disclaimer, “Sorry for the shameless self-promotion.” Of course, if we were actually sorry, we wouldn’t publish the post. Yet it is increasingly acceptable to stand at the top of a building and sing your own praises to anyone who will listen. Everyone I know who is considered successful in their own field has, at some point, blatantly advocated for themselves.

We all have our own agendas behind our “brand.” We also all have egos that feel rewarded when we get recognition within our cliques and communities. We all feel as though it is justified to self-promote–because we are right and everybody else is wrong.

So how do you know if you’re fighting the good fight for truth and righteousness, or if you’re one of the bullshit artists endlessly clamouring for another like or share?

Full disclosure: of course, I check my blog stats more often than I should. And, sadly, the results do affect my self-esteem. I already told you, I’m part of the problem.

Discussion vs. Doctrine

One thing that occurs to me is that there is a difference between promoting discussion within your community rather than promoting a doctrine that you want people to subscribe to. Disagreement is far more interesting than universal agreement. Preaching to the choir doesn’t get you noticed, and eventually the choir is going to stop listening.

A lot of my most successful posts have expressed opinions that, even five years ago, my past self would have fought vehemently against. It’s a sign of growth and development, but also a conversation between my past, current, and future selves. I genuinely hope that I look back at these posts in the future and feel embarrassed. This is a process, and it’s one that I want to share with my colleagues and friends to see how their paths are evolving along the same or different lines.

Discussion can go off topic, digress into anecdote, influence old beliefs, and create new ones. Doctrine is static, defined, and boring. Doctrine may earn a like, but never a comment.

Principles or Personalities?

Through self-promotion, are you putting something valuable into the universe, or simply asking for recognition to satisfy your own ego? The answer, of course, is yes. It’s hard to tell the difference, but Bushi Matsumura put it like this: “To all those whose progress remains hampered by ego-related distractions let humility, the spiritual cornerstone upon which the fighting traditions rest, serve to remind you to place virtue ahead of vice, values ahead of vanity and principles ahead of personalities.”[i]

Perhaps this is the difference between self-promotion as an act of selfishness and self-promotion as an act of altruism. Is there an enduring message that goes beyond your own personal agenda? Does that message align with greater ideals that transcend your own flawed perspective and say something greater about the human experience? Will your sentiments echo and be recognized by others as articulating something they have felt, but haven’t put into words?

Then again, maybe this is too much to ask. Maybe a selfie is just a goddamn selfie.

Solipsism for the Win!

Solipsism is the philosophy that we only definitively know that the self exists; the rest of the universe may be in our imagination. The corollary is that we are bound by our own perspectives. We can’t really see another person’s point of view, because we are biased by being who we are.

We promote ourselves because we recognize the inherent value in our own ideas and opinions, even when no one else does. Social media is dangerous because it reinforces this through confirmation bias. It feeds content only to people who are already inclined to agree with it.

So really, we are just in an echo chamber, screaming over our own reverberations in the hope that someone will notice and acknowledge us. Is there a solution?

Allow for silence. Take a break. Become a minimalist in terms of posts and self-promotion. Follow the “less is more” philosophy. Speak only when you feel compelled to. Do it better than me.

In the words of the Bubishi, “An empty vessel makes the most noise.”[ii]


[i] McCarthy, Patrick. “Beyond Physical Training.” International Ryukyu Karate Research Society Blog. <http://irkrs.blogspot.com/2013/12/beyond-physical-training.html> 1994.

[ii] McCarthy, Patrick (Trans.) Bubishi: The Bible of Karate. Tuttle Publishing, 1995. Pg. 67.

Work After Covid

There is a lot of speculation at present about how long the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic will last. Many of us have had the realities of our employment instantly change, with remote work becoming the temporary norm rather than the exception. A lot of experts theorize that this may become the “new normal.” It seems clear that when all industries begin to re-open, they won’t immediately return to “business as usual.”

The good news is that what is normal has always been in flux. My mother recounted that, upon entering the workforce in the 1970s, sexual harassment was considered an inevitable aspect of employment. It simply had to be tolerated. Obviously this issue still exists, but it is not nearly as overt and acceptable as it was a mere generation ago.

Coming out of the pandemic, there are certain lessons to be learned in our approaches to work. Teaching remotely has forced me to utilize some tools that, frankly, I should have begun using years ago. I hope that these adaptations will be permanent improvements, not just done out of necessity until the pandemic passes.

With that in mind, I am hopeful that management will also be progressive in their approaches to how they handle employees’ future work. One of the old school mindsets that I would love to see go the way of the Dodo bird is that time is an effective measurement of an employee’s work.

During the industrial revolution, I could certainly see the value of measuring the number of hours an employee put in. In certain jobs, such as factory work, time is still definitively connected to productivity. However, increasingly our productivity and the time we spend working are two completely distinct categories.

I understand that there is a need to hold employees accountable. Some people are undoubtedly using “work from home” as an excuse to take a vacation. Workers need to earn their pay, whether at home or in an office. However, in monitoring employee performance, I feel like companies are focusing on the wrong thing—duration instead of results. This may be a consequence of the traditional model of pay that is based on an hourly rate rather than a yearly salary.

Every writer knows that the amount of time you spend writing (or attempting to write, in the vicious case of writer’s block) is in no way correlated with the quantity or, more importantly, quality of what you produce. I believe most 21st Century jobs are very similar. You can spend hours and hours working in order to fulfill your contractual obligation, but that is no guarantee of having succeeded in your role.

Like most employees who recently began working from home, I am required to send a Tracking Form each week to report what I did and how much time I spent working. Funny enough, if we were together in the same physical workspace, I would never need to justify my productivity, though my work process is no more transparent at the office than it is at home. Mere presence is enough to make everyone assume that things are getting done. The truth is that it would be far easier to waste time if we were working “normally.”

Many years ago, a poet friend of mine told me that human beings in hunter-gatherer societies were required to work approximately three hours per day to maintain their shelter and find food. This claim may be an oversimplification, not accounting for seasonal variations or activities that blur the line between leisure and work[1], but current trends are not all that different. Studies have shown that the average employee, no matter how long they sit in an office, is productive for less than three hours a day[2]. This supports the notion that companies should be tracking our effectiveness, not our time.

I understand that schedules are important. As an instructor, whether done in a physical classroom or a virtual platform, the students and teacher need to be together. However, I could hold my students captive for five hours a day and not accomplish anything, just giving them menial tasks. We’ve all been in classrooms where the instructor endlessly distributes useless crosswords, matching exercises and fill in the blanks activities, or just puts on a movie because they are too lazy to do anything else. The duration of a lesson is a poor indicator of its vibrancy or impact.

One of the items in my teaching philosophy is, “My foot is always on the gas, not the brakes.” It’s a promise to my students that I will not waste their time. I take that promise seriously. Stretching out a lesson that has been poignant, motivating, and dynamic for an extra fifteen minutes can undermine the positivity of what was already accomplished.

I recently attended a PD event about working remotely, in which one of the suggestions to avoid the distractions surrounding you at home was to list the things that distract you, then list easy and productive things you should be doing instead, and then to do the productive things. In other words, when you’re distracted, stop being distracted and do more work. If it were that easy, we wouldn’t be distracted in the first place.

On resumes and job postings, we always talk about “time management.” Why don’t we talk about “productivity management”? You can force yourself to sit at a computer screen with nine windows open and push through your exhaustion to produce something coherent, sure. But if it’s not something that’s urgent, why not leave it for a day when you’re in the right mindset to excel?

Part of emotional intelligence is managing your motivation. Especially now, when we lack social contact and have terrible anxieties about the future, we are not always going to be motivated. Recognizing that you are not in the right frame of mind to be productive should be rewarded, not punished. Mandating an employee to work under those circumstances might get them to produce something, but it will probably be garbage.

As working from home becomes increasingly common and acceptable—possibly for the long haul—I would urge companies and managers to stop scrutinizing the amount of time an employee spends at a desk and start evaluating the quality of what they have produced. More importantly, if an employee who is usually highly motivated has gone quiet, check to see how they are feeling and make sure they are okay. If you want to keep outstanding people on your team, take Donn Draper’s advice by “letting [your] creatives be unproductive, until they are.”[3]


[1] Godesky, Jason. “Hunter-gatherers have more leisure time.” http://www.rewild.com/in-depth/leisure.html.

[2] “How Many Productive Hours in a Work Day? Just 2 Hours, 23 Minutes . . .” https://www.vouchercloud.com/resources/office-worker-productivity

Brierly, Ester. “The Average Worker is Only Productive for About Three Hours a Day.” https://consciouscompanymedia.com/workplace-culture/the-average-worker-is-only-productive-for-about-3-hours-a-day/

[3] “The Fog,” Mad Men. Directed by Phil Abraham. Lionsgate Television, 2009.