You land in a new city. Just inside the airport, you stop to “check-in” on Facebook. You stand by the arrivals board looking up directions for transit to downtown. On the bus/train, you review the directions to the place you’re staying. You see your “check-in” now has three likes. You have four other notifications. While you’re looking at them, you get two snapchats from two different friends. You snap them back. Just before you turn off your phone, the email you’ve been waiting for comes in.
You check the map – three minutes left to your transfer point. You quickly reply. You get off at your transfer stop and lament being stuck in a rundown part of the city. You sit on a bench beside an abandoned building and scroll your newsfeed while you wait for the next bus/train to come.
Finally you’re back on the bus/train. You’ve got several stops to go. You scroll farther down your newsfeed and end up reading an interesting article. You arrive at your final stop and get off. You look again at the map to get oriented. While you’re looking, you get another snapchat and two more likes on your “check in.” You grab a selfie in front of an iconic building in the city, snapchat your friend back, and then upload the photo to Facebook. Before you turn off your phone, you get two likes on your photo and one more on your “check in.”
You walk to your AirBnb/guesthouse/B&B, but no one is at the front desk. You get out your phone to check the reservation and see more likes on your check-in and selfie, plus three new emails. You read them quickly before opening the accommodation email, and two people wander past – neither seems to be an employee. While searching for the phone number to the place you’re supposed to sleep tonight, you get a text from your friend who saw your selfie. You reply and explain that you’re trying to check in. No, not “check in” – like actually check in. But no one is at the front desk. You’re mid-text when a man appears and asks if you’re here to check in. Finally!
Now: Travel Without Smartphone
You land in a new city. Just inside the airport you search for “baggage claim” and “exit” signs. You check the piece of paper in your pocket where you wrote directions for transit to downtown. You walk by an info desk and stop to confirm you’re headed in the right direction. They give you helpful details. When you board the bus/train, you ask a driver/local where they’d recommend transferring to the uptown transit line. She tells you a spot that’s different than what you’ve copied down from google, but her idea sounds much better – the University.
On the bus/train, you sit across from a pilot who says he’s based elsewhere, but here for the night. He explains how pilots get their assignments, how easily they change, and what it’s like to spread one’s life between so many cities. Out the window, you see a school bus pull up to a trailer park entrance. You’re impressed by the number of waiting parents, the arms of whom most the kids’ race toward. You note that many of the trees lining the roadway cause it to look and feel like Oregon. Under a bridge, you spot a homeless encampment. You pass blocks of businesses whose signage is mostly in Spanish. You notice the design of the local license plates are different than you’ve ever seen. You look up toward the ceiling and see a transit-ad that says, “We know traffic here is pretty awful. Thanks for riding public transit and being part of the solution!” You wonder at which point on your trip you’ll experience this “awful traffic.” Out the window you notice all the midrise buildings are similar shades of cream, tan, and brown. Everything is the color of sand and looks like it could be any-small-city USA.
You get off at the University, thankful you didn’t take Google’s suggestion to sit around in that run-down part of town you passed through. You notice university students wearing t-shirts matching the buildings you saw downtown. What an earthen place you find yourself in! You watch university life as students, professors, and staff move between buildings.
Finally the next bus/train arrives. You’ve got several stops to go. Out the window you see enormous agaves – the biggest you’ve ever seen. Prickly pear cactus seem to grow here, too. But the pads are shaped in an unfamiliar way. As a drizzle starts, you think about how much you love the rain and how perfect a welcome it is for you.
You arrive at your final stop and get off. You look up and down the street, confirming you are where you expected to be. You move toward your destination, thinking about how lovely all the people seem so far. The info desk ladies were super nice. The transit driver was really helpful. The pilot’s story shifted your perspective just a little.
You arrive at your AirBnb/guesthouse/B&B, but no one is at the front desk. You poke your head around a corner. Two people wander past – neither seems to be an employee, but you ask them if they know anything about check-in anyway. They tell you the owner just went to check on his napping baby, but will be right back. They ask where you’re from and what you’re doing in the city. You discover shared interests and they invite you out to dinner with them that night. They’re going to two iconic places in the city. You happily accept. You’re just finalizing plans and saying goodbye to them when a man appears and asks if you’re here to check in. Your new friends explain that he’s the owner and tell you to ask him about three “locals-only” places he shared with them. Awesome!
Self-Sufficiency vs. Self-Worth
The first scene above is one I made up – an amalgamation of the smartphone behavior I see around me. The second scene is my smartphone-free experience landing in ====Austin, Texas for the first time ever. The AirBnB/guesthouse part is adapted from elsewhere in my life (because I’m madly in love with work-exchanging and prefer it over all other types of accommodation), but the rest of it is exactly what happened.
Is it just me, or does scene two sound way more fun and interesting? Granted, many of the experiences of scene two can be had by owners of smartphones, but not all of them. Having your face in your phone easily becomes a Pavlovian behavior that robs you of the potential to notice and make meaning.
Even more important, I think, is the self-sufficiency/self-worth tradeoff involved in turning first to a smartphone.
Not your self-worth.
Those around you.
When you get route-advice from bus driver instead of Google, you not only get better advice, but you acknowledge the driver’s usefulness to the world. At the airport, one could easily just wander around referencing smartphone-derived instructions and squinting at signs and placards, but asking the info-desk women earns one a sense of certainty and offers the employees a moment of novelty and an opportunity to give, which is a reward in and of itself. One could also just visit highlights alone and arguably find “locals-only” hotspots on Reddit and the like, but that version is less likely to lead to the incredible perspective shift and joy that can come from sharing our lives with others.
I’m not arguing against the usefulness of smartphones. There are plenty of times that I see I could solve a problem more easily and quickly if I had a pocket computer. But there are also plenty of times that I am surrounded by people glued to their screens while I watch children playing under a rainbow outside the train window. And there are plenty of times not having a pocket computer forces me to the edges of my comfort zone… the place where the most memorable, fun moments of my life have happened.
Certainly no amount of luddite philosophizing is going to convert anyone to my crazy lifestyle. So instead, how about a challenge: the next time you go somewhere new – even if it’s just in your city, try it without a smartphone. Challenge yourself to go without it – from your front door, out into the world, and back. The more terrifying this sounds, the more perspective-altering you can expect it to be.
Would love to hear the thoughts of anyone who tries this, as well as anyone else who dares to live without a smartphone.