Rules of engagement

One of my friends doesn’t have a smartphone. She doesn’t have a mobile phone of any sort. She has that rare thing that is rapidly becoming extinct – a landline. We keep in touch by email, which she checks every other day…maybe. If I’m in-country, I might call her at work. She’s not on Facebook. She doesn’t Tweet. And I doubt she’s ever heard of Instagram. When we meet, I’m never late. Not that I’m ever late anyway, but with her, there’s no last-minute texts to say I’m running 15 minutes behind. An arrangement with her is an arrangement that will be kept. She isn’t plagued by random offers, group posts, irrelevant conversations to which she doesn’t want to be party but is reluctant to opt out of because she might miss something. And I used to think she was missing out on lots of things – on invites, on events, on last-minute, spur-of-the-moment decisions. But I’m beginning to think that her way might be the better way. Everyone knows her rules of engagement.

My relationship with Facebook is a love-hate one. I first joined to play scrabble. I log in a couple of times  day to check what’s going on in the world, what’s happening with my peeps. I don’t have FB on my phone and I don’t have FB Messenger on my phone either. I’ve been  missing out on stuff lately though as people seem to be using Messenger more and more. And if something comes in, in between log-ins, then I don’t see it in time. But I can’t complain about not being told. The message was sent. I just didn’t pick it up. WhatsAp and Viber are my preferred choices but they’ve been quite quiet lately as the masses migrate to Messenger.

If I’m in company, my phone stays in my bag so I don’t read texts when they come in. And afterwards, I’m unlikely to check my phone until it rings again or until I go to Google something. When I’m at mass or in meetings, I put my phone on silent and it could be hours, sometimes a day or more before I remember to turn the volume back on. When I’m working, my phone is often in another room. I might not hear it beep or ring and it could be a while before I think to check it. The result? I miss updates. I miss messages. I miss calls.

I used to have Skype turned on when I was online but that got to be too much. Constant interruptions. So now, I schedule Skype chats and log in only when I need to. I check my emails at least once a day on the premise that there’s no such thing as an urgent email – you’d never email the police to say you were being burglarised. And while my response time might fall well short of modern-day expectations, it’s still pretty decent.

I’m beginning to resent these expectations. The ticks, the read reports, the sent confirmations – they all contribute to this. And somewhere along the way, we lose our sense of reason. I send you a message on WhatsApp. I see the two ticks, so I know it’s been delivered. When they turn to blue, I know you’ve read it. So why don’t you reply? Immediately? Hey! I’m talking to you! I disregard the myriad rational explanations that run the gamut from you just sat on the dentist’s chair to you’re dealing with a clowder of cats and a carton of spilled milk and instead, I go immediately to you can’t be arsed, Now that says a lot more about me than it does about you. That’s scary. So I’m now beginning to resist the immediacy that’s inveigling its way into our communication. I’m thinking, seriously, of disengaging. Like my friend.

But because I have a presence, because I’m online, because I text, tweet, and FB, going cold turkey would be akin to a virtual death. I think I’ll start by changing my expectations of you: If I want an immediate answer from you, I’ll make a phone call rather than rely on SMS. If I’m running late or have changed my plans, I’ll call. If there’s something you need to know, I’ll talk to you. If I send a message, feel free to reply at your leisure…or not. And then I’ll stop the apologies – apologies for not reading a text, for missing a call, for not checking in on FB. In time, it will be known that I’m not on messenger, that I  can take days to answer FB messages, that I only occasionally check my phone for SMS. And like my friend, you’ll know to call or email if you want to get in touch.



Out with the old

They told me that I needed to grow up. To get with the programme. To join the twenty-first century. They told me I’d outgrown him. That he’d lost his usefulness. That he was old, battered and not nearly as versatile or as attractive as a younger, more modern version. They told me that my life would change. That I wouldn’t know myself. That I’d forget him in time and move on. I tried to stay loyal, to hold my ground, to be faithful, but worn down by months of steady haranguing, I finally gave in.

Granted, it was fate that intervened. The universe conspired against me. I was perfectly happy with Fred, my old-fashioned, antiquated Nokia. He’d served me well. He and I had had a perfect understanding. He knew his limitations. I knew his limitations. More importantly I knew my own (technological) limitations. We got on very well together. He was incapable of any fancy moves. He couldn’t anticipate my every whim. He simply served a need and served it well. He kept me in contact with people.

 For each task, a tool

I had a camera to take photos. I had a laptop to write e-mails. I had a watch to tell the time. I needed Fred to make phone calls and send SMSs. Nothing more. If I wanted to know the meaning of a word, I’d check the dictionary. If I wanted to know the weather forecast, I’d turn on the radio. If I wanted to know how to get from A to B, I’d look at a map.  

I knew two things for certain. I didn’t want begin an incestuous relationship with a smartphone. To grow attached to it. To become dependent on it. And I didn’t want to be at the beck and call of the world and its mother, all day, all night, seven days a week, 365 days a year. I wanted to retain some independence, some distance. I didn’t want to be available.

 For each passion, a season

I’d seen too many of my friends fall by the wayside. I’d seen too many of them get caught up in a wanton affair with their android of choice. I’d seen too many of them interrupt our conversation, cut short our visit because of a beep or a buzz or a cute song-and-dance routine that heralded the arrival of someone more important, some matter more pressing, some opportunity more exciting.

Fred was self-sufficient. He knew his place. He wasn’t high maintenance and didn’t need constant checking. Ours was a purely functional relationship: if I had no need for him, he stayed put, silent.   

But then I won a Samsung Galaxy III mini (a generic, nameless beast that admittedly looks better than old Fred, but is a little intimidating). It took me three days pick up the courage to take it out of its box. It took me another three days to work up the nerve to take Fred to T Mobile for a lobotomy – to transplant his brain, his memory, into my new smart friend. And it took T Mobile three days to redress the damage it did to my SIM card. I lost half my contacts. I lost connectivity for the weekend. And I lost my patience.

 For each lesson, a school

But in that 72 hours when Fred was comatosed and my new smart friend remained inert, I rediscovered time.

I spent a lustrous weekend with Robert B. Parker. I visited with Harlan Coben. I had dinner with Michael Connelly. I took a bath Mark Giminez. I copy-edited eight articles on topics ranging from biotechnology to corporate social responsibility, from drug testing and analysis to greenhouse gases. I worked on a book about the Relics of Jesus Christ. I did three loads of laundry, lost three kilos in weight, and finally listened to every Gospel recording Elvis ever made.

I had no calls, no texts, no plans. I had no telephone numbers. I knew no addresses. I posted on Facebook that I would be out of commission until Monday evening and the world left me alone.

For each worry, a reason

But the holiday is over. My smartphone is ready to be unlocked, unleashed. Fred is about to be retired. My life is about to change. I am, apparently, about to discover a whole new world. 

My fear is that this world will be one where compulsive communication becomes my norm. Where my android (I can’t bring myself to name him) becomes my best friend. Where I discover, a little too late, that my greatest worry manifests itself in reality: that carrying a smartphone will be like carrying a tracking device, similar to one of those electronic anklets that prisoners under house arrest wear. And that someone, somewhere, will know every move I make, when I make it, and with whom I make it, too. I worry that life, as I know it, will be over and that I will finally have to join the twenty-first century.

First published in the Budapest Times 19 July 2013