Being in Prague with my “Dumbphone”
I just read an interesting article about the use of “dumbphones” in my generation. A generation so intent on advanced technology and constantly being connected and the internet and … oh my god. Sometimes, I get tired of it.
I made the decision, seven months ago when I came to Prague, to leave my iPhone at home. Part of my decision was that I assumed my parents would give it to my brother (it is technically their phone, after all…) Part of my decision was because my phone wasn’t unlocked, didn’t have an externally accessible SIM card, and I’m not about to pay the roaming fees. Part of my decision, if I’m being honest, was because I wanted to know if I could survive without a smartphone.
I’m always that person that looks stuff up. I LOVE googling stuff. Literally any time a conversation back in the States included a question, I’d whip out my phone and look it up. I like facts, I like statistics, I like having all the information to influence my opinions and conversations. Even here, when I’m on or near my computer, I google stuff. Just today, in the ten minutes before my class started, I looked up the budget of Radio Free Europe (approx. 90 million USD), Radio Free Asia, the history of NPR’s finances (in the 70’s, it was entirely government funded, by the 80’s it was being weaned off, today it is fully funded by local stations and their listeners), and the horrendous acronyms we use in our daily life (think the USA PATRIOT act…). But when I’m out and about in the city, I can’t look stuff up.
I can’t search the history of a particular church I’m walking by or the hours of my favorite cafe. In a lot of ways, I miss that. I miss being able to pull out my phone and search for a fact, or look up directions, or double check that my friends aren’t running late.
But in just as many ways, I am glad that I’ve done it. Since I don’t have my phone to save me when I’m lost, I wander. I find new spots in the city that I never would have found if I hadn’t been completely turned around. The first month or so of the year, I carried my map around with me. If I got lost, I whipped it out, found a street name, figured out where I was, where I was going, and how to get there. And then, once I felt confident enough in my ability to understand directions in Czech (or at least, the first one!), I started leaving the map at home and asking for directions if I needed them. I still carried my tram map around for months, but now I don’t even need that. Since I don’t have my phone to tell me where I need to go, I figure it out for myself. I use the old-fashioned paper map, or the even more old-fashioned technique of talking to people. Unlike my friends, I can tell you which trams stop in Wenceslas Square, how to walk from JZP to Namesti Miru to IP Pavlova, and how to walk from point A to point B without staring at a little electronic screen.
If I’m running late, I feel bad and I apologize profusely when I arrive. If I am on time and my friend is late, I spend my time people watching. Or reading. (I’ve taken to bringing a book with me wherever I go, and I’ve read a lot of books this semester.) Or just staring into space. Or listening to people’s conversations and practicing my Czech. When I’m running late, I can’t get out of the consequences by sending a quick facebook message on my way and calling it an excuse. (I also can’t send a text message, since most of my friends are so dependent on their wi-fi messaging services – facebook, viber, whatever-it-is – that they don’t have phone credit and can’t read a text message even if I was to send it.) When someone else is running late, somehow the time passes faster when I’ve got nothing to do. I occupy myself with the world around me as I wait for them, and it seems like less than the five or ten minutes. If I was scrolling through my facebook wall for five to ten minutes, I would be so bored and so over it and that short amount of time would seem honestly insurmountable.
If there is something I really want to know – like, really want to know – I write it down to look it up later. Or I ask a teacher, a friend, a stranger. I go into that bookstore across the street and see if they have a book about it. Or I duck into the library and check it out (I know a lot of libraries in this city by now.)
I love the fact that there is nothing to distract me when I’m at dinner with my friends. Even if there is wifi in the restaurant, I don’t have a device to pull out of my pocket. I don’t have a device to use as a barrier between me and the people around me. I went to dinner a few weeks ago with four other people. Within five minutes of sitting down at the table, they all had their phones out, they were all on facebook or texting or merely searching instragram. I brought it up. I asked them about it, about why they were on their phones with some friends when they’re also sitting at the table with different friends. One said, “I don’t want to stop interacting with my friends, just because I’m not with them.” I bit my tongue, and didn’t make the retort I wanted to make: that he was choosing virtual interaction with friends kilometers away, instead of real interaction with friends sitting by his side.
I’ve enjoyed my seven months without my smartphone, but I also miss it. I miss being able to look up the quickest of the possible routes I know – and knowing how long it will actually take. I miss the fact that I can’t access my email on the go – not because I want to instantaneously respond to my emails, but because I often want to reference an email and I can’t get to it. It makes me sad that I’m missing out on the pervasive snapchat culture in the students in Prague.
A few times, I’ve wondered if I even want my smartphone back when I get back to the States. As much as I love looking stuff up, I could survive without that. But I can’t survive without being able to access my friends on the go and, more importantly, for my friends to access me. Yeah, okay. They could just call me. But sometimes emails or facebook messages are really the better, more effective, and more fun way to contact each other. And I can’t escape the reality of being a Silicon Valley girl. People joke that San Francisco natives have the most apps on their phones, and that might be true. My iPhone has apps for transportation, restaurants, random games I’ve been asked to beta test, and pretty much everything under the sun.
So, once I’m home, I’ll have my trusty iPhone again, with the multitude of apps I learned to love and miss dearly. But it will be a bit less pervasive in my daily life. I think my phone is going to live in my bag, not in my pocket. I’ll still use google to look up the answer to whatever question might be burning a hole in my head, but when I’m at dinner, it will definitely not be in my hand, or even on the table.