Where Have I Been? Where am I going? Reflections From Ten Days Withouta Smartphone

It all started with a "birthday present" (not the one from the Hobbit). In a rush to run an errand on the way into work, I dropped my phone, an HTC Rezound. Just like not-yet King David defeated Goliath with a stone, my screen protector and case were defeated by a pebble on the ground. The cracked screen was barely noticeable at first until I opened the phone to put in the extended battery. Since I am not due for an upgrade for a while, I decided to live with it. Around two weeks ago, the plug stopped working consistently. I started to use the phone less while I researched my next move. No more mobile internet or gps use. I didn't have insurance, so I found the best step would be to replace the phone on eBay. First the main battery died and then my extra extended battery was slowly being used by "important calls." While I kept the phone with me, I did not use it last week at all. I ordered a phone from an eBay seller no specializes in phone replacements, had strong ratings, and a 30 day return policy. The phone arrived yesterday, working and in near perfect condition. A half hour at Verizon and time re-installing apps,and I back to where I was before. Or am I? (I will come back to this point).

It is not as though I had no technology access. Our family has three laptops, two iPads, one desktop computer with internet access, and two other smartphones and iPod touches (and a Nook that is mostly used when we go on vacation). I also have a computer in my Amherst office and one in my WNE classroom. I almost always have my laptop and iPad (although if I wasn't teaching at WNE, I would just use the iPad). None of the devices I use regularly have 3 or 4g mobile Internet, so I needed to be in a location with wi-fi to have web access. (By the way, it is a little depressing once I started making that list.  None of that includes non-working/old devices).

The problem is that most of my information life is on the cloud--housed primarily at google and Dropbox. This meant that I was always "behind" on email, didn't have up-to-date access to my calendar (yet alone Deborah's), ...

Since I was laid off from Smith in the 2010 budget cuts, I have added a lot of part-time jobs.  When working 8 years at Smith and Amherst, I thought it was hard having a full-time job split between two colleges 9 miles apart.  It is much harder working at one college 9 miles from, teaching two sections of an academic class 25 miles in another direction, and driving out to camp (45 minutes drive) every week or two for retreats.  I spend a lot more time in my car which means I get to hear lots of NPR and other talk radio.   Since November I have been at Amherst more as I am Interim Co-Director of Religious Life.  In general I spend a lot less time in one place than I used to.  Engaging in social media and writing my blog have suffered.  Also, I have found that I am reading different kinds of material than I used to read-- a lot about Israeli History, politics, and culture for my Modern Israel course at Western New England. It is not just the kind of reading that has changed, there always seems to be more I want to read. Having a smartphone means I can read a few emails or rss items while waiting or if I arrive somewhere early. It also means I find more to read.

Back to my 10 days relatively unplugged. I found that I paid closer attention to everything around me when I had no phone pulling at my attention. I enjoyed driving more when I didn't have the phone set to Google maps (where I always toggle to e.t.a.). Although I was not sure when I would get there, I got there with a more settled mind. While the cloud helps me have access to data, calendar, phone numbers, etc., it also saps at my attention span (academic studies have shown that there is little or no multi-masking in our brains).

The challenge is figuring out how to learn from this experience.  To bring it back to the Lord of the Rings/Hobbit, perhaps technology  is like the One Ring--it slowly takes over our lives.  At first we notice the convenience and the power but only later do we learn the consequences.  Does our (over-)reliance on GPS devices impact our innate sense of direction? (More on this here and here)  Phone numbers are much harder to remember since everyone has different area codes (seven digits was chosen in the 1950's because it was the typical capacity of working memory).  With cell phones, you don't even have to remember the phone numbers of your close friends and family.

While I hope to add to this in the future, I will start by sharing this selection from Rabbi Rami Shapiro's, Wisdom of the Sages (a modern reading of Pirke Avot):

"Rabbi Judah haNassi said:
What is the right path for a person to follow?
One that honors both self and other.

Be attentive in all you do;
Do not judge one deed small and another great,
for you cannot always know their significance.

Be virtuous, even if virtue is costly.
Avoid sin, even if sin is profitable.

Remember three things and you will not err:
If your deeds shouldn't be known,
perhaps they shouldn't be done.
If your words shouldn't be shared,
perhaps they shouldn't be spoken.
Act with attention, for all your deeds have consequence." (II, 1; p. 22)

An hour after finishing the original draft of this blog, I received an email from Asking Big Questions with this month's discussion guide, How Does Technology Change Us?  Great minds think alike.
Sunday March 10th:  I received this today from thedailyrabbi.com:  UNPLUG:  Spiritual Lessons From a Lost Cell Phone.

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