I was the one driving as we approached the Canadian border. “Scott,” I sheepishly asked my husband, “can you just look at my phone and see if I have any new emails?”
We were about to go unplugged for the weekend. Not for any noble life-cleansing reasons, but simply because we had to, unless we planned to incur a huge hit in international roaming costs. No, thanks. I’m too cheap.
Our destination was Scott’s grandma’s farmhouse in rural Canada. Really rural Canada. She lives on a dirt road amid miles of fields in every direction in the house that (late) Grandpa built brick-by-brick with his own hands. “Town,” a few miles away, consists of a few blocks of quiet storefronts. And 87-year-old Grandma most certainly doesn’t own a computer.
All of this is always true when we visit the Canadian relatives, but I was especially sensitive this time because I’d just dropped off my busted laptop for a week or two at computer hospital, so I’d already been anxiously contemplating how to be a writer without a keyboard. (Spoiler: I had to draft this on actual pen and paper. I did not like it.) Add in the lack of smartphone or Internet and I was curious to see whether my modern self would just implode. Or maybe it would be wonderfully, authentically relaxing, like I was playing Amish for a weekend? (Am I the only who daydreams of a sort of reverse Rumspringa, where I get to go live olden?)
I digress. This was a wedding weekend, and we were meeting up with both U.S. and Canadian family. So there was lots of socializing to do, and we really didn’t need or miss our email or Facebook. People were actually there, right with us. In some ways, though, the connection restored when the phones were turned off wasn’t the most striking part of going unplugged. We all know phones are a distraction, and we always put them down for visits with family anyway.
Rather, the stranger part of going back to “oldentimes” was navigating logistics: How to get around an unfamiliar area. How to coordinate meeting up with others at a certain time and place. How to find out when the grocery store opens on a Sunday morning in a small town.
So we did it the old way. Grandma’s home phone rang to make meet-up plans. To find our way, we asked directions – from real people, not Siri – and used a map. The yellow pages even came out a few times to look up phone numbers.
Big deal, right? (That’s what my parents, who barely even own flip phones, are saying right now.) Well, the big deal is how quickly I’ve come to rely on having the Internet at my fingertips. I’ve only had an iPhone for less than 3 years, and it’s a major way that I collect information about the world. In seconds, I can do anything from look up a fact to search for recipes to translate a phrase to a foreign language. And like so many modern conveniences, I suspect it’s making me a little soft and dependent.
I’m not giving up my smartphone or my computer. They’re incredibly helpful, especially in my regular day-to-day life and work. But just the same, I’m not sure making everything easier is always a good thing. I’ve just heard that back-up cameras will soon be mandatory on new cars. This is positive news, because I love mine—and because of course it will keep some small children from being tragically backed over – but will my kids ever know how to back up a car with just their own eyes? I know I’m already getting rusty, and that’s with spending my first 20 years of driving without a camera.
I think we all know what car culture and labor-saving devices have done to our waistlines. So what will smartphones, the Internet, and other brain-saving devices do to our minds? I’m not sure, exactly. But just like the elderly are advised to do crossword puzzles to preserve mental acuity, I definitely also need to remember to sharpen up with a little tech-light challenge now and then. My kids, of course, are sailing right past me in tech abilities. But, at the same time, they will skip over so many skills I grew up with unless we make a conscious effort. So – together – we will read maps. We will use the hardbound dictionary. They will learn to use the phone book, and maybe someday, in an old vintage 2014 car, even learn to drive in reverse guided just by their own eyes.