Last week, in a moment of distraction and carelessness, I left my phone on the bus. Okay, I admit it; it was entirely my fault. Leaving the phone on the bus seat when I got off was so quick and so innocent; I realized what I had done almost instantly – almost, but not quite instantly enough to rush back to the bus before it pulled away. This article is about my musings as I considered the characteristics of life without my smartphone as a constant presence. (P.S. The story has a happy ending. Thanks to some helpful and honest people, I got my phone back the next day.)

Indeed, as I consoled myself with a soothing cup of coffee at a nearby restaurant moments after the traumatic event, I was reminded of “how life used to be” before everyone carried a cell phone. I was also reminded of why I persist in always carrying some good old paper money. Even though I use my phone to make almost every major and minor and even tiny purchase these days, I plan to continue to carry a little cash for just this sort of situation. That coffee break (paid for with cash, not digital currency) helped me to relax after the initial panic. The emergency caffeine transfusion, plus sitting alone for a few minutes in a quiet corner, allowed me to take stock and (sorta) calmly deliberate on my next action.

Actually, losing the telephone service itself was only a minor concern. The much bigger issue was living without a computer in my pocket. For the first time in many years, I did not have a smartphone at hand. I was disconnected; I was unable to call anyone… and no one could call me. Additionally, I did not have all my useful apps, especially a translation app which allows me to bravely go where a non-native speaker could never go before. Even more, I was without my internet access, without the ease and convenience of digital purchases, without my podcast shows and ebooks, without my background music and white noise for working without distractions, without my camera, and without my stored photos, videos, and files. Most stunning of all, I was incommunicado – no one could reach me by any means – phone, text message, or email. In a gesture of supreme irony, my first impulse was to reach for my phone to call my wife to help me – until I realized that I had no phone, hence, no way to contact her. No Problemo, as I have taught my son to say… suddenly became a Big Problemo.

What a maelstrom of emotions washed over me as I began to realize the implications of that one moment of carelessness. Watching the bus drive down the street was crushing. The driver and all the passengers were merrily going about their busy lives without realizing that the old guy waving at them from the sidewalk was having a crisis. I was well and truly alone. I have said many times that the cell phone was what allowed me to be somewhat independent and mobile as a non-fluent expat. Now, the full effects of losing that smartphone were about to become very real. The implications were sobering.

The actual expense of losing the phone was not the most important factor; not at all. I had been planning to replace my four-year-old phone soon, anyway. Also, although I castigated myself using golfing and computer phrases for being so careless, in truth, I couldn’t feel too guilty. One slip after carrying a cell phone 24/7 for almost 15 years didn’t seem too inexcusable.

As the implications began to focus, I had two primary thoughts.

One, I was flying solo. The convenience of calling for clarification, changes, and details of every activity was no longer available to me. The good news was that I would no be continuously besieged by unwanted messages and irritating changes of plan. Indeed, in some ways, that made life dramatically simpler. I remember periods in the past when the pressures and distractions of almost continual stimulation from all my digital devices and connections would stretch me to the breaking point. The solution – temporary, but effective – was to simply turn off my phone and, concurrently, my computer’s internet connection. Immediately, a sense of peace would descend. I could now work without the fearful expectation of being disturbed by a beep to alert me to yet another incoming email, message, or notification. Sleep was more peaceful also since I was assured that I would not be jolted awake by a new digital arrival.

So, what does this have to do with the title of this article, The Accidental Luddite?

Being thoroughly digital and connected to the internet through my home computer, I stopped typing long enough to do a search: What is a Luddite?

The instantaneous response was:

  • derogator

a person opposed to new technology or ways of working.

“a small-minded Luddite resisting progress” ·

  • historical

a member of any of the bands of English workers who destroyed machinery, especially in cotton and woolen mills, that they believed was threatening their jobs (1811–16).

In losing my phone, I became a Luddite, in behavior if not in attitude. I had lost my digital lifestyle. In one moment, I reverted to living on my own resources, with only what I had in my pockets. More than that, I could only deal with one matter at a time… because the outside world could no longer bombard me with new problems before I could finish dealing with the old problems. I had no choice; I could not multitask because I simply was not accessible and had no computer in my pocket. Not having a digital device that enabled being confronted by several issues simultaneously meant I faced only one thing at a time. Suddenly, the skies cleared and the birds began to sing. Life was simple again.

Two, I was suddenly returned to an earlier era. It is easy to develop a form of technological amnesia where we forget the limitations and complications of a more primitive life. When I arrived in China in 2004, the cell phone was not yet universal. Indeed, I recall that, every evening, I would see students on my campus standing in line to use the public payphones on the streets, which were a common sight those days. What this looks like in practice was that, when you left your home or office, no one could contact you and you could not contact anyone. On a trip, you were unreachable until you arrived at your destination (or a midpoint) and used a payphone to check in for messages, news, and updates. In the real world, what this meant was, if I was expecting a call from a pretty girl, I had to stay home and near the old-fashioned landline telephone or else risk missing her call. Looking back, it was very inefficient, being tied to the phone inside our home or office.

In retrospect, two technological events completely changed my lifestyle, probably forever.

The first was the introduction of the ebook. A device for locating, purchasing, downloading, and instantly reading a book on a screen was much more than a new invention. It meant that travelers (including expats) were no longer restricted to books they could physically carry with them or purchase at local bookstores. It meant, indeed, that they could carry a lifetime library with them at all times, and add to it easily, inexpensively, and conveniently. The cascade effects of the ebook were akin to the seismic shift in the modern world brought about by the widespread introduction of radios a hundred years ago. Radios brought about the end of rural isolation or news that was no longer new or undistorted by retelling.

The second was the introduction of the smartphone only about ten years ago. Although the cell phone was a wonderful device that freed us from the limits of a physical connection – hence the term “landline” – it was only that, a phone. Even the added function of text messages was limited to the few people for whom we had phone numbers. But, the smartphone was much, much more. Originally promoted as a way to “listen to your favorite music on your phone”, they quickly added built-in cameras. Next, someone came up with the bright idea of using your phone to send and receive emails. Then, since we were now connected to the internet, why not allow the user to download other apps that would vastly extend the usefulness and productivity of the now-mobile user? What’s that, you say? You want to watch movies and play games and chat with your friends, pay for your breakfast then post stupid photos of what you ate for breakfast? With the smartphone, everything became possible. It was, literally, a computer in your pocket.

But, it came with a pretty high price. With all that connectivity came unwanted and unhealthy levels of stimulation. Internet trolls were free to anonymously post hateful and wasteful messages in their sad pleas for attention. Criminals were safely insulated by physical distance and international borders. (Picture a guy in a coffee shop in Bulgaria using his laptop to empty your bank account.) Plus, just as the modern car never sees the day when each and every knob, button, light, device, and engine component is functioning perfectly, more apps on our smartphones meant more potential for complications, frustrations, and lost work. As an old (pre-internet) saying goes, “Sometimes the magic works; sometimes it don’t.” And don’t forget the steep learning curves to be mastered before you can use all this new digital horsepower.

All these thoughts were going through my mind that afternoon as I waited for my coffee to cool and my heart rate to return to normal. With the loss of my cell phone, I was no more technologically advanced than the most digitally resistant Luddite, someone who cannot use an ATM machine and who is confused by an elevator.

As I mentioned at the beginning, later that evening, a friend dropped by to tell me that my phone had been located and I could retrieve it the next day. Problem over, crisis resolved, panic abated. To be entirely truthful, I was rather enjoying the prospect of life as a Luddite for a short time – until I could purchase a new smartphone and reinstall all my apps on it. No, I would not voluntarily choose to be a permanent Luddite. Sheer bliss, in a way and for a short time, but I would not want to give up my conveniences and connectivity – and instant internet searches – permanently. Besides, what if a pretty girl wanted to call me but couldn’t reach me?

What about you, dear readers? Would you ever give up your phone? What would your life look like? For further reflections, stay tuned. See next week’s blog post about my grandfather’s farm in rural Missouri in a much earlier time when his family existed almost entirely on their own resources.