THIS YEAR MARKS the 40th anniversary of the first official call by a hand-held cellphone, made by Motorola, in front of reporters on the streets of New York. This week marks my 40th birthday. A few weeks after that milestone I will be buying my first cellphone. I am not doing this because of a fascination with amazing inventions from 1973, like the Bic lighter or the Iditarod. I am buying one because my wife accepted a fellowship in California, and I will need to work remotely from there when I visit her.
Some tech holdouts boast of their monastic resolve. Others try to hide it. But for all of us, the choice becomes part of our public identity. One day you’re Jane Smith, lawyer and marathon runner. Then, like Kevin Costner among the Sioux, you’re He Who Lives Without Facebook.
For the last two decades, I have spent 83% of my waking hours enjoying the freedom of not owning a cellphone, 5% feeling smug about it, 2% in situations in which a phone would have been awfully convenient and 10% fielding incredulous questions. The first is always: How do you do your job? (I’m not the junior blacksmith at the Renaissance Faire; I’m a managing director at a private-equity firm.) I explain that my colleagues are very tolerant, the firm provides me with all of the latest communication tools (computer, telephone, Post-its) right at my desk, and accomplishing my daily tasks without a smartphone is not beyond human capability. Indeed, people lived this way back at the Dawn of Civilization, circa 1992.
I correspond primarily during working hours and occasionally from a landline at home. I try not to change plans at the last moment. My friends are a considerate bunch. Should I find myself on the street, suddenly needing to make a call, Manhattan still has over 5,400 payphones, at least 30 of which still work. I also don’t pretend that cellphones don’t exist. I have borrowed them in emergencies—usually from my wife, a few times from strangers while mumbling that mine is “in the shop.”
“My firm provides me with all of the latest communication tools (computer, telephone, Post-its) right at my desk.”
Yes, I have missed conference calls because I was at the airport, been the sole attendee at meetings canceled at the last moment and answered emails a few hours later than other people might. But I can report to anyone who emails with one hand from his iPhone at midnight as he brushes his teeth: The same exact amount of work will be there tomorrow morning, and everything always gets done.
Once I explain those practical details, I get a second question, “What does your wife say?”, which is always directly translatable as, “What the hell is your problem?” When my answer—she doesn’t actually care—fails to satisfy, the questioners proceed to tell me exactly what my problem is: that I like to make other people’s lives more difficult (although not owning a cellphone forces you to be more reliable); that I am not willing to be part of the modern world (well, I’m here); that I need my mother to buy me a phone (a suggestion put forth, granted, only by my mother).
But none of these theories gets to the heart of the matter: I don’t own a cellphone because I don’t want to disappoint Henry David Thoreau. Most people read Thoreau because a teacher made them or because they are being served herbal tea at a New England bed-and-breakfast in an inspirational mug. I stumbled upon Thoreau about 15 years ago. His words formed me at an age when I was ready to be formed. There are livelier heroes to have in your 20s, but for all his 508 touchdowns Brett Favre does not fill your imagination with the deeper possibilities of life. Especially if you can’t play football. But, for me, Thoreau’s words, so slowly read that first time, seemed like the key to unlock reservoirs of willpower, to cope with the overwhelming technological distractions of a world even more distracting than his was 150 years ago. And so the decision not to own a cellphone was always easy for me. Thoreau wouldn’t have had one (he wrote, after all, that things “are more easily acquired than got rid of”). Neither would I. End of story.
While many believe technology has made us kinder, smarter and more connected, Thoreau wouldn’t think so. Our inventions “are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York.” His road to the improved end was straightforward. It was “Walden’s” famous shout: “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!”
I know that cellphones have their uses. But it was hardly a difficult choice to sacrifice their utility in an attempt to make more room for thought. I don’t walk around most days musing about ways to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” I walk around most likely musing about sandwiches. But I cannot help but dwell on Thoreau’s most famous words as both a hope and a warning: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what I had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
I hope that I have a few more years left before I come to die, but I have gotten incalculable pleasure from not owning a cellphone, even if I never did make it, as Thoreau did, to the woods. But in a few weeks, I will buy a phone. I am scared. I am afraid of losing a small part of my identity, goodbye to No-Phone Gary, cousin to Dial-Up Dave, wherever you are. I’m afraid of becoming rude, of placing my phone faceup on a restaurant table, or playing “Words with Friends” at a funeral because the deceased did, after all, like words and have friends.
What I’m most afraid of, though, is becoming a tool of my tool, of having one less weapon in the never-ending battle to protect—to paraphrase Saul Bellow, another hero—the territory of my consciousness. I have intentions to be a different kind of smartphone user. I’ll use it only when I travel. At home, I’ll stow it far away from me, in a terrarium, with a snake. I’ll never text.