By Helen Zuman
Last summer, my old friend Kyra paid me a compliment that took me by surprise: “Wow,” she said, “you’re the fastest flip phone texter I know!”
“Really?” I flashed back to 2006, when I’d spent a semester teaching ninth graders at a cram school in Queens. Back then, any of my students—not to mention any teenager anywhere—could have flattened me in a battle, with her eyes closed.
Sure, I’d improved over the years. But had I actually gotten fast? I still couldn’t type without looking at the keypad.
“Oh, wait—” Kyra said. “You’re the only flip phone texter I know.”
And there you have it, folks—victory by attrition. You can overwhelm your rivals with superior firepower, or you can cling to the hill till they’ve all given up and gone home.
Or, in my case, till they’ve all switched to smartphones.
I, too, had a smartphone, once upon a time. In 2008, for Christmas, my brother (who had gotten me my first cell phone, in 2004, and had been paying my phone bill, via his family plan, ever since) got me an iPhone 3G. At first, I was thrilled: I could now leave my bulky paper map at home when giving pedicab rides in Manhattan, or delivering cargo by giant trike. I could snap photos of any scene that caught my fancy. Better yet, I could google dumb shit at inopportune times, check my email eighty times a day, and, when I was feeling lonely, dive deep into the slough of despond otherwise known as Facebook.
I spent some of the last few minutes of my last visit with my father, at a Brooklyn hospice, googling “milk of magnesia”—because it had come up in conversation and I was eager to avoid discomfort.
Fortunately, a couple years later, my brother decided I ought to start paying my own phone bill—and I refused to fork over seventy-plus dollars per month for the iPhone experience, as opposed to twenty or so for use of a flipper. Plus, by that time, I’d realized that if you play any Apple commercial backward you hear Jonathan Colton singing, “All we wanna do is eat your brains.”
When I returned to flip phone land, in early 2011, I embarked on a quest—still in process—to reclaim my attention, and stop wasting time on the Internet. Last fall, I quit social media for good; this spring, I launched a ruthless unsubscription campaign that’s reduced the volume of email I receive from terrifying to merely scary. Some Sundays, I observe a digital sabbath, during which I eschew screens entirely. However, I’m now seeing that even if I cured myself of my neurotic urge to check my inbox every five minutes, in hopes of finding that amazing, life-changing message (“Reese Witherspoon wants to turn your memoir into a movie!”), as well as assorted other compulsions (tracking my website traffic and book stats, googling my name in quotation marks), I’d still be trapped on screen: almost every project I’m involved in requires that I interact with the Internet.
I used to think of, and experience, the Internet as a web laid on top of other webs; twenty years ago, when I graduated from college, I enjoyed using it to keep in touch with friends, but relied on it for nothing. Now, I’m hopelessly dependent: in the past couple decades, the zombies (corporate bodies unencumbered by hearts, minds, or souls) have desolated the back roads, the country lanes, the railway lines, the wooded trails that once offered alternate routes to the (heavily tolled) information superhighway.
I sometimes dream of exiting the cyber-madness entirely—by writing letters, interacting mostly in person, and talking on landlines. By re-centering on the physical world, and the in-person web, while radically slowing down. I also fantasize about generative crisis: What if the Internet disappeared, releasing all of us from digital captivity? Would you miss the multi-vehicle pileup in your inbox? The hourly traffic jams? The mountain of shadow work that rises ever higher, as you climb it?
You’ve probably heard of Slow Food—the movement to re-infuse the process of feeding ourselves with conviviality, delight, and pride. I propose a new crusade, for which I would gladly sacrifice my status as fastest texter this side of the touch screen: Slow Communication.
Helen Zuman—author, chocolatier, reweaver, walker, wife, daughter, sister, and witch—details her first (ill-starred) attempt at villaging in her memoir, Mating in Captivity (She Writes Press 2018). She lives in Beacon, NY and Black Mountain, NC, and blogs at helenzuman.com.