I've had relationships with many hand-held digital objects, but none as intense as the one I had with the iPhone. It became so addictive that I exchanged it for an iPod touch. Now I'm shopping for a new addiction.
Although we had our good times, I eventually came to feel that I was losing something of myself in the pairing. The device was there with me in social situations and solitary ones, making each moment more informative but also less rich. I found it hard to create good boundaries - especially because out of the two of us, I was the only one trying. Mostly, the iPhone was depriving me of quiet mind space. Gone were all the many once-taken-for-granted in between moments where I would mentally process my day or just stare into space.
Instead, those minutes became full of tasks: catch up on Words With Friends, scroll through Facebook. I was rewarded by little bursts of dopamine, delivered at a variable rate that kept me coming back like a senior at the slots. I felt little embarrassment about my ties to this thing, if only because most people I know were in the throes of a similar relationship. On subways, on street corners, on road trips, at restaurants, I sometimes looked up and all around me saw everyone else looking down. I felt sad for all these people absorbed in their machines, missing out on the parts of life that operate without cell reception. But then I'd point my head right back down.
iPhone cold turkey
I didn't go cold turkey: when I gave away the iPhone, I replaced it with an iPod Touch. It's the methadone to the iPhone's heroin. The Touch has a lot of the useful stuff that I like about the iPhone, but it can only access email or texts or Facebook when there's an unlocked wireless Internet.
What peace this little device has ferried into my psyche! Turn off the Internet, and the whole world feels like Walden Pond.
Like Thoreau, I went to the woods of our technological landscape:
because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived…I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.
However, I found that digital solitude could translate into real-world loneliness: At dinner parties, everyone else was bowing at the table with the blue light glowing on their faces. A couple times, I pulled out a book-reading being a habit about which I'm happy to be compulsive. But it took me out of the situations almost as much as my iPhone had. Hoping for a way to stay engaged while also keeping my hands from fidgeting during those awkward social moments where I'm the only person not plugged into the grand switchboard, I decided to explore the virtues of cigarettes.
Addictions tend to be fungible. Switching seats on the Titanic, I've heard it called. According to TechCrunch, technology is the new smoking. Alexis Tsotsis' recent post references a new British study that says that a study found 53 percent of its participants felt "upset" after a mandated day off the web; 40 percent felt "lonely." Many compared it to quitting smoking.
Why smoking is better than the smartphone
I've yet to take up the habit, but I've started to consider some of the reasons why smoking might just be better for me than using a smartphone (if smoking wouldn't kill you and caused all kind of bad things):
• Cigarettes could help me better interact with people. I can carry on a conversation while smoking. I'd be forced to occasionally interact with others. "Excuse me, do you have a light?" I'm guessing more love connections have been made with those words than through OKCupid. Though maybe not for much longer.
• Activities that are easier to do with a cigarette than with an iPhone: Walk without tripping, talk on the phone, bicycle, stare into the sky.
• They have monetary value, and I think this makes one more accountable. Most smokers I know have a pretty good idea of how much they smoke in a given week, and how much they spend. I have no idea how much iPhone time I was logging with my unlimited data plan. If I'd had to pay per minute, I would've at least made an attempt to budget my usage.
• Cigarettes take a fixed amount of time to smoke. They're distractions with built in timers. Smoking allows the perfect amount of time for a break. The "breaks" I've taken to use an iPhone usually go on longer than planned and leave me more mentally exhausted than when I started.
• If you smoke, at least you're a smoker. You can say "I have to go smoke" and people understand that you have an addiction you have to feed. You're hooked. But you're not necessarily an asshole. Not so if you must excuse yourself from a baby shower because you need to check Instagram.
• Smoking is obvious. Someone can see you're smoking. Afterwards, you smell like you were smoking. It's hard to hide. But when my accountant stops mid-sentence to look at his device, how do I know what kind of Facebook message I'm competing with?
• You can live off the grid and the cancer sticks still work. Anonymous can't steal your nicotine password, and Apple can't use your cigarette's GPS to track you. Your Marlboro never demands you download an update.
• When a pack of cigarettes falls into the toilet, you don't have to fish them out, dry them off and pray. Although you can if you want. Leave your Parliaments at a beer garden? Totally not a big deal.
When you're using tobacco, you are supporting a company that is at least somewhat straightforward regarding the harmful nature of their products. No warning labels on the iPhone. In fact, people are giving them to their kids and using them in cars.
• It's too early to come to any firm conclusion regarding the health effects of using cell phones. Illnesses caused by smoking, on the other hand, are well understood. There's a richer library of information on the effects of cigarettes. I'm thinking there's a better chance at helping people suffering from smoking-related maladies than to aid those dealing with unknown monsters like phone-induced brain cancer or Angry Birds Addiction.
• Cigarettes are less taxing on your hands. I didn't even realize how much my thumbs were hurting from many months of iPhone emailing and texting until I gave up the habit.
• It is way sexier to light up a cigarette after sex then to light up a smart phone. Especially when there is a passcode involved.
I know more people who have successfully given up cigarettes than have given up using a smart phone.
Aesthetically, I prefer the cigarette to the iPhone. There's a uniformity to people's digital habits that I find troublesome. The devices all look pretty much the same, and most of the people I know do not have writerly email flourishes they use, or wildly distinctive looking websites, or texting habits that differentiate them greatly from all the other people in my contacts. Every text conversation looks alike. I'm left longing for the kind of differentiation one finds among smokers. My friend Christa only smokes Nat Sherman's, which are charming in their brownness as they sit on her lips. Marie keeps her Marlboro Lights deep in between her ring and middle fingers, wrapping the rest of her hand around her face while she drags in. And the smell of Camels, unfiltered, forever will remind me of my father.
Lately, however, he smells less smokey. Doctors orders, he's given it up. I don't know if it's just a coincidence that this event has neatly dovetailed with the acquisition of his very first cell phone. He sings its praises. It even has an address book in it, he tells me. Two weeks after getting it, it fell into the toilet. I asked him how he felt.
Anna Jane Grossman is a New York writer. Her work has appeared in a wide variety of major national print publications and websites, like The New York Times, the Washington Post, New York Magazine and Gizmodo.
She also writes a lot about dogs.
This article originally appeared in Motherboard.