Skip to main content

Offline: Ghost limbs

Offline: Ghost limbs


Paul Miller considers his phone's phantom buzzing and time without a phone.

Share this story

Looking for an available vaccine appointment can be frustrating, but persistence can pay off.
paul computer 1020

About a month ago, before I had left the internet, I got an offer for my iPhone and I bit. Phoneless, and with my upcoming experiment in mind, I wandered over to the shady, "authorized" AT&T store near my home and picked up the trashiest dumbphone I could find.

I hated this phone. I hated it so much, in fact, that a few days later I let it run out of charge, and then finally I lost it in a desk somewhere. I didn't recover it for a week.

In my normal life, I do very little collaboration and communication on my phone. I have a small social circle, and its members are usually available over Twitter, email, or IM. There were a couple dicey situations involving meetups at specific times and locations, but for the most part I went through my life gloriously out-of-reach.

And yet...

This fruitless scratching describes my entire week

You know when you think you feel your phone buzz, so you have to pull it out just to make sure? Most of the time it didn't buzz, but it'll bug you in the back of you mind, so you have to check. If you don't, that phantom reminder will haunt you for hours. A phone alert, once sprung, is as physically tangible as the point of a gun in your back, or a chunk of Command-C'd text not pasted, still circulating in the veins of your hand. The only solution to this itch is to scratch it. And this fruitless scratching describes my entire week.

I kept on sensing text messages and phone calls, when there wasn't even a phone on my person. I'd tell myself this, and yet I'd still pat around to be completely sure. At times my hand would even make it into my empty pocket before I recognized what was happening.

This fruitless search became especially prominent during those lulls in conversation that prompt a device glance. It's hard to remember how they come about, but every conversation has them. It's sort of like a time out in sports — conversationalists can catch their breath and make sure they're not blowing up on Twitter. The motion is more subtle (and so more acceptable) when people are standing, because there's less of an access barrier to the device.

Looking around I saw the other couple dozen people were all head-down in devices as well. I was seeing myself

I remember chatting with some friends all through a labyrinthine subway transfer, only for the conversation to die off completely the instant we landed at our destination platform. Out came three iPhones in unison (one black, two white). I felt around my various pockets for a good 15 seconds before I gave up on that route of escape. Looking around I saw the other couple dozen people at the platform were all head-down in devices as well. I was seeing myself.

Ever since this moment of clarity, deep under 42nd St., waiting for the 7 train, I've been noticing this behavior everywhere. In elevators I see people swiping back and forth between their home screens. On the sidewalk I see people reading and walking, headphones in, bumping into people and barely dodging more dangerous obstacles.

I have a friend who will on occasion interrupt a jacked-in train waiter to ask him for the time, even though he already knows it. I haven't grown this bold yet. In fact, I'm still in a state of embarrassment. I was worse than everybody.

When the stalemate ended and I finally re-charged my dumbphone, I found myself returning to the same routine. Someone would pull out her phone, and I would too. She would cycle through Twitter, emails, Facebook, or whatever else... and I would repeatedly open and exit my no-name GoPhone's menu.

I caught myself doing this, remarked to my friend "look at my Pavlovian response!" and yet the next time her phone came out, mine did too. The motion is completely automatic, and it seems to not matter that there's absolutely nothing to be done on my phone — it's the button presses and screen flicker that pacify.

It's not just with phones, either. Now that I've left the internet, I keep catching myself at home with my iPad propped up on one surface, my laptop propped up on another, nodding along to a conversation I'm half aware of. When I catch myself and actually examine what's happening on the screens, it turns out to be nothing. I've been tabbing through apps on my Mac, and, yes, swiping through home screens on my iPad. I'm like a little kid playing house, cooking imaginary meals while babbling into a disconnected phone.

It excuses me from large chunks of an evening, and keeps me comfortably alone

But I'm not a hopeless case. During my week without a phone, and in my ensuing weeks after that moment of clarity, I've been talking to a lot more people I don't know, and talking a lot more to the people I do know. Ever since I've owned a phone I've been honing a studious, "I better check this to make sure everybody's okay and then I can get back to being popular" expression at parties and bars. It excuses me from large chunks of an evening, and keeps me comfortably alone.

Now when I catch myself in the old habits, diving behind a 1.5-inch screen or 15-inch screen for safety or noncommital detachment, I try to put the device out of reach. I'll turn off my phone, or walk my laptop into another room and leave it there. It helps knowing that people can probably see through the sham of a prepaid, Huawei-built chunk of plastic. I'm not fooling anybody with that piece of trash in my face. Ugh I hate that phone so much. Time to step into the great unknowns of personal interaction. That'll teach it.

*Addendum: If you want some further reading on my admittedly unoriginal observations, you might want to check out Sherry Turkle's Alone Together which was recently recommended to me. I just bought a copy, and it seems great so far. "Technology has become the architect of our intimacies," says Sherry in the dust jacket. I've heard rumors of a recent article by her that was published on the internet.

Paul Miller will regularly be posting dispatches from the disconnected world on The Verge during his year away from the internet. He won't be reading your comments, but he'll be here in spirit.