Written by Jen Holup
Technology can be, at the same time, a great aide and a great adversary to modern urban living. Yet, rather than search for a generalized answer to this dense question, the most effective measure we can take is simply to ensure that we use technology critically and slowly in our everyday lives.
Since September, I have survived in the cosmopolitan city of Paris without a cell phone. My initial reasons for eschewing the mobile were entirely economic. On my previous trip to France three years ago, I estimate that I must have spent hundreds of Euros over a six-month period on prepaid mobile cards- it is difficult to acquire an affordable monthly plan for a short stay. After passing my phone off to a fellow student (and warning him about the conscientious use of the prepaid cards), I began to consider the true worth of those six months of convenient pocket communication. I asked myself what I had really used the cell phone for over that half year. Rather than a tool to facilitate work, my cell phone existed solely for the convenience of text messaging and a few brief phone calls to arrange evening plans. In this way, I realized that I felt I had needed my cell phone in order to stay in touch with my social network. Each time I ventured to the kiosk with 50 Euros in my hand to buy myself 3 weeks more “what’s up?” textos, I must have been internally convincing myself that this purchase would ensure a continued connectedness to my friends. But could I not have just as easily gotten by with a landline and the Internet?
What about those hundreds of Euros? For this steep price, I could have enjoyed many more delicious and satisfying Parisian meals with my friends, rather than constantly texting them about the exact date and time we would be meeting for one.
Three years later, I know the answer to this question. I have a perfectly humble and well-functioning landline at my apartment. Since calling other landlines is free in France, I use an inexpensive phone card to call cell phones from my home. When I need to make a call in public, I- gasp- use this same phone card at a cabine téléphonique. As opposed to the United States, there is still a plethora of phone booths around the city. To make plans with friends, I make sure we set a clear time, date, and meeting place ahead of time. I try to arrive at our destination a few minutes early to ensure that my lack of wireless liberty doesn’t keep anyone waiting. In the event that the person I am trying to meet is running a few minutes late, well, what better opportunity than to duck into a café and get a few pages deeper into that new book I can’t ever seem to find the time to finish.
Ironically, living sans mobile has given me a stronger sense of liberty than having communication at my fingertips ever did. This technological experiment has taught me a lot about myself and modern society. One afternoon, after traveling to a northern suburb of Paris to see a musician friend give a concert, I found myself rather lost in the spiraling streets and warehouses of St. Ouen. In my former technologically endowed life, I would have called said friend, frantically demanding directions to his show. Without a cell phone in situations like these, I find I become a calmer person. I replace frantic confusion with a question for the corner merchant, who usually knows the neighborhood better even than GPS or GoogleMaps, and is more than happy to offer some assistance. I value these opportunities to develop a stronger reliance on a community of others when I need help, rather than the list of folks in my phonebook. I create new maps in my head as I retrace my steps in order to find my destination. On the path of uncertainty, sometimes I am lucky to discover an interesting café or some street art that I never would have noticed had I not been forced into a detour.
By no means am I advocating that everyone immediately drop his or her cell phone in order to find happiness. There are more often than not situations where having a cell phone is entirely practical and, in extreme circumstances, even life-saving. I simply feel that we should all become more conscious of the role technology plays in our everyday lives.
After finally arriving at the concert hall in St. Ouen that day (on time, a few minutes early even), I exchanged phone numbers with a new friend- sheepishly explaining that I did not have a cell phone. He just laughed at my hesitation, smiling:
“People have gotten by this way for thousands of years, after all”.