The news that Alice Munro had won the Nobel Prize for literature was greeted, early Thursday morning, with a sense of surprise. Not because she didn’t richly deserve it (she did) but because she wasn’t waiting by the phone for the news, in the manner of a date-desperate high-school freshman.
The painful truth was out. Eighty-two-year-old literary geniuses do not exist, like the rest of us, at the end of an electronic umbilical cord. They do not nurse from telecommunication’s teat. They probably remember when the telephone was a thing that sat in the hallway, on its special table, next to a thick yellow book, and you said, “May I ask who is calling?” when you picked it up. And if it rang in the night you quaked, because a late-night call might mean death, instead of a drunken boyfriend downstairs with an extra kebab.
The Nobel committee sent out an amusing tweet that it had left a message on Ms. Munro’s phone. Presumably, she was doing a kooky thing called sleeping and not checking the latest duct-tape atrocity on There I Fixed It or playing Words With Friends with Margaret Atwood. (I surmise this only because Ms. Atwood sent out a wry tweet of her own: “Alice, come out from behind the tool shed and pick up the phone.”)
People seemed genuinely surprised that Ms. Munro wasn’t near a phone – or, even crazier, was near a phone but ignoring it. Perhaps these were the same people who went bonkers when forced to spend 24 hours without wireless service during the Rogers outage this week. There is a poor Australian in Brooklyn, Glenn Rogers, who is currently regretting choosing the Twitter handle @rogers, because it meant he had to endure the abuse of Canadians momentarily deprived of their access to hockey scores, pictures of sad owls and messages that read: “Almost home. U?”
A day without a phone can be a terrible thing, I know. In 2010, a University of Maryland study asked 200 students to unplug from all media for 24 hours and found that the subjects reacted with horror to going cold turkey. They were “not just unwilling, but functionally unable to be without their media links to the world.”
A friend recently told me about a moment of existential dread: She had gone by herself to a restaurant only to discover she’d forgotten her phone and her book. All the copies of the free newspaper at the restaurant’s door were gone. She had to sit by herself and stare at nothing. It was horrible, she said. Her story made me realize how much I miss the sight of people staring off into the distance: One of the great pleasures of Mad Men is watching Don Draper at the bar, blotto, his unfocused red eyes gazing inward on his own failings and not on his phone, where Megan is wondering, for the thousandth time, where the hell he is.
I’m not sitting in a glass house throwing phones. My own BlackBerry keypad is worn as smooth as a river pebble. Giving up smoking was easier than giving up my phone would be, although I can see the health benefits of both. One is a vile habit that I indulged in compulsively away from my fellow man, and the other would give me lung cancer.
The radical change in our visual and social landscape – a sea of people looking down, looking away – is clearly causing anxiety, and not just among fuddy-duddies. When Louis C.K. went on Conan O’Brien’s show and worried about people using the quick dopamine hit of a cellphone check as an antidote to their sadness, the clip was shared millions of times, probably including a lot of phones.
Dare to question the role of technology, though, and you’re seen as the kind of person who uses a potato for a clock. Dave Eggers has written a novel, The Circle, which is partly about the isolation that is a byproduct of connectedness. Yet when he, or terminally irritated novelist Jonathan Franzen, look closely at social media, they’re dismissed as Luddites, as if we live in a binary world where you either communicate via Dixie cups or take a rocketship to work. Most of us travel the muddy ground between, trying to pick our way through.
At the Mercury Espresso Bar in Toronto’s east end, there’s a sign that asks customers to put away their phones at the counter – an act of such basic courtesy that you’d think it would not need to be stated, let alone posted. (A grocery-store clerk who refused to serve a customer talking on her mobile received a hero’s acclaim in England this summer.)
“Our customers are pretty good,” said Mercury’s Zion Forrest Lee, “but outside, I notice it more. I think people are just afraid to be alone.” Mr. Lee, 30, went phone-free for two years in his mid-20s but now has rejoined the crowd, realizing “it’s just too hard to function without it.” I asked him to describe the café’s phone-free sign, but he took a picture of it instead and sent it to me, from his phone to mine. The irony wasn’t lost on either of us.