Let’s say you’re at the doctor’s office to address a particularly persistent bout of texter’s neck. To pass the time, you’re rage-scrolling through Twitter and checking Snapchat for the most adorable filters to honour your cat. There are scores to be learned, because your team is playing, and scores to be settled on Facebook.
Then you notice someone in the office not scrolling or raging, but sitting quietly, perhaps reading a magazine or staring into space. Poor wretch, you think. She’s forgotten her phone at home.
But what if she doesn’t have a phone at all? It’s hard to imagine, when three-quarters of Canadians own smartphones (the figure rises to 94 per cent of 15- to 34-year-olds.) But there is indeed a rare species that shuns or severely limits smartphones and social media – let’s call them digital refuseniks. They are hidden among us, neither jobless nor friendless, and living quite happily. Cut off from Uber, yet somehow thriving.
For example, Tony North does not live for his smartphone, because he’s never had one. “I just didn’t want to get into the habit of distraction,” he says simply, in an interview conducted over landline from his home in Paris, Ont. The high-school teacher spends about 20 minutes a day on his one social-media platform, Facebook, which he uses to keep in touch with family back home in Australia. In fact, you could blame Australia for Mr. North’s desire to be digitally unleashed: He remembers leaving home to travel overseas, and the wonderful feeling of being uncontactable that came with it. “It was such a feeling of freedom, and I guess I wanted to keep a bit of that.”
As a teacher of English and drama, Mr. North, 53, is worried about the consequences of teenagers’ near-constant devotion to their online lives (his own two children, 12 and 13 years old, do not have phones). In drama class, he makes his students put away their phones and engage in face-to-face exercises: “I’m basically forcing them to interact,” he says. “When I ask for evaluations at the end of the semester, it’s one of the things they most seem to appreciate.”
And yes, before you ask, there are inconveniences, too. Because he has no smartphone, if he wants to take his students on a field trip, he has to partner with a teacher who has one (and they all do) because the group must be reachable. But as compensation, he reads many novels and enjoys quiet moments of reflection and watching the world go by.
Talk to digital refuseniks and you’ll hear some variation on this: They love the quiet wandering of their own imaginations. “Drift, wait, obey,” was Rudyard Kipling’s recipe for inspiration, a sentiment that is almost unimaginable today, when our minds are constantly being filled with micro-nuggets of unrelated information.
‘I didn’t want to be that person’
For Bethany March, who severely restricts her digital use, contentment lies in people-watching. “I was on the streetcar for 40 minutes yesterday,” the 18-year-old university student says, “and I did nothing. Everyone else was on their phones, but I just looked out the window.”
Ms. March, who’s in her first year of studying French education at York University, reluctantly gave in and bought a smartphone when she was 16. All the information for her school clubs was on Facebook, so she downloaded the app, and it’s still the only one she has. She uses her phone sparingly to call and text. And yes, her peers think it’s strange that she doesn’t really use social media; but then she wonders about them, too.
‘’I saw the way that people got so invested, not just in their phones, but in social media, and I didn’t want to be that person,” she says. “So many times people would be zeroed in on their phones. It was just rude, to be honest. I’d think, ‘I’m here with you, talk to me.’”
It’s clear many people feel ambivalent about digital dependence. While some speak longingly of shedding their shackles, few ever completely do it – and in a 2016 Statscan survey, 60 per cent of Canadians said technology improved their lives. Much of people’s professional and personal lives relies on social-media connections, and the convenience of online experiences, creating almost a disembodied self. The tension exists between that convenience and sense of fellowship and the ever-mounting worries about what technology dependency does to physical and mental health. Canadians between the ages of 18 and 34 spend nearly five hours a day online, according to a 2017 survey from Media Technology Monitor. On average, Canadians spent 24.5 hours online a week in 2016, up two hours per week from the year before. And that is almost certainly an underestimation, when all flickers and glances and zombie-stares are taken into account. “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” the Atlantic magazine asked last year in a cover story designed to keep parents up at night, frozen in the blue light of further bad news.
It’s also become clear that the people who are most likely to restrict digital access for their children are the gurus who make their fortune peddling the promise of technology. They refuse to buy smartphones for their kids, and make their nannies sign “no-phone contracts,” as The New York Times’ Nellie Bowles has reported. In a recent story about the technology industry’s new Cassandras, Ms. Boles quoted Athena Chavarria, who works at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a foundation created by Priscilla Chan and her husband, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg: “I am convinced the devil lives in our phones and is wreaking havoc on our children.”
That’s a fear shared by many parents, and even some of their kids. Sophie Bezanson is 15, and she’s glad that her parents have not bought her a phone. Interestingly, her parents made the decision to give her more freedom and independence to be herself, without supervision. She is the only one of her friends who doesn’t have a phone or use social media. When they wait for the school bus in New Minas, N.S., the other students are on their phones. Sophie gets to daydream, or read, or think about the day ahead.
There are moments when the Grade 10 student does feel a fleeting fear of missing out, as the latest meme or joke goes over her head: “Social media is how my generation communicates. If I meet someone, they’ll say, ‘Just add me on Instagram.’ And I have to tell them that I only have e-mail, which sounds like a thing of the past. Sometimes I wish I could communicate faster with people.”
Like all refuseniks, Sophie makes delicate calibrations all the time: What are the costs, and what are the benefits, of sitting out the dance when everyone else is on the floor? She’s been discussing with her parents the possibility of joining Instagram, and the other night she was paging through the social-media platform famous for its aspirational content. She came across a friend’s feed, and found something she had not expected: "It was her showing off her body, and that really surprised me. I think a lot of people do that, they try to shape their lives in a perfect way. It isn’t very realistic, but I see it a lot.’’
‘They love to hate it’
The effort of social-media performance can be draining, as anyone who spends a lot of time online will know. After a certain amount of time, the return on investment may seem increasingly small, and the performance itself becomes drudgery. Then the phoneless become less objects of pity, and more of envy.
John Moir is another refusenik, although he is quick to say, with a laugh, that he is not sanctimonious about it. He does have e-mail and Skype, after all, and a basic flip phone. However, the 71-year-old Vancouverite has the phone only because his cycling group requires it, and he has “only ever used it to make sure it works.” Like Mr. North, he likes the freedom of being disconnected, especially when he is travelling. It means he is really experiencing a new location, “rather than trying to be in two places at once.”
He gets a particular response from digitally connected people, which is perhaps not too strange when you think about it: jealousy. “Whenever I tell people I don’t have a phone, they say, ‘Oh, that’s so great. I wish I didn’t have to have one.’ It’s odd that people look at it that way, as if the phone itself is something alive. They love to hate it.’’
They may not always know the latest score and they may be late discovering what Kanye West’s politics are, but that’s one thing digital refuseniks never have to worry about: Who is the servant in their digital relationship, and who is the master.