When you can't get reception, you enjoy the people around you more.
Back in September I took a group of girlfriends to my parents' cabin for a getaway weekend. It's in a remote location, tucked away on the shores of a largely uninhabited lake on the edge of Algonquin Park in Ontario, Canada. Most notably, there is no cellphone reception. You can sometimes get it by paddling the canoe into the middle of the lake, but otherwise you're out of luck (especially if the canoe tips).
Or maybe you're in luck. It's a rare treat these days to be in a place where you can't use your phone and, as I witnessed with my friends, it has an interesting effect on people.I think most people do not realize how often they reach for their devices, and how knowing a phone is handy affects the way in which we interact with our surroundings. There is unspoken pressure to take pictures and grab Instagram stories in the moment as proof of where we've been and how much fun we're having (even if we're not). There's also the inclination to reach for it at the slightest feeling of boredom or a desire for quick stimulation, and who doesn't get those feelings multiple times in an hour? But when a phone just can't be accessed anymore, it forces people to become far more present.
During that weekend I noticed how much more focused my friends and I were on each other. We'd sit around the table playing card games and telling stories, or sprawl out on the dock sunbathing for hours, or drink wine around the campfire until late, and at no point could anyone reach for a phone to "capture the moment" or communicate with anyone who wasn't there. I noticed that, even though our cameras worked, we took far fewer pictures than when those images can be immediately uploaded for the world to see. The urge for instant gratification was gone.
David Cain describes people on their phones in a crowd as 'black holes' whose actions affect everyone. In an article called "The Simple Joy of 'No Phones Allowed'," he writes,
"Every time someone in a group of people deploys a screen, the whole group is affected. Each disengaged person in a crowd is like a little black hole, a dead zone for social energy, radiating a noticeable field of apathy towards the rest of the room and what’s happening there. We all know this feeling from being at a restaurant table when one person has 'discreetly' ducked out into their screen. Even while everyone else is happily chatting face-to-face, everyone feels the hole."
That hole never materialized during my girls' weekend, and it was a remarkable feeling. Eventually, as we drove back to town and regained reception, everyone's phones started pinging with all the missed notifications of a world that had continued to swap information madly while we were holed up in the bush. Our animated conversation slowed, responses were delayed, and heads dropped to screens as we caught up on texts and social media feeds. The incredible feeling of focused connection was gone, but the memory has remained.
I agree with Cain when he emphasizes the importance of establishing and defending phone-free spaces, whether it's a concert hall, theatre, church, art gallery, or the family dinner table. Not only are these phone-free spaces more pleasant for everyone around, but I think that, deep down, people want them, too. In a way we're like children who crave the structure and boundaries that our parents provide, and yet fight against it. We want to be relieved of the pressure of having to keep up, whether it's our image or communication or awareness of global events. It's a relief to be told it's time to stop.