The Big Disconnect

We live in an always-on world of remote controls, cell phones, cable TV and computers, advancements that make our lives easier, more enjoyable. But do they? One man was brave enough (or maybe just crazy enough) to chuck it all away for a month, giving up
Even my closest friends are beginning to despise me.

They want me to be glum, unhappy, desperate. They want me to suffer. That is their hope. No doubt, it is hard. Sometimes it is really, really hard. But it is never truly miserable.

Starting on my 28th birthday, I gave up all technology that wasn’t in common use on the day I was born, Sept. 15, 1980. It’s striking how much has changed in less than three decades. I ditched my cell phone, cable television, mp3 player, satellite radio, computer, e-mail, Internet, call waiting, caller ID, ATM and debit card, air conditioning in my car, remote controls of any type — even Post-it notes.

While some friends told me they would never do it and others wished they could, all were certain I would be counting the days until the end of my monthlong experiment. (That’s the limit my boss imposed on this project, because he was skeptical of the idea, too.)

I’m halfway through my technology fast. It started as a question of excess and complication —Do we really need all this stuff? Does any of it really make our lives easier or happier?Then the rest of the country, and then the world, caught up with the recession that Cleveland has been suffering for years.

If the formerly economically bustling parts of the country are slinking into hard times, what does that mean for us? Clevelanders are already watching their budgets closely, but more of us might pick and choose which monthly fees are really worth it.

Taking a hard look at whether we need all this stuff sounds noble, right?

So back off.

I can’t wait to start. It’s a month before my birthday, long before my tech-free status officially begins, but I read —ahem, on the Internet — it can take up to 45 days for a phone number to transfer. So as far as I’m concerned, I should have gotten rid of my cell phone weeks ago.

The AT&T saleswoman doesn’t believe me when I call.

“So wait, let me understand,” she pleads. “You want to turn your cell phone number into a landline? What about your cell phone? You know, this will cancel that service.”

Of course, that’s the point. No more cell phone.

She laughs. “I wishI could do that,” she says.

Why can’t you? I give her my theory: We’ve embraced so much technology without thinking about the long-term ramifications. We look at what it can do for us, not what these technologies take away from us.

She sounds horrified. “What if you get caught on the side of the road?”

The woman is now trying to convince me to keep my mobile phone.

Really, I’ll be fine. We got along without these tools for all of human existence (minus 28 years). I can get around without my BlackBerry with SureType keyboard that instantly delivers both work and private e-mails, allows me to text twice as fast as most friends and take pictures decent enough for publication on Cleveland Magazine’s blog. No problem. I’ll do it for a month, then I will re-evaluate.

“Wow. So, um, I guess this means I can’t interest you in bundling your home phone service with high-speed Internet or Uverse television?”

A friend at Opera Cleveland offers to loan me an IBM Selectric that’s sitting around her office. With its round ball that slams the ink ribbon against the paper, it is the same typewriter my mother used when I was a kid. She did transcription, and, I’m told, I’d kick along in her womb in rhythm to her 80 words per minute.

But as I plug it in, a loud hum fills my office, and the keyboard is too smooth —like computer keys, except there’s no way to fix errors. I need something that feels significantly different, or I’ll be assured to go through gallons of Wite-Out.

Plus, typing on a Selectric feels kind of secretarial. I want to mash away on a

machine like the writers did at The Cleveland Press — like legendary journalists Dick Feagler and Betty Klaric did early in their careers.

Years ago, I bought a Remington Rand Model Seventeen manual typewriter. It has some chipped paint, but frankly, the antique was purchased more as a decoration than a functional tool.

I lug it to work on the bus and set it up on my desk.

It’s far older than it needs to be for this project, but there’s something classy about it. You need to pound on the keys to make it type. And despite being older than my parents, it still works just as advertised. It was made back when things were built to last. It was made in America by Americans. Back when that meant something.

Unique Thrift has that smell —a blend, really, of stuff that has sat around unattended for too long, of searching for the perfect Halloween costume.

I walk past the clothes, straight to the side wall, which looks like a pack rat’s attic. This is the epicenter of antitechnology. I dig through the piles and uncover an answering machine with a cassette tape and an alarm clock where the numbers flip down each minute.

There is some vintage 1979 technology, but I’m apt to go for older any time I can. The Cleveland I dream about is not the dirty, gritty, struggling one of the ’70s. It’s the Cleveland of its prime, when men and women put on hats to go downtown, when they used rotary phones. So that’s what I buy. Abeaut (or at least it looks good after I scrub the crud off of it for 40 minutes).

When I get home, I find the answering machine hangs up without recording. And the speaker is blown on the clock radio. The rotary, though, is amazing. The black cord coming out the back has three wires, not a standard plug. Since my month hasn’ttechnicallystarted yet, I hop online to figure out how to make it work. After I remove the modern connection from the wall, I grab my Phillips screwdriver to wire it directly into the wall. But the wall has two spots to connect, and I have three wires. After a little old-fashioned trial-and-error, I get a dial tone.

I find my first cell phone in my former bedroom closet at my parents’ house. It’s two fists big. I got it in 1996, and I was the first among my high school friends to have one. My plan included 20 daytime minutes and 500 minutes for nights or weekends. So outside of a Saturday afternoon, it was for emergencies.

After 12 years with a cell phone, it’s hard to remember functioning in a world without one. In March, Pew Research released a study that showed for the first time, Americans were more tied to their cell phones than any other technology: 51 percent of Americans who have used the technology say it would be “very hard to give up” their mobile phones in 2007. The same survey a year earlier had listed the landline as the hardest-to-boot technology. Also ranking high on the latest survey was the Internet (45 percent), television (43 percent), e-mail (37 percent) and the BlackBerry (36 percent).

At first, shedding the phone makes me feel vulnerable. Our cell phone addiction has almost killed off the 25-cent payphone, so I would have to find a supermarket or a gas station (the only two places where you can reliably count on finding a working payphone) if I needed to make a call.

But over the next week, I find I don’t reallyneed to reach anybody. And now I am doing some research before making plans, rather than flying on a wing and my cell phone.

No one cancels on me last-minute. If they did, they knew I’d be standing in our meeting spot wondering where they were.

As I walk around Cleveland without my phone, I stab at my empty pocket again and again, making me realize how much of a talk-on-the-phone-all-the-time person I actually am. I always thought I wasn’t one of those people. I hated those people.

Instead of talking to folks I know, I smile at passersby. I look around. I had heard about the renovation of the Atrium at 668 Euclid Avenue, but I didn’t know the stucco exterior had been skinned and the limestone façade revealed.

As I walk down the streets, I try to imagine them like the Cleveland I know only through pictures, when Cleveland was the fifth-largest city in the country, in 1930, with 900,429 residents.

It comes in the mail, mixed in with the bills and magazines, an envelope with big, sweeping letters, obviously written by a woman. I set the letter aside. It had been so long since I’d received a personal letter. Well, a personal letter that was not a generic thank-you for a usually hastily bought wedding gift.

Whose handwriting does it look like? This isn’t going to work. I don’t know any of my friends’ penmanship anymore. Where would I have seen it?

“hi andy how r u doing w/o cell phone txt msgs? Just wanted to let u know i am thinkg of u!”

She did not sign the letter. She time-stamped it and included her cell number. I would have called her up immediately to tell her she’s a smart ass, but I have to grab my address book first to figure out it was from Andrea.

I don’t know anyone’s phone number.

When the day comes to officially begin my quest, I head into work early. I take the computer off my desk. I stuff it underneath, and I say goodbye to the IT guy. I won’t need him for a month, unless he keeps WD-40 and screwdrivers in stock.

I hand the power cord to my colleague.

I hang up a sign on my door — typed, of course — that asks people to turn off their cell phones if they plan on entering my office. It is officially a “technology-free zone.”

Typing on a typewritermakes things seem profound. Olde-timey words work themselves into my letter. I allow myself some digressions into big thoughts — the kind of stuff I would delete in an

e-mail. But this is a letter. It’s important.

For some reason, I’m writing about a lot of mundane things in my letters as well, mentioning gas prices by number and discussing the news items of the day. My friends will not care about these things. But someday, I think, when a historian finds this letter, it will be afascinating look at the times we live in now.

Not profound: Retyping a 5,500-word story for the magazine. Three times. I flinch with every edit my boss marks on my November feature story, dreading the impending hand cramps. Each change means having to type another draft of that damn story.

I normally type about 60 words per minute, so it shouldn’t take me more than an hour and a half to retype it. But my hands hurt, and I have to take breaks. One draft takes me the morning. Then an intern has to retype what I’ve written into our computer system.

As you might imagine, you can’t pick up a replacement ribbon for a typewriter first produced when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president.

The only typewriter shop still left in town is Cleveland Business Machines, on St. Clair Avenue. Richard O’Reilly says business has really slowed down over the past three years. His biggest client, the city of Cleveland, has finally upgraded the bulk of its typewriters. So now it’s really a niche business.

He agrees to replace my ribbon, winding a new one onto the spool, since the company that made replacements is long gone. I tell him about my project. He seems skeptical. Later, I call him again and ask him why.

“I love all old things,” O’Reilly says. “I’m an old person. But if someone was going to do serious writing, I would recommend using a computer. It’s so difficult to use a manual typewriter.”

Bob Jesitus is slouchedat the bar while waiting for me inside the Tradesman Tavern in Parma, a working-class beer joint recently remodeled with a mural dedicated to those who have to physically work for a living. No collars in here are white. Most folks don’t have any collars at all. The drink of choice is a giant beer, nearly a cubit tall and mass-produced in this country.

Bob’s head is shaved, and he’s thin from the seven miles a day he walks as a postal carrier. He doesn’t look 46 years old. He has no cell phone, no computer and no desire to join the rest of Americans in their tech binges. His buddies dubbed him Caveman Bob when they realized how disinterested he is in anything innovative.

“When I spend my money, I want to know what I’m buying is going to last for 10 years,” he says. “With a computer, it just seems like you have to keep upgrading. It seems like more trouble than it’s worth.”

Having never had these toys, the mailman feels a little like an outsider. When he talks, he sounds like a confused tourist. He can’t understand how two people can sit at the bar together, talking on cellular phones to someone else.Why did they bother coming together?

It just doesn’t make sense. GPS: “Who gets in their car without knowing where they’re going?”

He starts to say something else, but he stops and sighs. “I feel really old,” he says. “I don’t know anyone else who doesn’t have a computer.” That includes his elderly mother, who regularly rags on him — she’d rather e-mail him than mail him letters.

“If I went onto the Internet, I think I would probably waste a lot of time,”

Bob says.

He’s right. I am getting a week’s worth of work done in three days now without the distraction of endless information. My boss taunts me when I ask him a question: “You could just Google that.” Half the time he’s forgotten I can’t. The other half, he’s making a point. Still, Bob is right. Though some things are harder, having a good chunk of the world’s information at my fingertips is more of a burden than a joy: There’s no more shrugging my shoulders at a difficult question. I can find it if I just try hard enough.

Just then, an odd man walks into the bar. He has a long, gray beard that hangs to the middle of his chest. He has a plastic bag with the words “THANK YOU” written all over it in big capital red letters. He pulls out a VHS tape, a plastic squirt gun and a children’s book.

The bartender comes over, and he hands her the tape. “This is for you,” he mumbles. “And if you know anyone with kids, give them these.”

The bartender looks at the man like he does this kind of thing all the time.

Bob leans over to me. “You, me and him. We’re probably the only ones in this place without a cell phone. There’s a line between us and him. Let’s make sure not to cross it.”

Outside of Andrea’smailed “txt msg,” I haven’t spoken to her since I gave up my cell phone. In fact, I’m not talking to a lot of people these days. My answering machine used to get three or four messages a day. Now I’m lucky if I get that in a week. While on any given day I’m happier without my phone, I miss talking to my out-of-town friends.

Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein is on WCPN’s Diane Rehm show. He wrote The Dumbest Generation, which argues that technology and prevailing attitudes concerning youth have helped produce an entitled, over-loved, stupid generation of kids. And while he lumps me, as someone under 30, among their ranks, I’m captivated. I tear through the book.

“Enough years have passed for us to expect the intellectual payoff promised by digital enthusiasts to have happened,” he writes. “Blogs aren’t new anymore, and neither is MySpace, the Sims or text messaging. ... If the Web did constitute such a rich learning encounter, we would have seen its effects by now.”

I call my friend Dave in Alabama.

Having read six books this month, I didn’t realize that we’d rarely spoken. I’m swept up in my discovery. I start my rant: We’re in a society where it is uncool to be an individual. Many people have cell phones now not because they need them, but because everyone has one. Same goes for most of our toys. For God’s sake, think about your life!

I sit back and wait for the laudatory response. I anticipate clapping or cheering.

Instead, he calls me a jackass.

He doesn’t buy the studies I cite that show how much dumber we’ve become. He rattles off the benefits of the Internet and GPS and countless other technologies. And his voice is growing faster and louder. The pitch is changing just enough for me to hear his agitation brewing. (I can tell this without question because of the amazing clarity of my rotary phone handset. I make a note to mention that as soon as he’s finished yelling.)

Dave is actually pissed. He’s offended. He says goodbye and frustratedly hangs up before I even get the chance to tell him how clearly his anger came through my wired phone line.

It’s not just Dave.

In the next week, I’m chewed out by three more friends, all questioning the very premise of my most amazing discoveries.

Sometimes they protest, saying those technologies make it easier to stay in touch with friends you don’t get to see often.

Others just change the subject. The ones, that is, who still talk to me. Fewer and fewer are answering when I call. My in-person visits always seem to begin just as they are walking out the door.

Even my boss seems to be growing short with me.

It’s clear. Everyone is starting to despise me.

I call Mark Bauerlein, the guy who wrote that Dumbest Generation book. If anyone would understand, he would.

My friends, family and co-workers are starting to hate me, and I don’t understand why.

He laughs.

“Of course they do. By leaving their world of technology behind, you’re leaving their social construct. When you say, I’m not using technology, you’re pulling out of their world,” he says. “You’re rejecting them. You’re saying what they spend so much time on doesn’t matter. More than that: It’s worthless.”

No wonder they hate me.

My original plan was to evaluate each technology individually. Then I could weigh the positives and negatives in using the technology and decide what to bring back and what to ditch for good.

Here’s the problem. Because my cell phone, the Internet and everything else had been in my life at one point, the question gets more complex. By eliminating a technology I’ve previously adopted, one that I never should have adopted in the first place, there are unintended negative consequences: I’ve saved about $100 this month, but everyone hates me.

Of all the things I’ve ditched, I feel most at peace, the most satisfied, having given up my mobile phone. But that is the piece of technology those I care about miss me having the most.

I don’t tell anyone I’m coming here. In part, I want to be able to back out. I feel a little bit ill, to tell you the truth.

My official experiment has been over for a few weeks. Anytime my phone line crackles, people get excited. My mother yelps, “Does this mean you’re on a cell phone?!”

No, bad weather.

And then I hear the disappointment.

My brother calls me. He is lobbying to get the phone back. In the middle of his argument, his phone cuts out.

And yet, here I am inside the Verizon Wireless store. I decide one thing coming in: I don’t want a phone with e-mail access. I will just get one that makes calls.

The saleswoman, Terra, goes over the virtues of the phones. I only half-listen.

I tell her about my experiment. I tell her about my months away from a cell phone and my apprehension over being reconnected to the world in a 24/7 kind of way.

She smiles. “Wouldn’t that be nice?” she asks. “I wish I could do that.”

I’m sitting at my kitchen table clacking away at my laptop. I’m working from home today, and I’m a little distracted. The stock market is diving again, and I’m on a financial message board reading the analysis of people no more educated on the subject than I am.

My essay is minimized at the bottom of the screen.

My cell phone is next to me, and I have both my personal e-mail and my business e-mail pulled up. I’ll have to work through lunch to finish what I need to get done.

I’ve completely reverted. Except for not having a BlackBerry, I’m right back to where I was before this all started, and I’m coming to peace with it. It’s easy to get wrapped up in this stuff. All this stuff — stuff I never missed — is now integrated right back in my life.

I hear my mail slot clink, and I go grab the mail. Mixed in with the bills is a handwritten letter. My friend Brooke, from Toledo, wrote me during her lunch break. She tells me about how she and her husband want to buy a new house, but they’re worried about the cost. But the house is exactly what they’ve always wanted, in the city where they’ve always wanted to live. It’s their forever home.

We usually don’t have these kinds of conversations over the phone. We talk so infrequently that we usually only share good news and figure out when we can arrange a visit. This, though, seemed much more important.
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