I like to play a game on the subway where I look around and try to find someone not on their phone. I like seeing a person reading a book, or, in an ultimate win, someone staring into space without headphones. It’s a rare find.
These check-ins remind me that we, as a society, rely on our phones to distract and entertain us. Yet still, even as a hyper-aware person, I can’t even force myself to get off my own iPhone while riding the train. I try, but always think of something I have to do immediately: reply to an email, respond to my friend’s text, double-check a date in my calendar, read an article, adjust my music. Apparently everyone has something to do, too. In the 10 years since the iPhone debuted, it’s slowly eaten our personal space. Few places exist without cell service or Wi-Fi. We’re connected in locations that once seemed far removed from the busyness of the world, like on subways, airplanes, and cruise ships. NASA even sent iPhones into space.
I groaned when the Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced that all New York City subway stations would get Wi-Fi and cell connectivity this year. The subway once served as my retreat away from the phone. Nearly seven months after that service expansion, the system isn’t completely canvassed. I notice that people look up in between stations, where service remains spotty. Still, the MTA is actively trying to get those tiny unconnected chunks to disappear. Everywhere is slowly connecting.
After a decade of unstopped insurgence — the result of which left 34 percent of people finding it difficult to take a break from technology even when they know they should — tech companies and businesses are responding to the iPhone invasion. We’re reclaiming our space. And like all good stories, it starts at the clubs. Parties, like Mister Saturday Night, ban phones from the dance floor because its hosts want the dance floor to be “a place where everyone can be in the moment.” Permanent clubs, including Schimanski in Brooklyn, New York, sometimes put stickers over attendees’ phone cameras. Wall Street Journal columnist Joanna Stern attended a party where she was forced to put her phone in a bag until the end of the night. Mandatory disconnecting might be niche, but up until recently, it wasn’t something that needed to be addressed.
Even Apple is acknowledging its devices’ conquering of space. With software like Night Shift, the company recognized that most users take their phones into their bedrooms with them in the evening, and it isn’t entirely healthy for their sleep cycle. At its Worldwide Developers Conference a few weeks ago, Apple also introduced “Do Not Disturb While Driving,” a new feature that has your phone auto-reply to messages when it detects that you’re driving. Where notifications once popped up on your lock screen, there will be darkness. The screen will get literally blacked out while you drive. (Samsung released similar software earlier this year.)
Car companies are working to block cell signals, too. Nissan unveiled its solution, which turned out to be an armrest that’s actually a Faraday cage. We let iPhones come into our cars to the point that companies had to respond, and now, we’re getting that space back — or at least the driver is.
Of course, for people who can’t seem to find a space that isn’t connected, there’s always extreme retreats, which have existed for a few years. These experiences often involve paying a high fee, driving out to the woods, and relinquishing your phone. On its main page advertising its trips, Digital Detox writes: “Participants gain insight into personal lifestyle techniques and practices that keep them grounded and connected even in the most stressed, overwhelming, and technologically driven times.” Hotels also offer similar getaways, often billed as the key step to relaxation. The Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group offers a digital detox package in which guests are told to turn over their phones and then take time to journal, meditate, or color. Crystals are involved, and an hour session costs more than $200.
Even Arianna Huffington is selling a damn phone bed, or a literal bed for your phone. The description for it says: “By giving our phones their own bed, we can say goodnight to our day and get the sleep we need to wake up fully recharged.” It’s a silly solution but Huffington is trying. I give her credit. Hardware companies are responding, too, with distraction-less phones that address time-sucking apps.
Ten years after its launch, the iPhone shows no sign of going away. As we let our iPhones into more and more of our lives and spaces, however, it might be time to think about whether we need them there in that moment.
A retreat might be over the top, but looking up on the subway isn’t so hard to do.