The bliss of being miles from my lost smartphone

Last Wednesday, after a seven-day break, I rejoined the modern world.

For a full week, I had done something frightening, shaming yet ultimately liberating. I had been without a phone.

This strange period started in Washington, DC, in a taxi bound for the airport. I had spent the journey doing e-mail on my phone, which I put down on the seat to pay the driver, only to leave the cab without it. In airport security a few minutes later, I reached into my bag. No phone. I emptied it onto the floor. Nothing. My heart started to race, my breathing turned shallow and I was prickling with sweat.

I've lost my phone, I wailed at the person next to me. Half a dozen people overheard, and an impromptu crisis team formed. Someone tried to ring my number, but it was on silent mode. Others asked if I knew the name of the cab company and if I'd paid by card. No and no, I said.

Already I had learnt two things. People in general are very nice. And on the scale of human calamities, losing your phone is now seen as up there with cardiac arrest.

Two hours later, queueing for a taxi in Boston, I felt the need, Ancient Mariner-style, to tell my story to the man next to me. He asked for my Apple login details and then showed me on his phone a little blue circle moving slowly over a bridge. There it is, he said. It's 396 miles (637km) away. I looked at the blob and wanted to cry.

In my hotel room, I sat on the edge of a bed and gazed down on the city, lit up below me. Room service was on its way, and from my laptop, I e-mailed various people to say I'd lost my phone. By any standards, I was safe, facing no imminent or distant risk. Yet I felt all wrong: exposed and vulnerable. The stress of the speech I was giving was nothing by comparison.

At the conference the next day, the delegates filed out for coffee, but there was no networking going on as everyone was in silent communion with his e-mail. With no such comfort blanket, I had no choice but do something retro - engage a stranger in conversation, who rewarded me by being both interesting and vaguely useful.

Later, out on the street and bound for South Station, I did another thing I hadn't done since I got my first smartphone. I asked a woman for directions, and she duly provided them. Here was my next discovery: Asking a person is better than Google Maps. It is faster and does not require reading glasses.

On the train to New York, I did my e-mail. Because it is a kerfuffle opening the laptop and signing on, I did them in one go, after which I shut the machine and read a book.

It then occurred to me that the invention of the BlackBerry was not progress. There is nothing to be gained from having your e-mail follow you around - and much to be lost as it detracts from whatever else you are doing.

By day three, all panic had gone, replaced by an unaccustomed feeling of freedom. Without my whole world tugging at me from my pocket, I could simply marvel at the beauty of Central Park South in the early morning sun.

Back home in London, there were only two occasions when a phone might have come in handy. The first was when I'd missed the last Overground train home and I wanted Uber, but this wasn't too bad as, soon enough, a bus came trundling along. The second was when I was meeting someone who had tried to text to tell me she was running late. All that happened was I was left waiting for 20 minutes, which I spent thinking about what I wanted from the meeting.

When my new phone arrived last week, I felt no pleasure at the neat white oblong box. I opened my text messages dreading all the messages I'd missed, only to find none at all - texts don't automatically transfer from one gadget to another.

There was only one bad thing about losing my phone. I lost face at the same time. When one of my sons left his phone on a park bench a few months ago, I told him if he wasn't mature enough to look after a smartphone, he wasn't mature enough to own one. My loss proves something different. Evidently, I'm too mature to look after mine. And now I know I'm too mature to need it.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 28, 2016, with the headline 'The bliss of being miles from my lost smartphone'. Print Edition | Subscribe