“So what are you saying? You’ve turned into some sort of Luddite?”
Luke frowned and said, “I’m not a Luddite. I’ve just cut back on my technology use.”
“But your phone?” I picked up the archaic gadget Luke had just shown me, flipped it open, looked askance at the tiny screen. It actually had buttons! “You traded in your phone? For this thing?” I couldn’t keep the laughter out my voice, even though I knew it was bound to make him angry.
Luke reached across the table and took the flip-phone from me, closed it, tucked it into a pouch hanging on his belt. “Somehow I knew you wouldn’t understand.” He drained his coffee, dabbed at his mouth with a napkin, looked over his shoulder. “I should be going. Where’s that waiter?”
A sharp pang of regret jabbed me. Here we were, actually talking for the first time in six months, and my little brother was about to storm out of the restaurant, pissed at me once again. I put a hand on his wrist and said, “Hold on a minute. You just caught me off guard. You surprised me is all.”
He turned to look at me. His face was red, his eyes narrow. I had really touched a nerve. Luke had always been overly sensitive. He didn’t like criticism, constructive or otherwise, and he really didn’t like to be laughed at. Sometimes it was hard to take his wacky schemes and ideas seriously, but if I wanted a relationship with him I had to try.
“I’m sorry, Luke,” I repeated. “I didn’t realize how serious you are. Tell me about this cutting back you’re doing. I’d like to understand.”
He blinked, suspicion plain on his face. I could see the questions in his eyes. Could he trust me? Would I just laugh at him again?
“I’m serious, I said,” squeezing his wrist. “Please. I really want to know.”
We looked at each other for a long minute, his expression doubtful, mine contrite and open, or so I hoped. Finally, he relaxed in his chair, turned back to face the table.
“Okay,” he muttered. “But I’m warning you. One smart-ass comment and I’m out of here.”
“That’s fair. And it won’t happen. Should we get more coffee, do you think?”
He shrugged. “Sure.”
I caught the waiter’s attention. Luke pulled his flip-phone out of its pouch and began to turn it, nervously I thought, end over end, like a talisman of sorts. When our cups were full again, he began to talk.
“It started about five months ago. I was on the subway on my way to work, reading a news feed on my smartphone. No signal in the tunnels, of course, but I could load a story every time we were in a station, and then read it while the train was moving.”
He put his phone on the table and picked up his coffee cup.
“So that was going fine, just like every morning, until we got stopped in the tunnel between stations. You know how that goes. The train moves a few feet and then stops again. A few more feet and stop. Go and stop. I finished the story I was reading, and then I realized I was holding my breath. No signal! What was I supposed to do?”
He took a sip of coffee.
“I was angry. No. Not just angry. More like super pissed. I looked around me at the people on the train, and most of them were looking just as lost as I felt, staring at their phones like a friend had abandoned them.”
Luke put his cup down and looked me in the eye.
“The short story is that I tried to stop using my phone as anything but a phone. No email, no news, no Facebook. But I couldn’t do it. it was as hard to let go as when I stopped smoking. Maybe even harder, because no one made me go outside to check my e-mail.”
“But you managed it,” I said, pointing to the flip-phone. “How did you do it?”
Luke looked at me, distrust and suspicion once again plastered on his face.
“Don’t you dare laugh,” he said.
I shook my head and held my right hand up. “Promise,” I said.
He regarded me doubtfully for a while longer, until I was beginning to wonder if he would ever speak.
“I did it,” he finally said, in the soft voice of a timid boy, “the same way I quit smoking.”
“Really? Didn’t you do a twelve-step thing to stop smoking?”
“So you’re saying there’s a group like that for—”
“Yes. There’s a twelve-step program for technology addicts.” Luke’s voice was still soft, but his eyes dared me to laugh, dared me to judge him.
I kept my expression straight, and gathered my thoughts. This sounded like the craziest thing my dear, loopy brother had ever come up with.
“So,” I began slowly. “You’re saying you were addicted to your phone?”
He shook his head.
“I am addicted to my smartphone. That’s why I have to use this one. I can make calls and pick up texts, although it’s painfully slow to send a text. I carry a book to read on the subway, and my email has to wait until I’m home. Even then, I only use my laptop for an hour a night. It’s more addictive than the phone.”
He picked the flip-phone up.
“This thing only needs charging once a week. And it doesn’t spend the night on the table next to my bed. I don’t get stressed if there’s a delay on the subway, and I swear I’m sleeping better since I put the smartphone away.”
He leaned back in his chair, tucked his phone back into its pouch, and looked at me through questioning eyes.
“So that’s the story,” he said. “What do you think?”
I looked back at Luke, my mind in a whirl. I certainly couldn’t tell him my deep-down thoughts—that he had truly cracked up this time. I scrambled to come up with something less inflammatory to say.
“This twelve-step thing. How much does it cost to—”
“Doesn’t have to cost a penny. You can contribute, but you don’t have to. I give five bucks a week.”
“And how many people are there?”
“I don’t know exactly,” he said. “Quite a few, though.”
“And they all think they’re addicted—"
“They are all addicted. To phones or video games or streaming movies or whatever.”
I said, “And it’s more than just a handful of people?”
Luke laughed, but it was clear that he wasn’t amused.
“Jamie, you’re my big brother, and I love you. But if you ask me again if my program is a cult of some kind, well…”
“I never said it was a cult! I just asked how many people—”
“Let’s just say that tech addiction is real and a lot more common than you think. You should try doing without your phone for a couple days. Then you’d see things a little differently.”
If I saw anything differently at that moment, it was a red flash of irritation. I responded more heatedly than I wanted.
“You can just leave me out of this! I’m not addicted to my phone! In fact, in case you don’t remember, I put it on ‘do not disturb’ when we sat down, and then put it away in my jacket.”
“You’re right. I saw that. But an hour isn’t a good test. Don’t use it for anything but calls and texts for a few days. I bet you can’t do it. In fact, I bet you can’t do it for even one day.”
“That’s absurd,” I said. “Of course I could do that.”
“Then do it now. Turn off your data. Shut down your email and your news feeds and your social—”
“I don’t have to do that, Luke. I know I can take it or leave it.”
I managed to get my voice back to calm and level, despite the heavy breathing and the pounding in my chest. This was not the time to tell my brother just what I thought of his silly ideas and ludicrous suggestions. Unless, of course, I didn’t want to see him again for another six months.
“So,” I said, “why don’t we agree to disagree about me and my phone, and move on to something else?”
For a moment, Luke looked as though he was going to explode. But then his face broke into a wry smile.
“Sure,” he said. “Tell me about work. And the women in your life.”
I tucked my conversation with Luke away in the back of my mind, filed under ‘crazy brother stuff,’ and there it sat for the rest of the day and into the evening. At 10:30, I turned off the television and checked my email and social media accounts. I responded to a couple of messages and commented on a post, then began to get ready for bed.
It was only when I docked the phone in its cradle on my night table that Luke, and his flip-phone that didn’t need charging every night, came back to me. I chuckled and turned off the lamp.
The following day, though, I thought about him every time I picked my phone up. I noticed that my pulse quickened when I checked my email or my Facebook page. I noted that every time my mind wandered, or when I got bored, I reached for my phone. It connected to the car’s Bluetooth automatically, of course, and I realized that I always had one eye on the dashboard screen while I was driving.
That night, without thinking about it, I kept my phone on the table next to me while I ate, and beside me on the sofa while I watched basketball. I checked for messages during every break in play, and lost track of the game while I was responding.
Doubt crept into my thoughts. Had Luke actually gone loopy again, or was there a chance that he was right about this?
Well, I thought as I was brushing my teeth, tomorrow I’ll start his test. I’ll charge the thing tonight, but tomorrow I’ll only use it as a phone. Calls and texts only. In fact, I won’t even plug it in tonight. Who cares if it runs out of juice? That’ll just be evidence in my favor.
Except, when I got to the bedroom I put the phone in its cradle, just like every other night. I laughed at myself. Creature of habit or what? I took it off the charger and laid it on the table.
I couldn’t sleep. I lay there, fretting about the phone on the night table, its battery slowly draining.
So I decided I wouldn’t fail Luke’s test if I charged the phone. But I didn’t have to have it right beside me while I slept. I set the phone charging on the kitchen counter, and went back to bed.
I couldn’t sleep. I imagined the phone beeping to alert me to a message tagged ‘high importance.’ Only it was beeping futilely, because I had banished it from its proper place on my night table.
So I brought it back to the bedroom, plugged the charger in where it had always stayed, and went back to bed.
I still couldn’t sleep. I fussed and tossed, thinking about how good it would feel to kick my silly brother’s ass.