I don’t have a cellphone. At first I didn’t buy one. And then I continued not buying one. At one point, a friend gave me one, and I dutifully gave out the number and carried it around for a while, but I didn’t like being called while walking around, and so I would turn it off, and eventually stopped taking it with me, and its minutes ran out, and then I was back to not having a cellphone.
You may be thinking: Big deal, she doesn’t have a cellphone. Who cares? I entirely agree with you. My failure to have a cellphone is not in itself interesting. Nor am I an anti-cellphone activist. I do not live under a bridge, on an organic farm, or in an Amish community. I have a job, and friends, and something approximating a social life. And I am not suggesting you get rid of your cellphone. My objection is not to cellphones themselves: I agree that they are convenient, and completely understand why people have them. I just don’t want one.
It’s true that I find some of the entailments of constant cellphone use alarming. Like many cellphone owners, I am disturbed by the increasing zombification of the populace, with people staggering around the streets staring into their little screens, a danger to themselves and those around them. Like you, I am horrified to see cellphone-clutching babies being strolled around, oblivious to their surroundings, by similarly oblivious cellphone-wielding parents. Clearly the apocalypse is nigh. But that’s not my point.
My point is the way people react to my cellphonelessness. I don’t go around announcing that I don’t have a cellphone—at least I didn’t, before deciding to come out publicly as a non-cellphone-owner in the form of this article. I’ve tried to avoid revealing my cellphone lack, because I dislike the ensuing responses. But occasionally someone asks for my number in case they want to call or send a text. I try to fob them off with what I resent having to refer to as a landline, but when this ploy fails (as it generally does), the reactions fall into five categories:
1. You don’t have a cellphone? Really? Huh. That’s… amazing….
2. Oh I know, me too. I hate cellphones. I only have one because [kids/work/travel]. I never give out the number.
3. You don’t have a cellphone? Seriously, you don’t have a cellphone? Dude! But how do you… like… exist, without a cellphone? How do you… talk to your family?
4. You don’t have a cellphone? Seriously? Why don’t you have a cellphone? You should have a cellphone! What if someone wants to get ahold of you? You should definitely get a cellphone. What if something happens? I can’t believe you don’t have a cellphone! What is wrong with you?
Very occasionally, someone says:
5. You don’t have a cellphone? Really? I don’t have one either! I thought I was the last person on Earth without a cellphone.
This has only happened twice.
Category No. 1 feels burdened by being constantly on call and finds the idea of not having a cellphone both attractive and implausible. Category No. 2 likes the idea of not having a cellphone, but doesn’t want to go without. The difference between them is that No. 1 hadn’t really thought about not having one, whereas No. 2 had held out for a while and feels solidarity with the cellphoneless.
Category No. 3 was born after 1990, and has never known a world without cellphones. They have heard of it, but they can’t imagine such a thing, feel vague pity for the citizens of the past who were forced to live this way, and find it as impossible to imagine anyone voluntarily depriving themselves of cellphone use as of indoor plumbing. Recently, someone born in 1992 asked me with great perplexity how people had met before cellphones. Not how people hooked up in the absence of Tinder or Grindr, but how friends arranged to get together, without being able to call or text. It wasn’t all that complicated, I explained: They agreed on a time and place, and then went there.
My point is: Category No. 4. I’ve been berated for not having a cellphone so many times, sometimes by people who don’t seem to harbor any desire actually to contact me, that it seems not having a cellphone is now viewed not merely as a terrible breach of etiquette, but as the passive-aggressive indictment of an entire way of life. Some people react to my admission that I don’t have a cellphone as though they’d offered me a platter of meat and I’d responded by handing out pictures of slaughterhouses.
Category No. 4, I conclude, has something in common with Category No. 1. In both cases, there is the suggestion that a person without a cellphone is getting away with something. Category No. 1 views this as a positive thing and wonders whether it too might be able to take a shot at it. Category No. 4 appears to be enraged at the idea of someone else’s having escaped an onerous responsibility that it has dutifully shouldered. Yet it’s not as though I were confessing to not paying taxes; as far as I know, there is no actual law requiring one to have a cellphone. Why the outrage? Is it simply peer pressure, a middle-age version of the sixth-grade insistence that everyone wear the same brand of gym shoes, at risk of being cast out of the group? Can it be that some don’t actually enjoy being constantly tied to their cellphones and resent being reminded that they’ve done this to themselves?
People often say they couldn’t survive without a cellphone. But if you were born before 1990, you know that’s not true. In any case, if you’re reading this on your phone while walking across the street, you should really look up, because there’s a BMW heading straight for you, and the driver is texting.