The turning point, as I see it now, came in the third week of July 2016, when I was covering the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
The event dropped its public-spectacle payload squarely into a single short stretch of downtown’s East Fourth Street, where many of the city’s signature restaurants are clustered. Most of them had been rented for the week by national media entities, so that Greenhouse Tavern was Twitter, Butcher and the Brewer was The Washington Post, and Harry Buffalo was CNN. The major news networks had outdoor platforms set up, their temporary soundstages on metal stilts angled to capture the tableau of cheering commoners and day-off-work gawkers gathered for this long-anticipated event. Satellite trucks lined the side streets and every third dude in a ball cap was hauling a black gig bag loaded with some sort of high-tech-on-a-tripod gear. The amount of digital energy beaming skyward that week would likely have been enough to animate a starting quarterback for the Cleveland Browns. The block had a Times Square vibe, so long as you narrowed your eyes and ignored the fact that Cleveland’s bullshit detector is far too finely tuned for this anomaly to skew our well-founded reality. We aren’t Times Square, and that’s not the point.
Nonetheless, it was a cool thing to see, and for me, a former working journalist back in street-level action after seven years in academia, it was a welcome return to the excitement of live coverage. I’d contracted with an online magazine to file a story a day for the four days of the convention, and feeling like a musician back on tour after years in the studio, I found myself reorienting to the speed of life and acquainting myself to subtle new changes in the process. Entering the street, poking along at the fringes, watching, eavesdropping, stopping to jot down the fact of a vendor selling Donald Trump socks, overcoming the social anxiety of interrogating a stranger, I worked my way to the end of the block, where I interviewed a tattooed young man with interesting eyewear working a boutique coffee stand. His T-shirt slogan—GIVE ME CLEVELAND OR GIVE ME DEATH—cried out for a photo.
I reached into my bag and pulled out my five-year-old Samsung Intensity II Messaging Phone and aimed it at him.
“Can I take your picture with my super high-tech technological telephone?” I quipped.
Right then, right there, for the first time in my life, I was embarrassed by my phone. I did not see this coming. It happened all at once: The knee-jerk self-effacement. The feeling of inadequacy. The way I turned my body to shield my device from view of the crowd behind me. The obsolescence of it all.
In the preceding decade, I’d become accustomed to the almost-guaranteed reaction when I told people I don’t use a cell phone: full-frontal admiration. It was like announcing I’d just paid off my mortgage. Since the advent of the device age, I have resisted the culture of the small screen, not as a luddite—I love technology—but as a matter of self-preservation, and I mean that in a specific literal sense: a preservation of the self. And people consistently appreciated this, in the way that they appreciate Henry David Thoreau.
As a newspaper journalist during the advent of personal technology, I had determined early that carrying a telephone on my person would allow my editor to reach me any time she wanted. This wasn’t an anti-authoritarian grandstand—I love editors!—but rather a way to allow myself the freedom of no direction. The best things that have happened to me as a journalist, as a writer, and probably as a human, have come from being lost, sometimes with intent. The efficiency, even of those early primitive devices, did not strike me as an advantage. When I left the newsroom to find something, I wanted it to genuinely feel found.
While on assignment one day, I took a wrong turn in a rural part of the state, and as I was trying to find my way back, I came across a little store with a neon sign in the window advertising the Ohio Lottery. Except the “L” was burned out, so the sign read, “Ohio Ottery,” which tickled me to no end. I jotted it onto a page in my reporter’s notebook and later tucked it into the drawer where I keep phrases and ideas for later use, well aware that the best thing that had happened to me that day was being lost.
When phones began to double as Global Positioning Systems, my resistance only deepened. In the newsroom, we had a stack of booklets with red covers—street map books, one for each county in our part of the state. Whenever I went anywhere on an assignment, I began by plotting my course with one of those books, and the analogy to a seafarer preparing for adventure cannot be overstated. To depart on an expedition (even if it’s just a city hall press conference) with the seed of an epic already planted is to set the stage for far greater success than a plastic slab of microchips could ever provide. The map book allowed me to begin with no idea where I was going, gain a wide perspective, become lost and become found again—all by my own resources. If that’s not a good formula for life, I don’t know what is.
The phone-as-location device gets the user from departure to destination without a whiff of perspective, while also making him a distracted driver along the way. He arrives having no idea how he got there, nor how he’d get home if his battery died.
So I dug in further. On the occasions when I did need a phone—traveling or on an assignment that would require direct communication—I could check one out for the day from the supply cabinet of loaners in the newsroom. This was a fine arrangement.
I happened into print journalism at the pivotal moment of change, the early 1990s, when word processors had just replaced typewriters yet broadsheet pages were still laid out by hand, X-Acto knives, line tape, and hot waxers maintaining a Rockwellian integrity. I was doing a lot of music writing then, and would ship out to the various Ohio concert venues toting a fat black slab of Tandy laptop and these rubber cup thingies designed to fit over the ear and mouthpieces of a landline telephone handset. The nature of the work meant I was always filing close to final deadline, so I’d watch as much of the show as possible, sprint to the venue’s business office, the heavy computer bag bouncing against my hip, and set up at a prearranged desk (usually the publicity person’s), where I’d type my finely crafted prose as fast as possible, then try to make the phone hookup work.
It went like this: finish the story, affix the rubber cups onto the handset, dial a special number, then hold everything very, very still, as any vibration could interrupt the signal. Listen for the beeps and static of the modem, wait till transmission was complete, then call my editor, who would report that the text had come through as garble.
Every. Single. Time.
“Who’s available to take dictation from David?” became a standard copy desk battle cry. With deadline looming and no more time to mess with technology, I’d settle in with the phone cradled on my shoulder, the story displayed in glowing green letters on the truncated screen, and another human on the other end. I would read it aloud, a phrase at a time, dictating everything down to the punctuation marks, listen for the keyboard-clicking to pause on the other end, and continue.
What I remember from those nights was a distinctly human connection—a vital mutual reliance—and the patience required of both of us. The newsroom near midnight was sparsely populated, half-lit, and the offices from which I transmitted were usually the same. Often, I was sitting at a stranger’s workstation, with family photos or stained coffee cups or cleverly sloganed figurines infusing an aspect of humanity. There was quiet intimacy in the transaction. We shared long silences as we negotiated the pace of our back-and-forth, our give-and-take. Sometimes my dictation-taker might comment on a turn of phrase or suggest a different wording. Sometimes I might pause to jump back into my notebook to correct something I’d noticed was wrong or add a conversational aside. (“By the way, Michelle, you’d have loved the funk breakdown in ‘Sexy MF.’”) Always there was an understanding that technology had failed us, but we had not failed one another.
The telephone—I’m referring here to that old machine people used solely for talking—has always seemed to me an even more intimate conversation mode than face to face. It distills the transaction to the very voice. It requires the imagination.
When I was a cash-poor nineteen-year-old flirting with a girl who lived forty miles away, I would drive up the highway to the first rest stop with a pay phone over the county line, which demarcated the difference between long-distance and local. There, for a quarter, we could hear each other’s voices for as long as we wanted.
The world just kept changing. I would tell people I didn’t own a cell phone. They would respond with admiration. Envy, even. When I left my newspaper job for a much different sort of life, professoring, I landed in a far more stationary situation. I was always one of two places—in my office or in the classroom. One had a landline, and the other was a place where you couldn’t call me, even if I did have a cell. It was all lock solid. I had the makings of a manifesto. As the rest of humankind was devolving into hunchbacked thumb-jabbers, I would triumph as the last First-World person without a cell phone. The more people became slaves to their devices—phones that were then beginning to insinuate that they were “smarter” than the humans who used them (and were programmed with the voice of a siren)—the more they expressed their approval of me, the free man, perhaps the Freest Man.
Well, not everyone. My wife, for instance. She was flummoxed that she couldn’t call me at the grocery store to tell me we needed allspice. I returned from these errands in a state of bliss, one with my thoughts, unburdened, living proof that what you don’t know can’t hurt you.
Finally, on Christmas morning 2011, I unwrapped a small box that contained this Samsung phone, the same model my wife and two children were then sporting.
“Fine,” I said. “But I’m not turning it on.”
And for months, I didn’t. Until one rainy day when I ran out of gas on the highway, two counties away from home.
“Hi honey. It’s me. Can you come and give me a ride to a gas station?”
Which only proved my point. This phone did not make her life better. It really didn’t make mine better, either. I’d still rather find my way out of a fix by my own wits. I may have ended that same day wet and tired from a long walk to a highway exit and back, but also with a greater sense of self-reliance.
The only thing that really changed with this new ownership of a palm-sized plastic encumbrance was my verb.
“I don’t have a cell phone” became “I don’t use a cell phone.”
My best tools have patina. They’re old. They’re used. My 1978 Fender Mustang, which had probably never been played when I bought it off a kid in 1982, when I was just a kid myself, now tells a long story. The worn-through finish on the brown body’s lower curve where my forearm rests. The bent strap button on the end, from the night I threw it across the room after playing at a hardcore house show, angry at the guitar because I’d played it badly. The dark spot on the headstock where I left a burning cigarette tucked too long beneath the strings. The series of nicks and dings along the bottom edge from when I used to bounce it to get that “bong” sound while squeezing out feedback. The Xs in the tiny Phillips-head screws, rounded and softened from countless removals of the pickguard to fix the electronics, to change the lead pickup to something hotter (when I was young) then back to original (when I was vintage), and to change the pickguard itself, from black to mother-of-pearl to tortoise shell. The string saddles rusted from all my sweat.
It sounds better for all of this. It is better for all of this. As are the Red Wing boots I rub with saddle soap year after year, and the axe handle stained with, among other things, my own blood. And my grandfather’s table saw, which I still use, whose quirks and imperfections I’ve learned to negotiate, which means that I don’t simply use the saw, but rather we work together, which is a pretty nice way to keep up my relationship with a man who died thirty-five years ago.
And yet. I recently, with a great deal of moral conflict, was forced to replace my beloved desktop computer because the world has moved too fast for it. It was seven years old and functioned perfectly. I liked its patina. I’d learned to adjust to its old software the same way I adjust the blade angle on the old table saw three degrees past ninety, because I know the gauge is bent. We understood each other. We had a communication. Its keyboard had for years recorded the path of my fingers, the shift key shiny from use, the wear mark at the right end of the space bar indicating my sweet spot. I’d written a book on that machine—two, really, because the first draft was an abomination. (This was my second keyboard. I’d smashed the first one Pete Townshend–style in a late-night fit of literary pique.) It contained a rolltop desk’s worth of my notes and scribbles, of my practical information, and enough music to break my heart thrice and bring me back laughing. It had oddly named folders and an organizational system that only I could understand. Or rather, I and the machine. There was a file titled “What I Don’t Know” (that was a long one) and another called “Sample Chapter, drunk version.” We’d shared some times together, us two.
And so, I resented the ultimate necessity of its replacement, not for the financial cost (although that was a consideration) nor the environmental cost (which will always be appalling), but rather for the fact that everyone who knew I was computing on a seven-year-old machine called me some version of a backward fool. That somehow keeping something old running has become unfashionable.
I recently had a conversation with my friend Rob Sheffield, a book author and writer for Rolling Stone. He told me he does all his magazine work on a modern laptop, but all his book writing on an iMac G3 (circa 1999, when those bubble-shaped monitors, offered in a variety of “flavors,” represented the height of modernity). The machine has no working modem, which keeps him from the distractions of connection. He saves everything on floppy discs—the five-quarter-inch ones that are actually “floppy.” My initial reaction was to point out that his machine is likely the only device that can retrieve what’s on those disks, which places his canon in grave danger, but then I remembered that all the ways I’ve had to compensate for a tragically imperfect bridge design on my Mustang makes me a more interesting guitarist, popping the high E string back into place with my pinkie on the upstroke and sometimes bleeding from my effort.
I’m not rejecting ease or progress. I recognize that my new computer has offered at least some percentage of improved performance. But I’m glad I stuck with the old one long enough to understand what that means. And I suspect if I’d stayed with it even longer, I’d have yet a higher understanding. It may even have led me eventually to wisdom, which is what I’ve been trying to wrench out of these damn machines for years.
Which brings me to my iPod, which may be my favorite piece of technology I’ve ever owned. (Although: the original Intellivision. Sigh. Long live Worm Whomper.)
As much as music has been a part of my life (arguably the third most important part, and definitely inextricable from the first two), it never felt more personal, more intimate, than when I began to manage and experience it within that slim silver mystery. The method of listening, primarily through delicately curved plastic probes inserted into the orifices on either side of my head, coupled with the elegant rotation of my thumb, over and over as I scroll through the full anatomy of my musical self, is, well, very nice.
But at the same time my computer was succumbing to obsolescence and my phone was beginning to embarrass me, my iPod began acting strangely, not accepting a charge, refusing to sync with iTunes. And when I considered replacing it, I had to begin to consider whether it might be time for a smart phone, assuming you all are still calling it that.
Thus, what I have to offer, and maybe not for much longer, is the perspective of someone who has not yet experienced a world in which I sit across a restaurant table from you, staring into my lap, pecking at a tiny keyboard. Or asking a piece of plastic how to get to the family reunion. Or receiving in real time, from my pocket, the score of the Ohio State game as I pretend to listen to the eulogy.
I know I’m not the last person in America who doesn’t have a cell phone, as I’d once proudly proclaimed I wanted to become. I’ve already been compromised. And I know others who savor the fact of a flip phone, kept only in case of emergency, who will be the last guard.
I salute you.
But I do know what it is to have come this far into the future unencumbered, and to know the small grace that still exists between my dumbphone and me:
To know what it is to only know what I look like in a picture through someone else’s lens.
To still wonder in a barroom about random things—Who was the shortstop for the 1972 Royals? What is the difference between the ocean and the sea?—and go on wondering.
To seek the word that can convey my mood as succinctly as a winking yellow circle, the one word, the only word.
To ask: Do I have it in me?
By the end of RNC week in Cleveland, the world had changed. Among certain other things, Chachi was a political operative, and I was charging my phone on a nightly basis.
The final night of the convention, a group of us that had been covering the events got together at a bar to watch Trump’s acceptance speech. I’d stayed in Cleveland for the week, and my wife Gina was back home in Akron, watching the speech alone. She sent a picture of her wine glass. I sent her a picture of a friend who’d joined us, making a goofy face. She made a Trump reference followed by the phrase, “(emoji I can’t send because of your primitive phone).” I told her I was glad the circus was ending and even more glad I was coming back home to her. This went on through the duration of that strange, strange evening, the first extended text conversation I’d ever had with anyone.
The typing was hard—I seriously don’t know how you people text so fast! As was the syntax. I obsessively edit and revise emails and Facebook posts, yet here the ergonomics and speed made it difficult. Nevertheless, we endured through the evening, a little exhilarated.
“It’s pretty fun having you to text with! This is an exciting new part of our relationship!” Gina wrote.
My thumbs fumbled to convey a complicated agreement.