The Click of the Mythosphere

Warily, and very belatedly, I am, at long last, an iPhone user.

A little over a year ago, when the iPhone 3GS went on sale for AT&T upgrades, I seduced my husband into getting one for himself. We stood there in the store, fascinated by the slick colors and smooth surfaces of the surprisingly heavy yet slim device, amazed at all the things it was that our “dumbphones” were not. I peered at it with the morbid curiosity and alarm of a 15th-century German burgher first encountering a page of printed text. What sorcery was this? Steve’s eyes, however, were already lighting up at the possibilities as he nimbly swiped around the interface of his new best friend. As a freelance musician constantly hustling for gigs, the connectivity of an iPhone was a Pandora’s Box of potential. It wasn’t difficult persuading him to get one. But I, being a newly graduated librarian, and thus supposedly an “information professional,” had my own agenda: I wanted easy access to an iPhone for trying out apps and generally knowing how an iPhone worked, but I did not want the temptation of actually owning and using one.

What temptation?

That of having access to the internet 24/7.

Before I went on my year-long “backpacking” trip in 2007-08, I was as plugged in as everyone else. I had started using the internet regularly as a high schooler at the International School of Beijing, chatting late into the night with friends on ICQ and then AIM. I downloaded music voraciously on Napster. Sometimes I surfed the Web. Then I arrived at college in the U.S. in 2001. I was assigned a college email address before I even arrived, and, over the course of my time as an undergrad, came to access more and more of my course material online via electronic reserves, and do more and more of my research online. Facebook opened up to Oberlin College students sometime in 2004, and I joined like everyone else. After I graduated in 2006, I started a friends-only LiveJournal blog into which I poured melodramatic retellings of the trials and tribulations of my post-breakup woes, started buying more things on Amazon, became a user of Craigslist, CouchSurfing, etc. The Web was nothing more than an extension of the physical world I already encountered every day, and finding something fun, useful, or interesting on the Web was like discovering a new neighborhood gem. I did not give its virtual nature a second thought.

Then, in the year 2007-08, I spent approximately 8 months traveling and volunteering in Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Germany. All I had on me during those months were 5 shirts, 3 pairs of pants, 7 changes of underwear, 5 changes of socks, a pair of cross-trainers, a pair of sport sandals, 2 sweaters, a towel, and a handful of sundry useful things like a flashlight, comb, and toothbrush. I had no computer, cellphone, or wireless device. As usual, I had more books and notebooks than I could use.

I had planned this travel year with three goals in mind:

(1) Having grown up as a “Third Culture Kid,” one persistent anxiety for me was where “home” was, and where I would end up spending my life. My goal of living and working in multiple different places this year was to prove to myself that I could be happy and be myself no matter where I was.

(2) I was becoming increasingly interested in understanding agriculture and self-sufficiency, and wanted to volunteer on organic farms via WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms).

(3) While I was doing (1) and (2), I figured I might as well choose to go to countries where I could practice German and Spanish, the two languages I had picked up in college and wanted to brush up for graduate school.

I managed to do all three of the above, but one of the most lasting influences the trip left on me was one I had not anticipated: that I would become used to feeling complete in the moment, no longer craving the distractions of virtual communication, and that I would come to regard the internet as a tool rather than a way of life.

The first month of my travels, I lived and worked on a farm in the Los Santos Forest Reserve in Costa Rica. The farm was fairly young, only 3 years old, and was established upon permaculture principles of ecological design. It had a bountiful vegetable garden, other agricultural components in the works, and its two houses (one for the owners and the other for the volunteers) ran on solar-powered batteries. The batteries were sufficient to run one light bulb each, for 2 to 3 hours a day. When the power ran out, we went to sleep or lit candles to stay up a little while longer. Each morning, we rose before daybreak, and my first task before breakfast was to wash my clothes out by hand with a scrubbing brush and a bar of soap in a terracotta sink, and put them on the line to dry.

One of the things I craved incessantly the first two weeks was meat. For a while, it seemed like I could never stop thinking about it. Every time I sat down during my leisure hours to try to write, all I could do was drool inwardly over the prospect of fatty, succulent meat. Sometimes I daydreamed about salmon. Sometimes fish and meat alternated tantalizingly in my mind. Thankfully, this phase passed before the second week was out.

What continued to haunt me for at least two whole weeks after my meat frenzy ceased was my need to click my consciousness away. The worst part was that I didn’t need to be hungry to feel the craving. It was with me all the time. When I was working in the fields, I wished I had my favorite Pandora station on. When I thought about writing in my diary, I suddenly had the irresistible urge to open my email, to see if I had gotten news about anything or if there was anyone online I wanted to talk to. When I decided to read a book, suddenly nothing seemed more appealing than checking Facebook or writing in my blog instead. I felt sick with the need to open up that shiny screen I had left in a closet in my parents’ house, to see what had changed in that magical world since the last time I had looked at it.

Once a week, I got to indulge that craving. That was when I and everyone else on the farm went to the nearest city on Thursday mornings. To catch the bus into town, we would wake up at 3:45am and hike down to the local village by flashlight. That took about two hours. Dawn would just be breaking when we arrived at the bus stop. The bus left at 6am, and we were in San Isidro del General by 6:45. The market and square would be bustling, the internet cafés were up and running, and we would have to get everything done by 11:45 to catch the noon bus home. After stopping by the market for eggs and garlic and the supermarket for boxed wine ($2 Concha y Toro in cartons that in the U.S. would be the kind you find no-refrigeration-necessary soy milk in), sometimes I would go to the post office to mail a letter. Otherwise, I would just traipse on to the internet café. I would get there around 8:00 or 8:30, and there I would be until it was time to catch the bus. At that hour, there were usually plenty of computers available, and I would hope fervently that my computer would not be a particularly twitchy one. Usage was charged by the minute and it was cheap–an hour’s use would be around $1. But there was no time to surf the net or otherwise enjoy the online world like I used to. I had a week’s worth of email to check and reply to, grad school application statuses to monitor, and a long, reflective blog post to write and publish. I was lucky if I could get all of that done in that time. Often I would print out longer emails, take them back to the farm, write letters in response to them on the blank flipsides, and post them via snailmail the following week.

Writing letters by hand was a pleasure from the start. When my day’s work was over, I began to eagerly anticipate returning to the storyline of a worn paperback rather than the next item in my Facebook newsfeed. When I was out of ideas for what to cook with the ingredients we had, I improvised something or made a note in my notebook to find and print a recipe the next time I was in town. When reading and writing got boring, I and the other volunteers took to playing cards and telling stories by candlelight. In one particularly effusive and well-fed evening, surrounded in our candlelit huddle by miles of nothing but darkness and forest, we managed to convince ourselves that our house was infused with ghosts of rabbits past, manifest in the shape of snowy white orbs visible only in photographs. If we had had an internet connection, one of us would have looked up “white orbs in photos” and all speculation and fantasy would have been over. But as it was, we had only our own minds to consult, and for the first time perhaps since I was a child, I knew what it was like to invent my own myths about the world around me.

Over time, I forgot about the internet. The only time I had to remember it existed was when I had to pay my obligatory visits during our mornings in town, and I came to resent those visits as a chore. I stopped blogging as much. I started leaving the internet café sooner so that I could explore the rest of town. By the time I arrived at my third farm in Ecuador and discovered that the owner, a retired American AT&T cable worker, had a cellphone on the property, I was astonished. At this point, I had been with only weekly access to the internet for nearly 2 months.

After 8 months of this, the internet no longer felt like it was part of me. It used to feel like some kind of extra consciousness I expected to call up whenever I wanted, as if it answered to some personal claim of mine and should be there for me whenever I wished, but now it was just a tool. An interesting and useful tool, but a tool. Even today, four years after returning from that travel year, I have to remind myself to check my email daily. When I get the chance to go on vacation and ignore it, I can go five days or a week without thinking about it, just as if it were snailmail I had ordered to be put on hold. I am curious about new sites, technology, and software, just as I have always been, but I have become a late adopter. I hang back, wait for the buzz to go into its usual frenzy and die down, I ask for friends’ thoughts and experiences with it, I wait to see if it sticks around. Every new piece of technology or online service, if added to my daily habits, would become a long-term part of my being. I opt to be selective about what I incorporate. I avoid the highs and lows of frothy new promise followed by swift, all-too-common frustration.

At present writing, I have had an iPhone for three weeks. I have rearranged the icons and downloaded a couple apps: one for GoodReads and the other for Groupon. I haven’t used either of them much. All our current Groupons are still printed out from when Steve owned the iPhone and, for whatever reason, did not have the Groupon app; I am still finishing the two books I was reading when I got the iPhone. The one iPhone app I have used a lot is Reminders. I use it to keep lists that I get new ideas for all the time and want to have on hand when I am out: our home improvement wish list, restaurants-we-want-to-eat-at wish list, my gift-ideas-for-family-members wish list, my personal wish list. In a sense, my iPhone has taken the place of my little pocket-size Moleskine hardcover notebook, which is too disorganized to be referenced easily and, anyway, is nearly filled. Occasionally, I have consulted Maps or looked up a website. I have not yet (and do not intend to) set up Mail to sync with my email, nor have I downloaded the Facebook app. I have not yet uploaded music into my phone, since I have far over 30 MB of music and have not yet felt a need to painstakingly abridge that library for my iPhone’s 8MB. I may eventually sync my Google calendar, if it is possible to do that without syncing my email. Steve and I both keep print agendas, which we buy every year from Quo Vadis. They make our lives and time feel real to us. But we maintain Google calendars to keep each other informed of our activities, so that either of us can make social plans for both of us with some reasonable assurance that the other person is available, and also generally have an idea of each other’s schedules.

So far the iPhone hasn’t changed my life much. I haven’t let it. Slowly, bit by bit, I am sure its various uses will creep into my habits. But for now, I am content to let it be to me all that it is: a tool. The digital name I have given it, for my computer to identify it by, is Serafina, after Serafina Pekkala from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. She is a queen of a witch clan, and, like all witches, is beautiful, seductive, and a force to be reckoned with. Unlike other human forms, who have to keep their souls within or next to them, witches can bear their souls to be far away, not returning for many days. In Pullman’s fantasy worlds, witches can be powerful allies or deadly foes, and for this reason, it is folly to love one.

Steve had to break with the iPhone. It was chewing holes through his time, like a caterpillar inching from leaf to leaf. For now, I hope to keep Serafina as an ally — to be used when necessary and treated well at all times, but not to have my possession of her become an end in itself.

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