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Commusings: Hanging Up — A Delusional Tale About Tech & Motherhood by Jess Elefante Davis

Feb 26, 2021

Hello Community,

When Phoebe was seven, I used to take her to the Brooklyn Night Bazaar on Friday evenings. It was a hipster version of a souk popped up in a musty warehouse in the no-man’s land between Williamsburg and Greenpoint.

There were rows of kiosks and ping pong tables and a stage with twanging indie bands. I could sip a beer and casually wander about as my precocious daughter engaged with the various creatives hawking their wares.

We landed upon a booth called Folk Rebellion that was womanned by an artist named Jess Davis. Phoebe and I were completely enchanted by her, and after talking and laughing for some time, we bought a shirt for Schuyler. It was softer than seemed possible and featured embossed felt letters spelling “ANALOG AS FOLK.” It's my wife’s go-to to this day.

Jess has indeed been leading a modern folk rebellion. She has spent the last few decades examining the ever-shifting sands of our relationship to technology, personally navigating corporate America and parenthood. She artfully reminds us of what makes life worthwhile, even as she educates us about the digitally-fabricated illusion of time scarcity.

She is a remarkable writer and it’s an honor to feature her here. As always, I'm an email away at [email protected].

Love,
Jeff

• • •

If you were to open the cupboard next to my family fridge in my childhood home, you’d find it wallpapered with the usual suspects: newspaper clippings, photos, contact details on sticky notes. 

You’d also find my mom’s collection of handwritten pledges, signed and dated by her children. The kinds of pledges a mother knows will not stick. A thing we call the Wall of Shame. 

It's an inside joke that’s been going on for decades. If mom heard one of her four children make some kind of audacious declaration, she had us write it down on a slip of paper, date it, and sign it. Then she’d tape the pledge to the inside of the cupboard, a growing archive in the museum of naivety and delusional optimism. If we tripped up, we had to return to the cupboard and record our offenses. 

“I am never drinking again”
June 11th, 2006 (1st offense June 12th, 2006)

“I will not step foot in  ___ for the month of December or I will pay Mom $100”
(1st offense: December 3rd, paid. 2nd offense: Dec 6th, paid *Moratorium on future payments)

“This time I'm staying. I’m not moving again.”
(Offenses: 2001, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2009, 2012, 2017)

Revisiting the Wall of Shame is a cringeworthy, hilarious, and sometimes painful experience.

Next time I visit mom I will add the following delusion to the exhibit.

“I am never using my iPhone again”
Pledged December 2014 (Offenses 2015, 2018, 2021)

Like every other pledge, this latest was born out of the righteous indignation of youth: certainty, black and white, no room for error or interpretation, only offenses.

“It’s time. My smartphone has made me dumb. Its pull is too strong. I can no longer control the beast in my pocket and I want my life back. BYE FELICIA. This invention will not take my attention. That is why I'm dumping you.” I declared this to the Internet at large in December 2014. I held on for less than one month.

My second offense was in 2018 after I wrote the following for all of Instagram: “There are now more phones than there are humans on earth. What was once considered a tool for connection is now a replacement for real human connection, tough conversations, and chance. Tomorrow there will be one less as I unplug and return to real life.” 

This try barely made it off the ground. I called it quits after a failed attempt to fill a prescription for my son, Hays. I felt wishy-washy about it but motherhood trumps social experiments. I swore I would do better next time.  

My most recent pledge, smartly framed as an experiment, went out in my newsletter on November 4, 2020: “In my failures of unplugging I’ve learned not to be absolute. So I’m calling this what it is - an experiment with the help of The Light Phone. Albeit a hopeful one. Tonight I, for the 3rd time in 6 years, will attempt to get rid of my iPhone. This direct line of addiction, anxiety, stress, unwanted acquaintances, trolls, escapism, unwellness, and garbage that automates my life in a negative way has no excuse…no, no NEED….in my pandemic life. I, quite literally, have no more excuses.”

The break-up didn’t go as planned. Good thing it was an experiment.

• • •

"There is no such thing as a failed experiment, only experiments with unexpected outcomes."  
~ Richard Buckminster Fuller 

• • •

A few months from today will mark two years (or a sinfully blissful eight seasons or 730 days but who's counting) that I have mostly withdrawn from the Internet. I became all too aware that I had played no small part in ushering in the last “new wave” of marketing and branding, the obsession and reliance of the Internet and its culture and consumer funnels disguised as lifestyle communities. So one day I literally turned my back on it all. I headed offline to do penance in the woods part-time and the remaining balance in Brooklyn.

I could tell you it was a purposeful ‘creative sabbatical,’ which is what I’ve been calling it these days. It ended up being just that, but it didn’t begin that way. 

At the start it was actually a full-fucking retreat. A folding of the cards. Collaborators, brands, community, posts, opportunities, speaking, DM’s, snail mail, deadlines, spreadsheets, interviews, meetings, keynotes, and all. the. emails. After seven years, I realized I hated it all – consumerism in general, the power of influence, and the Internet in particular. So I went offline, off the savior drug, and off the kool aid. 

But I was still not off my iPhone.

2020, however, pushed me over the edge. I had no clients, no business, nothing that required a phone. Finally, I had no more excuses.

I began the experiment on November 4th, but this time I chronicled it in a newsletter. I shared the exhausting, emotional and sometimes delightful journey of cutting the cord that binds. My live journal took readers on my trip from smartphone to dumb phone. 

Each newsletter brought back hundreds of responses. What was edgy or insane six years ago was now clearly mainstream zeitgeist. 

So many people, so completely tired of their digital lives.

Despite being a two-time iPhone quitter and Trojan horse in the digital wellbeing movement, my last foray showed me even I had a thing or two to learn about the impact of parting ways with my phone, for better and worse.

First and foremost, the difference between guzzling information and gaining knowledge. The latter is a fulfilling pursuit. The former can become an addictive compulsion. It turns out I was an addict.

The information drug comes in many forms. An addict's vice of choice could look like watching stocks in real time, or consuming news alerts, or binge scrolling strangers on Instagram. My vice is that god-damned Google search bar.

The dumb phone only allowed calls and texts. It couldn’t feed my information withdrawal. After 24 hours the curious thoughts started coming in, wavelike, battering the surfless shore of my reprogrammed cognition. I began tracking a mental list of things to look up when I returned to my computer. 

What time does the sun set? 

Where did that girl from the Queen’s Gambit come from? 

Best place to volunteer. 

Transmission rates outdoors with masks on. 

2020 book to give as a gift. 

Can I study neuroscience without a degree? 

How to sail in Brooklyn. 

The list took on a life of its own. Within hours, I had to abandon it completely so I could cook supper. 

The Light Phone’s brilliant feature— the fact that it has none—allowed me to see I had a serious problem. It took a few days for my information-addicted mind to detox. Once it did, on the other side of monkey-jumping, info-crashing delirium tremens island was clarity, creativity and calm. All I had to do was stop looking shit up.

The second gift from my dumb phone experiment came by way of literally looking at the world differently. I saw my surroundings through a new lens: a viewfinder. 

I’ve worked with digital boundaries and mindful tech enough to know that you can’t create a vacuum where a device used to sit. I knew my dumb phone wouldn’t fill the space and time my smartphone did. I needed to pick up a hobby, or at least rediscover an old one.

Photography was once my creative medium of choice. In my teens and twenties, it was my excuse to go see the world and then hide away and think about it while watching photographs come to life in trays under fingertips worn bare. I owned point-and-shoot cameras of every kind. My sock drawers were littered with film canisters. I built dark rooms in my closets. It was more than a hobby. It was my passion and, I now realize, my meditation. 

Every new technology puts someone or something out of business. My iPhone was no exception. It cannibalized my hobby and took the process out of my photography. It replaced my meditation with quick snaps and a record of 51,685 bits. It robbed me of an entire decade of creative expression and a practice in patience. Realizing this broke my heart. I now see how much worse off I was for it. 

Generous friends at Leica Camera took interest in the project and loaned me a point-and-shoot film camera for the experiment. I walked through Brooklyn seeing home in a new light. Strangers become characters in the storyboard of the stroll.

Every step of the process required patience, pause, and determination. Loading. Composing. Processing. Developing. Printing. It was a master class in being unhurried. Maybe that’s why I loved photography so much. We are analog creatures. Our happy hormones jump and dance when we connect with real things, 3D things. Pens and paper, photos, books, mixtapes or the people on the other side of the viewfinder. My dumb phone experiment exposed my need for a life-giving hobby away from a screen. 

A third a-ha: I realized how much I missed audio connection. The dumb phone threw me into the “Can I just call you?” realm. More conversations, fewer texts. Zero GIFs and retro emojis. I noticed an immediate uptick in my mood. 

I used text messaging the way it was intended: as a means to an end. A utility. Can u talk? Omw. 5 mins late! These are appropriate reasons to send a text. Digital dispatches were not meant to replace conversations. We’ve got it backwards. 

My brother confirmed this when he asked, “Why would you get a phone that can’t send pics, vids, or GIFs? What’s the point?” I responded with one word. “Talking.” I’ve chatted with him twice since then. That’s twice more than the previous month. 

Characters on a screen cannot come close to the serotonin boost I get from hearing my siblings laugh on the other end. Audio changes everything. It’s the difference between nerve-wracking notifications and a heart-felt connection.

As I’ve mentioned, I was desperately committed to my pledge this time around. Failing meant losing a large piece of my identity and the respect of my family and large swaths of my corner of the Internet.  My boyfriend is a full-time Light Phone user and I had visions of Hays eventually following in my dumb phone footsteps. Thus, the final lesson is one I didn’t see coming. It’s also responsible for my final offense: December 27, 2020. 

Final because I won’t be declaring to quit my iPhone again in the future. It’s a pledge I no longer desire to keep.

• • •

• • •

Before the Wall of Shame hung in the cupboard, there was mom’s Phone Tree: four well-worn pieces of paper, each a different color signifying a different child, plastered with names and phone numbers. These analog rolodexes were her homebase, her paper portal to the community at large. Parents, coaches, teachers, doctors, nannies—anyone who helped her kids grow. 

The neighbors down the road who booted us home before dinner, the babysitters brave enough to take on the four of us savages, the soccer team’s carpool roster. It was my mother’s support system, written down and within arm’s reach from the wall phone with the extra long cord. Each year, the Phone Tree’s roots grew stronger and deeper.

Today’s Phone Tree barely resembles the highlighted, starred, and tattered piece of love hanging on the back of a cupboard door. It’s hardly a 90s relic. It looks more like a combination of Google calendars, contacts, group text messages, sports apps, and the like. It looks like an iPhone.

As a mom to a 9-year-old boy, I require a Phone Tree. When I made my latest pledge, I didn’t know, let alone appreciate, the fact that I was carrying one in my pocket. I didn’t make the connection until my experiment cut my Phone Tree off at its trunk.

A Light Phone is group-text friendly but has its limits. My life-raft thread of 26 “all for one and one for all” parents trading constant notes about outdoor stoop sits, last-minute volunteering, emergency n95 drop offs, and on and on, were more than it could handle. As a result, my stream of meetups and playdates, child therapist reccs, and contact trace alerts went dark. I missed memos about soccer practice cancellations and notices of fellow families quarantining. My son’s social life took a hit. We literally couldn’t be present because my Phone Tree people didn’t know where we were. 

Oftentimes people think my phone ditching is a desire for less when really it is just a desire for more of the important things. I am a person who shows up for my community in real time, in real life. This means I am not a glow face when talking to my son. I’m not a  multitasking mom at the playground. I used to be both of those things. 

My approach is something I have built based around my values. It’s a daily, if not hourly practice. I still sometimes fail. Some will say it’s a privilege to live this way, but it wasn’t gifted or bestowed upon me. I have fought tooth and nail for this intentional life. I’ve burned jobs, relationships, and networks to the ground in order to preserve my priorities. 

I did not want to send emails at dinner so I found a boss who allowed for that: me. I did not want a partner who prioritized media over makeouts so I left an old relationship and began a new one with those goals in mind. I did not want to fill my life and surround myself with passing virtual acquaintances at a surface level, so I protect my time and go deep with those who’ve earned it. It’s fair to say that I am present. 

And after almost a decade of trying, I was able to finally trim back my digital life, iPhone included. The dumb phone benefits were immense but they came with a loss far greater than the built-in perks of simple living. I need the digital Phone Tree community that makes our real-life community so great.

And yet, all is not lost. From here on out, I’ll be toggling between my Light Phone and iPhone. The combination is another tool in my wheelhouse of intentional living. I finally learned the great lesson from our family’s Wall of Shame, dangling in front of me like a playground bully for years. Life is not meant for absolutes. It’s not black and white. We must find room for gray.

My definition of gray looks a lot like another tactic from my mother’s 90s parenting handbook. She locked the front door to our family home. Strangers, acquaintances, delivery men—she largely ignored unexpected visitors. Instead, she kept the side door to the kitchen open for friends. They were welcome anytime and came and went as they pleased.

As I return to iPhone life, I’ve got my own version of a side door for my closest friends: a phone call. 

My community can get a hold of me by just walking through anytime they like. And those who ring the front doorbell, so to speak – the DM’s, @’s, emails, and other stuff of the Internet – those people can wait. They’re not on my Phone Tree and don’t belong inside my house.

• • •

Jess Davis is a writer and creative director living in Brooklyn, NY. As a digital wellbeing thought leader, editor in chief of Folk Rebellion, and renowned creative strategist, her life's work is focused on the confusing crossroads of humans, real life, and the new modern world. She's releasing her 1st ever short film on the anniversary of New York City's lockdown, a personal live journal witness statement of an ordinary family in unordinary times. Hers. 

For her most regularly used form of contact subscribe to her newsletter; A Very Folk Rebellion. She is giving away a Light Phone to one lucky person who subscribes to the newsletter. She is also on social media (but not often). You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

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