When I was 19, I spent a week with a friend at her father’s ranch in Durango, Colorado. Her dad had just had the most advanced technological devise installed in his home—a modular phone jack. Phones didn’t have to be hardwired into the walls anymore. If you had this jack installed, you could choose your own phone and just plug it in. He had an avocado green rotary phone on the table, but not plugged into the jack. I bent down to plug in the phone for him and he stopped me and said, “Oh no, this phone is for me to use.” I remember thinking how selfish and arrogant that was. What was the point of having a phone if people couldn’t call you?
The short ferry ride it takes to get to Shelter Island allows you to observe the intersection of America in miniature. In the ’70s, there were no cell phones. We all got out of our cars on the nice days and socialized with other people on the boat. There was a copy of Dan’s Papers in every single car and everybody had a “car book,” a book that you read on the ferry.
Cell phones started to show up in the ’80s with their pop-up antennas. People still got out of their cars, but now it was as much to contort their bodies trying to find a signal as to talk with a neighbor. It seemed like everyone with a cell phone was at the railing of the boat shouting, “I can’t hear you,” and asking the person next to them how many bars they had. The Island was proud to be off the grid.
By the ’90s, the percentage of people who wanted cell service on the Island was catching up with those who still wanted the Island to be a haven from the mainland. There was a lot more cursing and shouting by the ferry rail as people went nuts when their conversations were cut off. The once peaceful ferry ride that transitions you into Island time had become 20 minutes of anxiety and aggravation for people. Almost everyone knows of at least one story of someone who threw their phone in the water from sheer exasperation.
After 2000, the majority of the residents wanted a cell signal and, eventually, we got all the tower coverage we needed, so nothing isolates us anymore except the moat. Nobody got out of their cars anymore on the ferry. Everyone was on their phones, probably letting someone at home know their ship was in, or about to pull in.
Now, when you scan the ferry, everyone is talking on a smartphone or watching a tablet. People in neighboring cars will text rather than get out and talk…I still haven’t figured that out yet. It’s strange, these devices were supposed to bring us closer together with immediate access to one other. But now we use texting to create the mental space we need.
I turn off my phone when I go to bed now, I unplug it from its imaginary modular jack. Because it’s my phone and my time and I’ll decide how much access is excess.