Retailers Silicon Valley

In this Sept. 19, 2013 photo, a Wal-Mart representative demonstrates a Scan & Go mobile application on a smartphone at a Wal-Mart store in San Jose, Calif. Wal-Mart is trying to make its mobile app an indispensable tool for customers shopping in its stores. The discounter has been testing a ìScan & Goî feature on its app in 220 of its 4,000 stores. The feature lets customers scan their items as they shop in the aisle and then pay at a self-service register. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu) ORG XMIT: CAJC306

If you want to know how dependent you are on your smartphone, then try doing without it for a while, as I did one afternoon this month while mine was being repaired.

I don’t think of myself as a slave to technology. I wasn’t quick to get a smartphone when they hit the market some years ago, but professional obligation eventually compelled me to become a user. In owning a phone, I’ve slowly come to learn how much the phone owns me.

I don’t check my phone as much as my kids do, although I have felt strangely untethered when I’ve accidentally left the phone at home. A few months ago, when I drove a few blocks to the grocery store one Saturday and left my phone back on the kitchen counter, a vague unease weighted my chest.

What if someone wanted to reach me? What if I needed to phone for help? In truth, it wasn’t likely that anyone would need me during my brief time away. And there was no kind of trouble, however grave, so challenging that I couldn’t quickly get assistance in the middle of the city. Not long ago, after all, people routinely traveled across the country — and the world — without phones in their pockets.

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But phone separation anxiety isn’t rooted in logic. Smartphones have created such a culture of constant connectedness that their absence seems like an aberration, an alarming lapse in routine.

All of this came to mind this month when my smartphone stopped working properly, its disembodied female voice refusing to answer when I asked for directions during a road trip. My son and daughter laughed at my incompetence with a basic instrument of technology, although my phone didn’t care to answer them, either. For once, or so it seemed, a machine, not its middle-aged user, was the feeble one.

I made a repair appointment with the phone store in the mall. It’s a self-consciously hip place, with sleek service desks made to resemble bar tables and high stools for the customers. The only thing missing was alcohol.

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The technician declared my phone a loss and gave me a new one, although preparing the replacement for service wasn’t quick. My longtime car mechanic tells me that fixing cars isn’t the hardest part of his business; the real challenge is dealing with customers who can’t stand to be without their wheels. I suspect that many Americans, especially younger ones, have a similar sense of attachment to their smartphones.

My phone store technician told me that some customers spend hundreds of dollars on a new phone rather than waiting an hour for their broken phone to be repaired. Doing without a smartphone, even for a short time, is unbearable for them.

I left the mall with my new phone, relieved that I haven’t become such a phone addict. Or maybe, like most addicts, I’m simply in denial. 


Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter @Danny_Heitman.