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Big City, No Smartphone

A story of blissful unconnectedness, told by LOG OFF guest writer, Alex Devyatnikovsky, as a reminder of the entanglement we feel in a world so dependent upon digital means of technology and communication, and how we may overcome it.

My story begins in 2017. I used to be a simple person with a rebellious streak immediately obvious to anyone who attempted to chat with me online; they basically couldn't get in touch. Back then, I only used email (who still uses it for personal communication?).

I admit, I was cheating a little bit. The biggest Russian social networking platform allowed us to send and receive messages via email, a feature so unpopular that it was shut down only a year after I began using it.

I had recently left my job, and my wife and I had a trip to Saint Petersburg ahead of us. Our hometown is middle-sized, but it feels trifling compared to Saint Petersburg. With a population of around 5 million, its size felt incomprehensible to me.

As we were preparing, my wife asked me : "Are you packing your laptop?"

I began to think. Am I? Or do I, rather, use this trip as an opportunity to experience this weird feeling of a man, stripped of digital connectivity, in a big terra incognita?

I said "No".

What I had with me was a dumbphone--a really primitive Alcatel--and an e-reader. As we rode the train, I eventually grew tired of reading, which left me with few options. All I had left to do was sleep, or watch the scenery behind the windows. As we rode, I found myself in a weird position : I was a stranger to both the modern u- (dys?-) topia of Saint Petersburg and the serene, forlorn, and forgotten villages.

We were approaching Saint Petersburg. The 30-storey apartment buildings invaded the scenery without warning, though we were only at the outskirts of the city. It took us around 10 minutes to reach one of its railway stations. My best friend, who lives here and agreed to host us for our trip, was already awaiting us.

As we went home, chatting cheerfully, I took some time to look around and memorize the surroundings.

The next day, as my wife had to depart to another city for a week, and my friend left to work until late evening, I was on my own.

I was standing at Ladozhsky Metropolitan station, with a dumbphone in my pocket, a backpack with an umbrella and a bottle of water, and a whole day in front of me. I had nothing in particular to do, nowhere particular to go, and no schedule or plan. And that was breathtaking.

That was a kind of a feeling which I, and I dare say the majority of all busy city dwellers of our time, have almost forgotten. We all have plans, goals, and deadlines. Almost always, there's a list of things we have to do by the end of the day. We seem to be unable to live without it, don't we? We try to cram as much "to-do" in our day as we can; we accelerate, as we can't fathom what it's like to have a completely blank sheet in our calendar.

These feelings of busyness and buzziness both drive and are driven by our digital alternative reality. The computers are speedy. The smartphones are handy and ubiquitous. As our communications run faster, our lives run faster. As our computers become more and more effective, we can't help but strive to become more effective ourselves.

What I planned to do was the opposite of effective.

Since I didn't know the city, I needed a way to navigate. Google Maps was not available to me, and this was, honestly, the best part of the challenge. How did people navigate before the first binary processor was given its earliest instruction?

I've heard about the native people of Greenland, who used to navigate vast glaciers, and knew exactly how to do it because they had this unique and intricate relationship with their land--with the ice and snow. Now that they have been taught how to use the GPS navigators, maybe they have become more effective in navigating. But, simultaneously, they have lost the connection they once had. It has become increasingly hard for them to navigate their island without the GPS. Our technologies deprave us of what we once were capable of as people.

I went to a bookstore, figuring that they might have a city map, and I was right. I stood there for a good ten minutes, examining the variety of maps to choose the best one that would accompany me today (and for the rest of my trip). Then, I took some time to learn how to use it, solving the puzzle of how the little pages and districts correspond to the city as a whole.

Now that I understood where I wanted to go, I closed the map and went down to the Metro.

To those who live in the city, riding a Metropolitan train is a mundane thing. To me, it was a novelty. So as I was eagerly watching the scene that surrounded me, trying to capture what people were doing (and how, and why), my fellow passengers were doing what they always did--they were glued to their smartphones.

When I see a person immersed in their personal screen, I feel as if that person is absent from the universe of matter, doomed to frequent the temporary existence of the parallel, unseen universe of the digital informational highway. It's not a coincidence that "to be present" has become an antonym to "to be online". That's because "present" and "online" are not two elements of one world; rather, they are two separate worlds with a complex web of relations in between.

I mentally excluded people with smartphones and tablets from my view, as if they were transparent, and tried to figure out who was left. There was a person reading the daily newspaper. Yes, in Saint Petersburg, it's still a thing; every morning, fresh and free newspapers are distributed at the Metro stations. Two other people, an elderly woman and a young man, read books.

The train was filled to capacity, yet somehow, at the same time, very few people were actually there.

I did a very bad thing. I took a peek into the smartphone of a person who sat right next to me. The person was scrolling in the most orthodox meaning of the word-- literally scrolling, non-stop. One image replaced another in her social media feed, each entertaining her for less than a second before being scrolled into oblivion. I sat there wondering if she even manages to recognize what's on that image before it is replaced by the next one. What's the thought process behind this? She only stopped once or twice to push the like button, only to go on scrolling. Somewhere, in who knows which part of the world, someone just felt a fleeting dopamine boost from the like she had offered them, if they stopped to notice the notification at all.

She never noticed my interest in her feed, nor did she recognize my presence.

Because nowadays, this is what the Metro is. It's a place for people to be alone together--together physically, alone mentally.

I used to be a heavy social media user myself, so I'm not a complete outsider. Deep inside, I knew what, perhaps, was happening in that person's mind. It was an escape from being present. I dare to suggest that for the majority of people, the media feed provides exactly what they crave--an escape. An escape from this world into a deceptively better one. The mechanical act of scrolling is soothing : it eases some of the anxiety of being alive, if only temporarily. But if you do it in every free, waking moment, the temporary becomes permanent.

When I say that those on their smartphones were absent from the train wagon, I'm not being purely metaphorical.

I arrived at the city center and decided to literally wander around. I had a general idea of where to go, and I knew that eventually I would end up at the State Hermitage Museum. I decided that I would go everywhere and just take photos until I'm hungry.

Taking photos. It, too, felt different from the times when I had active feeds on Instagram, Twitter, VK, and Facebook. As I took a photo, I knew that the only place it would end up would be my computer drive storage. I might also print some of them, but that's all. No likes attached.

This was liberating to an extent. As I took photos, I knew they didn't need to be perfect, didn't need to be on par with some outside measure of approval. The only criterion for keeping or deleting a photo was whether I liked it or not. I took shots of random things, such as the Embassy of Romania, because I could. The randomness and purposelessness of the act was special.

I was practically lost, and I didn't care. I didn't even consult the map for the time being. I couldn't remember the last time I was lost.

Finally, I was hungry. I found a place that claimed to make extraordinarily good burgers, so I went in. On this day, my birthday, I gifted myself a present in the form of a real journey.

The burgers were really good on a whole different level. If I had an Instagram, I'd share them. If I had a Twitter, I'd tweet that "if you like burgers and you're in Saint Petersburg, here's the place to go!"

My tweet would instantly drown in a wave of newer tweets, and still newer tweets to replace them. If, by mere miracle, someone would have seen my tweet, there's only a small chance that they were really planning to go to Saint Petersburg to eat burgers anyway. My tweet wouldn't make any actual difference. The only purpose of the tweet would be letting people know that I was there, and that I ate that. More generally, it would be an outcry of "I exist!" into an endless stream of other people who, indeed, do exist, but can never be 100% sure until they constantly remind the world of it.

But even without it--especially without it--there and then, I existed. I took one photo of my lonely birthday party, which still sits somewhere in the storage of my computer (and only there). I got no likes for it, but I told my best friend and my wife, who offered me the two likes I really cared about. We then visited the place again, together. Consider that a repost.

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Cover photo by Rasheed Kemy on Unsplash