Last Fourth of July at the beach, Leah Wilson lost her “lifeline.”
Wilson, a 22-year-old graduate student, had clipped her blue flip phone around her bikini bottom — for safekeeping. Then, she left her towel, her other belongings, to let her hair down at Pacific Beach in San Diego. But between playing sports on the beach — and drinking — Wilson’s cell phone went missing.
“My whole life crashed,” she said. “The only number I knew by heart was my mom’s.”
Many of us are so reliant on our cell phones that when they're lost, we quickly feel lost without them.
Major mobile carriers AT&T and Verizon Wireless say they don't track how many people lose their cell phones a year. But losing these small devices happens “a lot,” and when they go missing, it's a huge disruption to our lives, according to Avi Greengart, mobile analyst at market research firm Current Analysis.
Cast away from society
A Pew Internet & American Life Project report released this month found that Americans for the first time picked cell phones as the technology they can least go without. In today’s wireless world, living without a cell phone is like living on a desert island. And losing one is like being suddenly cast away from society.
“Without it, there’s a disconnection with life,” said Marian Salzman, a cultural trendspotter and partner at Porter Novelli, a public relations powerhouse in New York.
People who’re out of their elements — drinking at a bar, rushing to leave a cab or traveling in a foreign country — are particularly prone to losing their cell phones — and its impacts.
Joe Huttner, a Haverford College junior, procured a prepaid cell phone for his time studying in Argentina, as did others in the program.
But the foreign language and environment disoriented students, some of whom lost their phones, Huttner said.
Getting a new prepaid phone meant getting a new number — so none of their study-abroad pals could contact each other, he said.
“If you didn’t have a class with them, you lost them as a friend,” said 21-year-old Huttner, who was fortunate enough to hold onto his. “That was a bummer.”
Lose new friends, keep the old
Losing your cell phone might mean losing acquaintances — but old friends can usually find you.
It’s all the more difficult, though, if you’re looking to establish new friends like Wilson was. She had just moved to San Diego to attend graduate school at National University. During her first month, Wilson had collected plenty of phone numbers, particularly on the Fourth of July. She never recovered them.
“It’s already hard moving away without friends and family — and then having to do it again,” Wilson said.
But reconnecting with close friends was made easy thanks to MySpace and Facebook, where “lost my phone” groups can reel in castaways.
Two weeks after Wilson got a new cell phone and things started to look up, they went amiss again. While trying on a pair of shoes, she set down her wallet, keys — and her new phone.
It was at the store’s front counter that Wilson realized she was empty handed. It turned out her cell phone was stolen — and the thief only spared her keys and wallet case.
“The second time all I could do is cry,” Wilson said.
Are we enslaved to our cell phones?
While sudden disconnection shocks initially, it wears off and other losses emerge. Unlike address books that can be at least partly recovered, cool ring tones and sentimental text messages can sometimes be lost forever.
Cell phones "are our repositories of our lives, our loved ones,” said Salzman, the cultural trendspotter. “My friends keep SMS (text message) trails. They’re kind of like their diaries.”
Living without them is only expected to get harder as their importance grows. Far from just a phone, mobiles are also used as alarm clocks, watches, music players, cameras and calendars.
And they’re on their way to becoming full-blown mini computers, personal organizers — and gaming devices. Is our dependency on a single gadget for everything healthy?
“You become enslaved to the device,” said Leysia Palen of the University of Colorado, who researches how technology impacts society. “You’re more beholden and expect it to be our dependent brain.”
Dialing down our dependency
Losing a cell phone can help dial down our dependency — some.
Michael Bonfanti from Monticello, Fla., was so furious when he first lost his at a wedding that he refused to buy a new one. And after a week, he started to like being without it — a lot.
“It was liberating,” he said. “Nobody could get me if I didn’t want them to.”
Bonfanti’s wife disagreed. But he kept up his “anthropological experiment, like going back to the Stone Age,” for three weeks.
In that time, he became the office freak at his law firm, where he says colleagues are hooked on “CrackBerries,” a nickname for popular BlackBerry phones.
Bonfanti eventually acquiesced to his wife’s wish, persuaded that if something should happen to him, he couldn’t connect with her or she with him.
She also got him a “man bag,” a purse made for and used by men, to carry his new mobile. Bonfanti uses the man bag to subdue the phone’s ringing so he can ignore it as he pleases.
“I know it’s there. I’m not going to lose it — but I still have that freedom when I leave work,” he said. “It goes in the closet at my house.”
‘Impossible to live without it’
Despite attempts to curb cell phone use, experts say we’re permanently bound to the devices. That’s because we want — and depend on — constant contact and instant information.
“With a cell phone, once we get used to the information, whether online or talking to a person, it becomes impossible to live without it,” said Paul Levinson, author of “Cellphone: The Story of the World's Most Mobile Medium and How It Has Transformed Everything!”
Wilson’s new BlackBerry Pearl keeps track of things like her grocery list.
She is now attending her alma mater, West Virginia State University, and is surrounded by her old college friends again. Wilson never set foot in San Diego’s National University. Her lack of financial and emotional support made her time there difficult — and losing her cell phone, twice, pushed it to unbearable, she said.
“It was absolutely the worst thing that ever could have happened.”