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How our phones became our whole lives in just 10 years, from a woman who resuscitates them

Our phones are amazing, but we have come to rely on them too much. I see it every day when trying to recover the minutiae of a life from a ruined device.
Image: We can all remember every important moment in an entire year in just a few minutes by scrolling through our camera roll.
We can all remember every important moment in an entire year in just a few minutes by scrolling through our camera roll.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

When did you last put pictures in a photo album? When did you last drop off a roll of film at a drugstore, then flip through the prints an hour later? It was probably some time before the last decade — given that, at the start of 2013, more than 50 percent of American adults had a smartphone for the first time, and now more than 80 percent of us do.

Since we wrapped our fingers around the first touch-screen smartphones a decade ago, the family photo album has all but ceased to exist. But even as we no longer make albums of them, we are even more obsessed with taking pictures. We spend hours transcribing our entire lives into digits inside memory chips on our phones, and maybe posting some small percentage of them online.

These photos are our lives now — we can all remember every important moment in an entire year in just a few minutes by scrolling through our camera roll. If it was notable, we took a picture. For the first time ever, we can visualize an entire life, including somebody else's.

My job is to recover these pictures and videos when things go wrong — sometimes very wrong. Each day, people from all over the world reach out to the iPad Rehab Microsoldering’s team of former stay-at-home moms (and one dad) after one of life’s most gut-wrenching moments. They are staring at a dead phone, usually a loved one's, and realizing that the data they thought — or hoped — was backing up, wasn’t.

It is a beloved privilege to be trusted with the responsibility to recover these memories. We get to tell families every day “Great news, we got the pictures back!”

But what will become of these now-recovered pictures? Will they be printed, hung up and cherished, or will they rot on a USB stick never to be seen again, after the joy of the initial reunion fades? Few of us will ever really get around to loading those pictures onto the digital frame we always mean to buy. Our pictures tend to sit there on our individual phones, unseen, secure inside a tiny chip, because we are too busy spending our lives capturing newer pictures of sushi, birthday parties and sunsets you can almost see.

On a recent trip to New York City, I signed up for the sunset viewing at the top of the Rockefeller Center and, like everyone else, I took a picture. The picture I took, though, was a picture of all the people taking pictures. Some people there never did see the sun actually set — they just saw the view of the sunset through their phones, held high above their heads.

At my kids' recent holiday concert, like many a parent, I quietly ignored the principal’s request to turn off our cellphones and just enjoy the concert. Instead, I took a picture and posted it on social media right in the middle of the concert; the caption read, “I am filled with holiday joy that the six parents near me who are secretly videotaping the concert are all holding their phones in landscape mode.”

It is possible we were better off when we were restricted to 24 carefully chosen shots on a tangible roll of film.

It's hard to imagine that this has all changed so much in 10 years, but it has. We suffer from a near-constant digital information overload; there is too much choice, and way too much noise. The sum of the knowledge of humanity is stuffed into our back pockets, as is access to nearly anything it can create. In the past, buying a new lawn chair would mean standing at a store and deciding between one with green woven canvas strips and one with blue. Today, it means scrolling through endless chair variations, struggling to distinguish fake reviews from genuine, and then being haunted by nagging ads stalking us everywhere we go online. Sometimes we simply give up.

We are part of a grand experiment: Never before have human brains been constantly exposed to the ceaseless parade of stimulation that pours from devices in our pockets.

In order to be heard above the cacophony of the internet, even our news media is forced to shout increasingly polarizing viewpoints. To deal with the sheer volume of information, our brains seek to bundle and categorize — ”awesome” or “terrible” — and slowly lose the ability to notice and appreciate nuance. There is no longer a middle.

Through our phones, we stare into the lights of Las Vegas when we first wake up, and just before we try to sleep. How does this affect the biochemistry of our brain? We don’t know for sure, but studies are already suggesting the answer is “not good.”

A few weeks ago, I finally decided to give it all up ... well, for one night a week. Our family started an evening of digital respite, when we turn off our phones, tablets, computers and even the television. It is just as hard as it seems, and just as amazing.

Life “unplugged” feels dry and brittle at first. It is painful; I dread it each week. I’m dismayed to realize that feels emotionally identical to quitting smoking.

The amount of extra time, though, is phenomenal. Did you know that you can go sledding, stop by the library, make dinner and memorize all five verses of "Good King Wenceslas" before 7:00 p.m. on a Tuesday? In the second week, I laid on the bed feeling like a disgrace to my generation. What did we do with our time growing up without phones and computers? I couldn’t remember. That day I spent an hour just talking with my husband about “not work” and “not kids.” When was the last time we did that?

In the third week I found myself saying yes, out of boredom, to things to which I’d normally I’d say no. Can we make cookies? Yes. Can we make a gingerbread house? Yes. Do you want to go cross-country skiing with me? Yes. Will you read this book with me for two solid hours tonight? Yes. Will I remember these times more than a few gigabytes of buried digital memories? Definitely.

I taught them things: We explored how to navigate without Google maps, how to live without looking up a weather forecast. They are now wholly convinced that, yes, it is indeed impossible for a human hand to break an intact egg; they know that teeth can do a fine job of it. I learned incredible details about the fabric of my children’s lives that I miss when obsessed with photo-documenting every moment.

Our phones are amazing. But we rely on them too much. We are addicted.

And, beyond that, the idea that they are helping us keep an incredible record of our lives that will persist for generations has more than a few caveats. Yes, our great-great-grandchildren will be able to get to "know" us in a way that is unprecedented — if we back up our data and find ways to pass down accessing it; I'm not sure my parents' eight-tracks or boxes of slides will be so useful to my kids.

But with the increasing complexity of mobile phone security and data encryption, the ability of people like me to recover these precious memories will become more and more limited without the support of the manufacturers. Back up your data and support the right to repair, or all those pictures you're taking to show the truth of your life to your kids one day won't be worth the silicon on which they're embedded. Plus, you have to have conversations with your family or your friends about what will happen to your phone, your pictures and your entire digital footprint when you die — or else large corporations and planned obsolescence will make those decisions for you in your absence.

In the meantime, though: Put your phone down. Watch a sunset. Enjoy your kid's school play as it happens. Make some cookies that exist only in your shared memories.

More from our decade reflections project:

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The decade in LGBTQ: Pop culture visibility but stalled political progress

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Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Gaga, Pink and Kesha cleared the way for women in the 2010s

Celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow made the 2010s the decade of health and wellness misinformation

White Christian America ended in the 2010s