Enjoying Life Without Apps

My limited access to the 21st century

Last week a reader asked what I thought of some new application software pertaining to local history. It sounds worthwhile, I said, and I'm glad they did it. But I am not likely to offer much assessment of historical apps.

The cell phone I carry, the first one I ever owned, lacks apps, unless I count its very accurate clock. I don't own anything that will connect to an app, and don't really expect to anytime soon. I've got two kids in college, and the house needs painting, even though we're here in the 21st century and expected to spend our money on more modern things. I could use some new walking shoes, the pets and cars are always in need of some surgery, and I've been avoiding opening the refrigerator, just because it's old, and refrigerators are expensive. A portable electronic device to amuse Daddy has never risen very high on the priority list.

Don't mean to moan. To be honest, if I received an app-compatible device of some sort as a gift, I can't guarantee I'd be properly grateful. There's always that dismaying period after opening a box, when you realize how complicated this new thing is, and how long it's going to take to figure out some clever boy's ways of thinking. In my experience, getting to know a new electronic device comes with at least a wisp of remorse, sometimes a fog that doesn't wholly lift.

And is anything ever "user friendly"? The damnable problem, and it's many centuries old, is that everybody's different, idiosyncratic in what they want and expect, unpredictable in what will come naturally to them. Personally, for example, I don't like to touch screens. I just don't. Long ago I was trained not to touch screens, ever, because I leave greasy fingerprints. If it were user-friendly for me, it would come with lots of switches and knobs, each with a smart click. I've loved switches and knobs ever since early childhood. But some innovator, just ahead of my generation, decided switches and knobs were one of mankind's great problems. We have solved it utterly.

Then there's the Taking-Myself-Seriously Curve. When I use any electronic device, especially a cell phone or hand-held computer, even just to call about supper, I feel as if I'm putting myself on. I'm imitating other people, posing for a TV commercial, or pretending I'm a stylish homicide detective.

Maybe some of it's generational. The guys who invented these things and decided that we would need them are mostly older than me, though I suspect the average app-fancier is quite a bit younger. But the thing is, even as a young hipster, I was even more set in my ways. When I was 22, I went to Europe with a backpack and a few hundred dollars and no firm plan. It was perhaps the best two months of my life. People urged me to take a camera. I'd as soon have taken a dead squirrel.

My theory then was that you experience things more keenly if you're not taking a picture of it. Thirty years later, I'm still not sure that's untrue. Maybe it also applies to talking about it on the phone.

But a large part of my reluctance was just that I just didn't feel comfortable carrying around something as valuable as a camera. Some of the better cameras cost more than 20 bucks, after all, and you don't want to just carry something that pricey everywhere you go. I worry about stuff. If it's valuable, I'll find a way to break it, as I did with my mini voice recorder last fall, when it slid off the computer desk. Or leave it somewhere, as I have done with every nice umbrella I have ever owned.

Or it'll get wet. When I was in Europe, I was repeatedly surprised by rainstorms. Looking for a ruin in outer Edinburgh, I was drenched; while looking for a place to stay in Boulogne, I was soaked to the skin; I had to stand out in the knee-deep snow in Yugoslavia, waiting for an official to approve my crossing. Several times I got so wet I had to take the lira or drachmai out of my spongy wallet to let it dry.

I never worried about ruining anything I was carrying. I was young, and figured that if you don't get drenched every now and then, you're missing the point.

I carried nothing valuable. I doubt any photograph I could have taken could have captured any part of what I experienced. I do have a journal of the trip in a paper notebook. The blue ink stained the edges of it, from the several times it got soaked. If the house was on fire, it's one of the first things I would grab.

I never looked for an electrical plug. I slept in rooms full of strangers, once on the deck of a ship in the Adriatic, once in an alley outside of a closed train station in Marseilles, among people fighting in other languages. Once I woke up on a night train in Yugoslavia to find a gang of Bulgarian teenagers doing an autopsy on my backpack. They found it disappointing. I was not insulted.

And for two months I had only fun. A cell phone would have been something to worry about, and would have spoiled the trip.

Often, almost daily it seemed, I encountered Americans who had lost something valuable to them. Left in a café or a penzione, or, as they were always convinced, stolen. They always seemed miserable—pitiful, really—suddenly bereft of their expensive device. They were not, for that period, enjoying their trips.

Their worst-case scenario was being like me, but somehow I did not have any times as bad as they did. Maybe, at 22, I decided that I never would. And the fact is, even today, just on my way home from work, I still get soaked every now and then.