Chris Andrews ’12 had passed through El Paso and was somewhere just outside the New Mexico border when he lost his cell phone signal. He knew that ahead of him lay at least seven days of desert and technological desertion, and his reaction was visceral.
“When I walked into that silence, it was awful,” he said to the assembled Upper School. “It was withdrawal in the simplest sense. I was hearing phantom dings and rings. I was losing my mind and it was a basic, biological response.”
This was the most psychologically trying part of Andrews’ “Let’s Talk” project. From August 2016-March 2017, Andrews walked 3,200 miles from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles, in an effort to connect with people one-on-one and to interrogate the effect of technology on ourselves and our interactions with one another. He set out with a three-wheeled cart with all of his possessions for the trek, and relied on the kindness of strangers to help him along, and to engage with him and his message. Over those eight months, Andrews conducted almost 11,000 interviews and, through them, came to better understand himself and his fellow Americans.
This quixotic voyage of American discovery began, ironically enough, in Scotland. Andrews was a junior at the University of St. Andrews and found that he “felt numb.” His days were interspersed with and bookended by long dives into social media that he came to recognize as a crutch. “Whenever I felt discomfort or boredom or exhaustion, I would reach for my phone,” Andrews said. “It was always in a moment of weakness.”
Andrews has given TED Talks about our relationship to technology, and the chronicling and broader message about his effort is on the web at www.LetsTalkUSA.com. In preparation for his visit, Upper School students were invited to go phone-less for a day, and then discuss the experience with their advisor groups before Andrews’ talk.
Betsy Heim sat in an eight-desk cluster with her advisees as the she talked about the experience with her kids who did and who didn’t participate.
“I personally believe I have healthy phone habits but I thought I should test it,” said Amelia S. ’21. “The thing I didn’t realize was all the little moments throughout the day when I look at my phone. Like, at one point I had to get up and go find a clock because I didn’t have my phone and that’s what I always look at to see what time it is.”
Heim’s advisees also talked about involuntary phone separation.
“There was a period of time when I lost my phone, and I learned how to bake and cook, and do a bunch of things I wouldn’t have made time for otherwise,” said Amelia S. ’21
Bella D. ’21 said, “I got my phone taken away for three months, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. My friends told me what was going on, and since then, I’m not on my phone nearly as much.”
For Heim, running is her catharsis, the way she gets at solutions and separates the signal from the noise. “The harder the problem, the longer I run, or the faster I run,” she said. “Ms. Stuart does her best thinking in the shower and what our approaches have in common is that there’s nothing else to focus on in that moment, there’s nothing to distract you. When you’re running, you’re running; when you’re in the shower, the shower’s the only thing you’ve got going on.
“It’s OK to be bored, right?! Just go with it. See what you end up doing,” Heim said.
Back in the theater, Andrews was finishing up his talk before playing a song off his new record and fielding questions from one of the most enthusiastic and engaged Upper School audiences ever to assemble for a speaker. His message wasn’t some nutty Luddite preaching, but rather a practical prescription for navigating the modern world while freeing a part of yourself from it.
“Phones are great. They open up the world to us. But sometimes we sense that we use them more than we’d like,” Andrews said, before laying out his “reasonable and exciting way forward.” This consists of small steps such as using a dedicated alarm clock instead of your phone’s alarm, to setting aside time for thoughtful reflection and simple person-to-person interaction and contact.
“Fear is at the center of all this [dependency,]” Andrews continued. “Talking to people is scary and walking is slow but it blows technology away. You’ve got to remember to be vulnerable, and to listen to others and to yourself. Only then are we truly alive.”