iPhone separation anxiety syndrome: Have we become too attached to our personal devices?

This is the one where David Gewirtz becomes temporarily separated from his iPhone, has a quiet inner freakout, and wonders if our bond with technology is actually an aberrant psychological disorder.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

I took a nap.

It's one way I react to personal emotional upheaval. I nap. Now, don't get me wrong. In an actual disaster, if lives are at stake, I'm a go-to guy. In a real emergency, my Eagle Scout, Civil Defense, InfraGard, inner MacGyver (the Richard Dean Anderson/Jack O'Neill -- with two "L"s -- MacGyver, not that new guy) training and muscle memory kick in. When the chips are down, I'm someone you want watching your back. I am one with the #adulting.

But when it comes to freakouts, I sometimes find that naps are the best medicine. I was separated from my iPhone for 2 hours and 40 minutes. I napped for almost a full hour.

It started innocently enough. A long-lost family friend of my wife found us through a recent Wall Street Journal article I had the temerity to appear in. Damn you, WSJ!

This friend did some searching, found my phone number, and called. When she asked to speak to my wife, I handed my phone -- read that carefully: I handed my phone -- to my wife. 

You can transfer a call from one iPhone to the next by using the Conference Call feature, but naïve me didn't think things through. I didn't realize what iPhone separation anxiety would feel like. So I just reached over and gave my wife my phone.

My wife is a very careful, far more coordinated person than I am. Yet, as she walked about the house chatting with J Random Family Friend, I worried that she'd drop it. Never mind that she's never broken a phone and has an identical phone to mine, so presumably long ago mastered the holding-a-phone skill. Never mind that both of our phones are protected by industrial strength cases. And yet, I worried.

Then, the dog made a fuss and like a good Doggy Mommy, my wife took the dog -- and my phone -- outside. My phone was going outside without me. My inner child burst into an inner tantrum.

Suddenly, I realized I couldn't log into my development system because the phone was the second factor authentication device. In fact, there were a lot of things I couldn't log into. I know, because I obsessively decided I needed to log into all of them -- or the world would end -- during the 160 minutes I was separated from my silicon alter ego.

What, I thought rather desperately, if I have to make a phone call? Here's a secret insight into the David Gewirtz machine: I don't make phone calls. I've used email since before the Internet and once the general public learned about and accepted text messages, IM, and now Zoom, I stopped dialing.

Yes, I sometimes (like today) answer the phone. But it's a rare occasion (except for the annoyingly regular call to a certain doctor to once again try to get them to send a prescription to the correct pharmacy) that I ever attempt an outgoing voice call. But today, separated from my iPhone, it was "what if I have to call someone?"

Let me be clear. In case of true urgency, all I would have had to do was politely interrupt my wife, and get my phone back. She would have merely called Friend Of Family back on her phone. So we're not talking about a practical, real-world concern about not having access to my phone.

What we're talking about here is the deep psychological connection, one might even say dependence, we have on these infernal devices.

I spend more actual minutes per year within inches of my phone than I do with my wife or my dog. I'm not sure how that's possible because my wife, my dog, and I are in a pandemic and we're home together most of the time. And yet, my iPhone and Apple Watch are with me constantly - even in the bathroom. I am a mere reach from hundreds of apps and millions of Web sites at all times.

But for a little more than two and a half hours, I had to go it alone. And by alone, I mean I had full access to four other computers fully connected to the Internet. I could email, iMessage, and Zoom to my heart's desire. I just couldn't do it with my phone.

I've been in real disasters, including earthquakes, floods, and hurricanes. I've lived through extended power outages. All of those are upsetting in legitimate visceral ways. They're genuine hits on one's sense of security. But stressing out because my wife walked into another room with my iPhone? Seriously?

Also: Apple vs. Samsung: Who makes the better phone?

And yet, it happened. This is a true story. Not even names have been changed. There are no innocents to protect.

We use these devices, sure. And we often talk about them as extensions of ourselves. We've spoken, with shiny eyes and excited expressions, about how technology is helping to create augmented humans. But as we move forward in our world of technological innovation, we have to retain our connection with reality.

These are just tools (he says as he reaches to his right and gently pets his phone's protective case).

What about you? Are you over-connected to your phone? Has the pandemic made it worse? Have you had device separation anxiety? Do you think it's just me who's bonkers, or do you think we've all become just a little unhinged? Do you need a nap? Let us know in the comments below.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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