This video made the rounds this past week. It depicts a twenty-something woman, moving through her day sans smartphone. All around her, tiny glowing screens transfix her friends and family, leaving her to experience real life all alone. It’s an effective commentary on how consumer technology isolates us, even as it connects us virtually.
When we moved to West Virginia last year, we brought our brand new smartphones with us. We soon discovered (with disappointment) just how useless those gadgets are without decent cell service. We couldn’t make a phone call inside any local building. Data coverage was nearly non-existent; Tucker County lagged three generations behind the industry standard, and what connection we had rarely worked. Downloading an email took full minutes; photos were downright impossible.
But, as with many rural “inconveniences”, handicapping our smartphones also had its blessings. When we went out to dinner, we weren’t tempted to steal a peek at Facebook. No unwelcome calls interrupted our pleasant hikes through the mountains. When taking photos, the phone slipped quickly in and out of its pocket—with no long pause to Instagram the moment.
And local culture, we noticed, adapted to fit this technological landscape. Scenes like those from the video above—so common in suburbia—were rare here. Neighbors, we realized, actually met your gaze as they passed on the sidewalk. Some (wonder of wonders!) even smiled and said “Hello.” After years in Boston and D.C., this friendliness felt both strange and welcome. The area’s lackluster cell coverage kept iPhoneitis at bay and preserved Tucker County as a small oasis—a bubble of hospitality and awareness.
That bubble just burst. In recent weeks, AT&T has upgraded its cell service in our little town. It’s not unusual to catch a whiff of 4G here and there. And that’s not all bad; improved wireless will link Tucker County to the wider world, help visitors find their way around, and encourage tech-minded professionals to move here. But even if we appreciate the advantages of ubiquitous connection, we’ve can also mourn what we’ve lost.