My phone took on a life of its own — and it forced me to be a better person

Illustration by Maxine McCrann
ByBryan Joiner
Originally Published: 

My phone was broken and so was I. My problems had started on either March 13, 2020, because of COVID-19; or June 30, when I lost my job; or maybe eight years prior, when I traded in my desk job at a trade magazine for a work-from-home position at a media behemoth. Without an office, my iPhone had become essential for interpersonal contact; and for nearly a decade, I aggressively kept the device up-to-date to ensure I could always be a functioning member of society. But after a pandemic year, my personal relationships were strained; my eating and drinking habits had taken a turn for the worse; and — not coincidentally — my phone was nearly unusable.

Like everyone else, COVID-19 upended my life. But I really felt it during the ninth month of the pandemic, in early November, when my phone started exhibiting signs of “ghost touch,” a known iPhone X bug. Instead of waiting on my commands, the ghost hijacked my phone’s screen, pulling it in every direction, wrestling me for its attention. She wasn’t a constant presence; for the next two months, she popped in and out as I continued to use my phone somewhat normally. The spastic moments were fleeting and could be reliably tamed by turning my screen on and off again, especially if I waited five minutes or so.

Previous to all of this, my relationship to my phone had grown as tight as seams across a baseball. This one device was my primary conduit to Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, Duolingo, Venmo, the New York Times crossword, my favorite chess app, my local library, and plenty more. There was almost nothing interesting that happened in my everyday life for which I wouldn’t reflexively reach for it. Taking a good photo. Discovering a great song. Composing a perfect tweet. The tightness of the threads tying us together probably constituted something of an addiction, and certainly a compulsion.

And yet, instead of fixing it, I wanted to unspool those threads; I wanted to get to the core and see how badly I really needed my phone. After all, I’ve read more than enough articles telling me about the damage this little device is doing to my physical health, mental health, and productivity — and whether they’re true or not, this felt like as good a time as any to scale back my usage. And it worked, kind of.

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Just as, following my job-loss, I was an unemployed schlub who could nonetheless still clean, do yard work, and watch the kids; my ghost-possessed phone was there in a pinch. Even stripped to its bare essentials, it was still vital for taking calls, reading text messages, tracking runs, listening to podcasts, and scrolling Instagram — which I realize is still quite a lot; I didn’t go Luddite overnight. And although I shifted some digital activities to my iPad and computer, many of my usual phone habits fell to the wayside, no longer easily accessible or available to my mindless handling. And it felt great — or so I thought. I carried my broken phone like it was a badge of honor, as if to tell myself I had pulled one over on modernity by not remaining at its beck and call, whether that was true or not.

I wavered a bit in my new normal over the next month when, as if projecting my own increasingly damaged state back to me, my phone’s physical form started to rot away. I had removed the case after reading it was a potential cause of ghost touch — only to quickly discover my lax attitude toward my phone led to increased carelessness in handling it. The screen started to crack, and so did I. I decided to see if I was eligible for a trade-in.

I didn’t get it. I wasn’t eligible for an upgrade, and if I wanted a new phone right then, it would cost $350. I didn’t want to pay $350, and it certainly didn’t feel like a necessary expense smack in the middle of a pandemic winter. I took it as a sign; maybe, I thought, this was the push I needed to officially free myself of my phone’s hold on me. And I was free — for two or three days, at least. I didn’t touch my phone, and I didn’t feel a need for its screen. The ghost couldn’t scare me anymore, or so I thought.

Up until this point, I don’t think I fully realized that, in addition to all of the apps, my phone was also my primary conduit to people — including the friends I had made in real life over the past decade and dozens more I only know from online, at whose beck and call I had once eagerly remained as reliably as their messages were delivered. If those constant connections were burdensome, they didn’t seem so at the time. It all just felt like the natural order of things. With the great power of owning an awe-inspiring piece of technology came great responsibility. Right?

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Of course, things shifted in 2020. Like many people, during the pandemic, I reevaluated my relationships with pretty much everything in my life — and necessarily, some of my relationships with people changed in the process; our socialization patterns having been near-totally severed, and the time to think about what we brought each other expanding toward infinite space. My decaying phone had already started to limit my contact with friends and family members when a parting shot from the ghost, fired without my knowledge, struck at the heart of some of them. Following the Verizon store rejection, I had my phone open for one of its limited uses when it suffered one of its worst spirit-induced seizures, with more to come. Apps opened and closed faster than I could think to turn the phone off, and sometimes in these fits it video called people, which was bad enough—but often the red button to stop the call didn’t work, and I needed to turn it off completely, and fast. And then, silence. My phone stopped spontaneously making calls, and I stopped receiving most of them. For a few days, I was blissfully unbothered — no texts to speak of, and the only incoming calls were about my car’s extended warranty. I had wished away my phone, and it had returned the favor. It felt like an absolution.

Reader: It was not an absolution. My phone hadn’t actually stopped receiving messages — but it had, in its chaotic binge, turned off text notifications to the home screen. I eventually realized I had gone suspiciously long without receiving a message, opened the folder, and saw blue dots all the way down. My mother wondered where I’d gone. My old roommate had wanted to FaceTime 48 hours prior. A new friend asked if he had done anything wrong to push me away. Much like King Hamlet makes three of his four appearances early in his namesake play, with none in the final two acts, ghost touch ended up more catalyst than main character. I was no longer trying to fix my phone or my relationship with my phone; I was now focused on my relationship with certain people for whom the phone was apparently my defining link. I realized that, as I pulled out of the relationship with my phone, I was subtly pulling out of some friendships by extension. At the time, I thought this was a good thing, like I was getting one over on modernity, but I was really only getting one over on myself. I was changing for the worse, ignoring pleas to get in touch, and making excuses for it: “You can always find me on Twitter! Or email!” This was true, but it was also a way of deflecting my own responsibilities to people and the world at large, and the deflections started to pile up.

My friends and family initially detected a change as January turned to February, and winter blended into spring — when the phone was still usable, albeit unreliable. Some thought I was intentionally distancing myself from them by not responding to messages until the next day, or leaving prompts unanswered on Twitter, Instagram, and elsewhere. Was I always reachable online, like I promised? Maybe not, as it turned out. Some thought when I said, “My phone is screwed up,” that I was implying it would soon be replaced — and since I had been saying the same thing since November, I didn’t blame most of them for thinking I would have done something about it by a certain point.

Which, to be fair to me, I have now. Prior to a recent vacation, I finally took the plunge, traded in my broken phone, and spent an additional $80 to get a new iPhone 12. The spirit-free device, along with some difficult conversations, has helped steer me back in the right direction in the post-pandemic world. I feel good about myself again, and I really believe my phone is helping me do so, not preventing it. Pre-ghost, I was likely addicted to my phone, and the negative aspects of that clouded the positive. Now, free of the addiction — or so I hope — it’s bringing people into my life who are crucial for my happiness and well-being. Nine months ago, my phone brought the ghosts into my life. Now, it’s keeping them at bay.

It sounds hokey, but a working phone helps me live my best life in a way that can no longer be undone, short of disavowing all worldly possessions and searching for inner peace on a mountain top— but who needs the hassle when you have guided meditations in the Calm app?