Let’s QWERTY Like It’s 1999 (An Experiment in Presence)


Photo Credit: Bigstock (mandygodbehear)

I met my wife in the autumn of 1999.

That was also the year I bought my first cell phone.

It was a big Nokia the size of a candy bar on steroids, with a little flip cover that had two purposes: to cover the buttons so they wouldn’t be accidentally pushed, and to make me feel somehow cooler while talking on it.

It had an orange, backlit screen, with black, blocky numbers. It was heavy, so instead of carrying it in my pocket, I bought a holster and attached it to my belt. Oddly, this made me feel cooler as well.

When making calls within my network, it worked about half the time. When making calls while roaming…well, I didn’t make calls while roaming. I couldn’t afford the fees. In 1999, texting was unfathomable. Email on the phone seemed like a good idea, but impossible. I couldn’t imagine a smarter phone.

Social media wasn’t even a glint in our eye.

Next week, my wife and I will travel to celebrate our fifteenth wedding anniversary, and I will be taking a very different kind of mobile phone with me. Now, it is difficult to imagine something I can’t do while on my phone. Except that’s not entirely true. There is one thing I can’t do while on my phone:

I can’t be present to the one I’m with.

I can’t be truly here.

I can’t be fully now.

So, in the next week, I’m going to try something new-but-old. I’m going to live as if it’s the year I met my wife. To approximate 1999, here are the rules for my tech use while I’m away:

  1. Voice calls only on my iPhone. Pretending to flip the phone open is optional.
  2. No use of Blue Tooth technology, so no talking while driving.
  3. All other electronic communication (e.g., emails and texts that I will treat as if they are emails) will have to occur while sitting at my laptop, which I will treat as a desktop computer.
  4. All web surfing happens at the desktop.
  5. No social media, and no blogging.
  6. No podcasts. FM and AM only.
  7. No iPad or tablets of any kind.

This means, in part, there will be no blog post next week. Perhaps though, instead of reading a new post, you’d like to experiment with this one? What if, for all or some part of a day, you joined me in the experiment? What if, for a little while, you decided to do the one thing your phone cannot do for you?

What if you decided to be fully present to the ones you’re with?

You can leave a comment by clicking here.


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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

19 thoughts on “Let’s QWERTY Like It’s 1999 (An Experiment in Presence)

  1. Just by reading the title of your post I was taken back to the days of my old Nokia phone. Around here we called it a “brick”, since you had to insert the whole card that came with the SIM (about the size of your credit card). Love the idea of your challenge, so I will take it up.
    Happy anniversary!

  2. Ah, so you are too young to remember using bag phones, then? 😉

    Your plan sounds perfect for an anniversary celebration. Last summer my daughter and I encouraged the men in our lives (my son and husband) to go cell phone-free on our road trip. No phone usage for anyone, at any time, with the exception of about a half an hour at night in our hotel rooms when we were all winding down, almost ready for bed. It was the best family vacation, ever. Nothing spectacular happened; we were all simply present in each other’s lives for 9 days.

    Happy anniversary. Hope you have a wonderful celebration!

  3. Happy anniversary!!! I did the experience of traveling with no phone at all for 8 weeks, abroad and alone. It was so liberating… What I concluded after the trip was that I had been able to appreciate the beauty… in the landscapes, in the people around, in the stories I was shared… Smart phones are great, but as with always, there is a moderation line that is so weirdly often crossed… (I remember when people were punctual and arrive on time to the appointments… now punctuality was replaced by a SMS “I am getting there” – “I am in the traffic, will get there in 10 min”…)

    I think your attitude will be a real gift to your wife! As I am travelling to Brazil to visit my adoptive family tomorrow, you have encouraged me to do the same with my 2 phones (work and personal) until Tuesday that I will be on vacation!

  4. I don’t think I could do it. Unless…

    I’d go out to eBay, and see if I can find the phone I had in 1999. Heck, I don’t think it would work on today’s networks.
    Hmm I might do this just because 🙂

  5. Happy Anniversary! My husband and I usually go on an outdoor adventure the week of our anniversary, hiking or canoeing so far. Its remote so there is no service. I thoroughly enjoy that unplugged time. I’ve been experimenting with meditation lately and believe that if we meditated separately prior to going to bed and had no TV/phones on in the bedroom at least until morning, that we would sleep better and have much greater intimacy. I was very surprised by how much I could relax myself and get rid of the day’s tensions, even in a 5-10 minute guided meditation. Hope you have a lovely holiday together.

  6. Great idea Kelly and I’m in for the experiment!! I need to be more present for my husband so I’m going to try this for a week too! Congratulations on your 15 years together!! That’s quite an accomplishment in this day and age. Safe travels!

  7. Wonderful idea, Dr. Kelly, we are far too beholden to our technical thingies. We have to learn to not let them distract us from truly connecting with people around us. Up until the past couple of weeks I have managed with the most simple phone I could buy, only used it for the phone calls. I have now succumbed to the modern i-phone, yes, I do have to keep up with things that are being so widely used, but I too will be endeavouring to not let it distract me from what is so important, my connection with my self within, and with all others I interact with. Our connection with other human beings is number one to my mind, I feel we are here on this earth to learn to be living in true brotherhood, treating each other equally and lovingly, as in essence we are such. The awful things that are going on in the world show just how far away we are living from who we truly are, but we can bring ourselves back to that as you are obviously endeavouring to do.

    Have a wonderful time away with your wife, and building on your connection, you are on the right track here, and I love your blogs.

  8. Happy Anniversary & grand idea! I am flashing back to 1982 when we married… well then. Betamax/VHS! Xo

  9. Happy Anniversary! Thank you for the gentle reminder of importance, in person-to-person connection!

  10. Go for it ‘Doc’! I am with you, even from India (in spirit!).
    Blessings and Congratulations on your 15th Anniversary!
    Hansi & Kath

  11. Enjoy your anniversary! We usually travel unplugged … just the first 2 days is like a bad withdrawal.

  12. Happy anniversary! Love your experiment. I still have a flip phone and don’t plan to change to a smart phone anytime soon. I can be reached for emergencies and can typically respond to texts, “ok” or “no” and have no communication break-downs. I don’t care if my teenage daughter was “embarrassed” to be seen with her low-tech Mom when I answer my flip phone in public. I am more available to her when I am with her. I hope fellow readers liked this experiment and try to extend it. It may be the best gift for you can give your loved ones.

  13. Happy Belated Anniversary!

    Present….now there’s an idea.

    So what does that mean exactly? What does it mean for the individual? Some may think that it means giving your full attention to another, not distracted by your tech devices, not multi-tasking. For me? What it means is that I capture the most subtle movement of a person’s eyebrow as they share with me something they are passionate about. I absorb their insecurity as they share with me a time of vulnerability. My muscles tense as I watch them process an incident that angered them or caused them discomfort, their sensation becoming mine. My mind always on the alert, always searching for a way in which I can bring comfort, healing and peace. My tongue tethered so as to not interrupt their time of need. My heart open, compatible. We can blame the tech devices, we can choose to put them aside. But if we don’t make a conscious choice to insert ourselves into the lives and feelings of those we love, being present is just that, present. Let’s make a choice to to presently connect with those we care about.

  14. Hi everyone, I’m back from 1999! Thank you for all the lovely anniversary wishes and all of your fun and insightful reflections on the experiment. I was almost completely successful in following through on the experiment. What was interesting was that I had my phone with me the whole time, so the temptation to use it was still there, but I didn’t. Which gave me confidence that I can untether myself a little bit, even when I have it with me. No need to leave it at home or anything like that. I’d love to hear what insights and experiences others people had amidst the experiment. You can reply to this comment if you want to share!

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