Published: 23.07.08
Wednesday column

How I survived the past six months without a mobile phone

Dominic Daehler
Dominic Daehler, D-BIOL
Dominic Daehler, D-BIOL (large view)

It wasn’t so much a willful decision that landed me in this pit of misery but rather fate. Nearly everyone I know these days has been in possession of one of those things for years, and most people can no longer imagine life without one. The only person I can think of at the moment who manages without one is my mother. You can talk on the phone with them almost anywhere in the world, for example, to tell your friends, whom you’re meeting after work for a few beers down by the lake, that you’re going to be half an hour late. When I’m out on a particularly nice bike tour I can send pictures to people who don’t want to see them and of course you can also send text messages to wish somebody a happy birthday when you don’t have time or feel like talking to them. So it’s actually an extremely useful little device.

Fate struck unexpectedly and relentlessly at the beginning of the year. I had already cancelled the contract with my provider a while back because I was planning to switch to another. And I was firmly convinced that the deadline for the switch would be at the beginning of February. So on that fateful Saturday, January 5, my first day of school after the holidays, I tried to call someone during the break. Nothing worked. In the display was the message “no cell” or something like that. After a couple more fruitless attempts to get it to work by switching it off and on, it suddenly dawned on me that it probably wasn’t the mobile phone that was broken, but maybe my contract had run out? A quick trip to the nearest phone shop in the lunch break confirmed my worst fears: for an entire day I had been living without a mobile identity – and had not even noticed it.

The other students in my class all expressed their deepest sympathies when they heard about my sad stroke of fate. That afternoon I felt as if my friends were paying more attention to me than usual, almost as if something really bad had happened to me. How was I ever going to exist for a whole weekend without a mobile phone? This question could not be answered yet. And the coming weekend wasn’t the only problem; my real problem was that I wanted to have an iPhone, and I had heard a rumor that they wouldn’t be available until February in Switzerland. What that meant was immediately crystal clear – I would have to survive for a few weeks without a mobile phone.

I was pretty devastated, but managed to pull myself together again over the course of the Sunday afternoon. I was right in the middle of a PR training program and crisis communication was one of the courses, so I knew for a fact that communicative measures would help me master this desolate situation. Analyze the situation, summarize the facts, work out a strategy, set down the measures and execute. On that Sunday evening I began to worry that I would start losing all my friends, and in a panic I sent out a text message via the SMS portal of the ETH university to everyone whose cell number I could dig up, just to let them know that I was currently no longer reachable by mobile phone. And just to be on the safe side I followed that up by sending an e-mail to each of my friends and even some people I barely knew. Better safe than sorry, you never know.

The hardest thing to bear over the following days was the glaring absence of the SMS peep, that yardstick of social networking which signals just how important you are to others. From one minute to the next this sound had simply disappeared. Naturally I still had all my friends, and they liked me just as much as before, but I was sorely lacking the electronic proof of their affection.

Somehow I managed to get through the first week. Maybe it was a figment of my imagination, but when I entered the classroom a week later it seemed to me that the expression on the faces of the other students went from worried to relieved when they saw that I was still alive. Beni Turnheer, the legendary Swiss TV commentator and sport and quiz show expert, once said that he felt naked whenever he left home without his cell phone. Personally, I wouldn’t take it quite that far to describe the feeling that came over me during those first few weeks when I left the house with one less object in my pocket. But for prophylactic reasons, just to be on the safe side, I wore an extra layer of clothing, because you never know how the psyche will react under such extraordinary circumstances. And besides, it was the middle of January and freezing cold outside.

One of the biggest challenges was waiting for me the Saturday night after my first mobile-free week: I had agreed to meet a friend at the train station in Lucerne - where else but directly beneath the main information board? Even as I was boarding the train in Zurich a strange feeling came over me, almost like a wave of nausea. How could this ever work out? Keeping an appointment, without the possibility of being able to resort to Plan B at short notice? And what if the train was late? Or had an accident? Or what if any of the above should befall the person I was meeting? The very thought was intolerable. I could already see myself suffocating in loneliness. When you consider the significance of the mobile phone in today’s society for maintaining a personal, social network, I really don’t think I was overreacting.

And so my life devoid of mobile communication dragged on. Then – how could it have happened otherwise – the iPhone was of course nowhere in sight when the unofficially promised day rolled around. I decided to hunker down and wait it out. And the longer I waited, the more natural it felt to live without being connected to the rest of the world by a mobile umbilical cord. I had actually managed to meet up with friends every time without disaster striking. After two months I no longer even bothered to waste a thought on whether I might have needed my mobile phone for this or that. In the meantime half a year has gone by and I have come to appreciate my new, old-fashioned quality of life as a “not permanently available” person. Gone were the days of being disrupted morning, noon and night by the “peep-peep” of a text message. I was able to read my newspaper in the train in the mornings and evenings without interruption. I no longer had to endure the embarrassment of trying to end a phone conversation as quickly as possible on an otherwise completely silent commuter train while all the other passengers pretend not to listen. And now when I went out I only needed to take three and not four battery chargers with me.

But the best part of all: my friends and acquaintances have not forgotten me, my family still loves me. My darling sister had a bit of problem adjusting to the situation at first and still teases me from time to time about how hard it is to reach me now that I have banned myself to the communicative Stone Age. But in the meantime she too has come to terms with my new lifestyle and has resorted to other forms of communication to keep in touch.

On July 11 the long wait could have come to an end. Since that day you can legally buy one in the store. But I’ve changed my mind, I don’t want one now, I have come to detest this iPhone cult, when I think about it, I never really liked it. Now I want a Samsung that can do everything an iPhone can do – and even a touch better. But they’re not on the market yet. Sometime in August they say. I guess I’ll wait a while.

About the author

Dominic Dähler studied biology, with areas of specialization in systematics and ecology, at the ETH Zurich from 1993 to 1998. He considers a highlight of his study period to be the four years he spent as a botany assistant to Professor Matthias Baltisberger, which gave him a solid base of knowledge of the world of plants. After he completed his studies he went to live in the wild, or in other words he went to seek his fortune in the world of business. For four years he worked in the financial services sector at “Swiss Re”. There his scope of duties included work as a reinsurance agent in the trade of CO2 emission certificates. In the spring of 2002, Mr. Dähler then returned to ETH Zurich, where he has since been in charge of postgraduate administration for the Biology Department and more recently also head of Public Relations. He is currently completing his training as a PR expert. Whenever he has time he likes roaming the Swiss Alps either on his mountain bike or per pedes, and also designs and builds furniture himself.