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Europe’s Smartphone Detox

Smartphone penetration in Spain is similar to that in the United States, but nobody over there seems to be talking about addiction to technology. They are talking though—to each other, in person.
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(Photo: Christian Bertrand/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Christian Bertrand/Shutterstock)

The first problem with traveling and technology is the plugs. If a traveler, like me, forgets to bring an outlet converter on a trip through Spain and Portugal, then they will be stuck post-plane with whatever electricity they can siphon out of their external battery packs and pre-charged computers before having to hunt down one of the devices. Until that point, technology is reserved solely for the important things—like figuring out where to buy an outlet converter—and not for the ambient socializing we’re used to doing every day online.

Then there’s the usual lack of data. Unless an American traveler has arranged for a local phone or is paying through the nose for their iPhone to keep functioning ($20 a megabyte was the rate I was text messaged upon arrival, pricing two gigs, a typical amount of monthly bandwidth for myself and most mobile users in the United States, somewhere around $4,000), it’s impossible to just flip through Twitter or Facebook. The only alternative is playing an offline game or going through photos. But the biggest difference of all is that no one seems to be on their phones anyway.

Staying in youthful neighborhoods in Madrid, Seville, and Lisbon, circling dive bars and crowded restaurants, the scene was much the same as in Brooklyn—orders yelled for drinks, stories told, bills negotiated. Except few people could be seen texting, or Tweeting, or Instagramming, even in the bathroom line at an anarchist beer hall in Madrid’s Malasaña, known as a countercultural haven. What locals were doing instead was talking to each other, loudly and heatedly, continuously. It struck me as the kind of socializing we desire when we bemoan our smartphone “addictions.”

The cultural differences of endless conversation are heightened by the dissociative aspects of traveling itself. The situation is conducive to a different way of being.

My anecdotal evidence for this trend admittedly comes from a small sample size. It’s also difficult to prove. The data show little statistical difference between the two regions. According to Google’s research, 2014 smartphone penetration in the U.S. and Spain is remarkably similar—at 56.4 and 55.4 percent, respectively, right next to each other in the rankings, while the United Arab Emirates and South Korea top the list at 73.8 and 73 percent.

Perhaps it’s the cost of data, and necessity is driving this unmediated socializing? But the actual expense of maintaining a smartphone in Europe is very similar to the U.S., if not less expensive. While AT&T and Verizon might charge around $100 for two gigabytes of data a month, Spain’s Telefonica charges $77 (in Hong Kong, it’s $55 for unlimited data). The number still might be too high in economic context. The unemployment rate among youth in Spain is hovering around a staggering 50 percent, according to Eurostat, while in the U.S. it’s 11.9.

That an obsession with smartphones exists is clear. Mainland China has over 300 treatment centers for Internet addiction, reports the South China Morning Post. In Singapore, there are two similar clinics. So we’ve named the issue. But proposing a solution is harder. Smartphone-free bars might be a popular answer, though we would have to acclimate to our withdrawal symptoms first. Or we could tax addictive data, like cigarettes, so idly thumbing apps becomes too expensive a habit to maintain and we all go back to simply interacting with each other in person.

As a traveler it’s easy enough to make peace with giving up a smartphone and pushing socializing back to an earlier, pre-Facebook state. In fact, traveling tends to replicate the stimulus we usually get from the Internet. Rather than a constant feed of brand new things flowing down our screens, there’s a cavalcade of novelty everywhere outside in the real world. Each building and street is new. Each monument, museum, and cafe contains unexpected information.

The time difference impacts social media as well. Rented apartments and hostel rooms have Wi-Fi, but log on five or six or 12 hours off of your usual timeline and few updates are making their way through. The usual torrent of posts becomes an uncompelling trickle. It’s a form of Internet jet lag.

So for me, the cultural differences of endless conversation are heightened by the dissociative aspects of traveling itself. The situation is conducive to a different way of being. Yet even if I can explain away my own perception of Europe’s smartphone detox, it doesn’t stop me from being slightly jealous at seeing a group of friends crowded around a bar table, chatting animatedly for hours, not a single screen in sight. Cheap pitchers of wine don’t hurt, either.

The talking cure might just be the best treatment for smartphone addiction. Not plumbing the deep sources of our own need for constant stimulus through Jungian therapy, but talking more, and talking better, to other people.

Digital detox is a difficult term—it presumes a dichotomy of on and offline that doesn’t exist in the majority of our daily lives. That doesn’t make the possibility any less compelling, however. Sometimes in Madrid I wanted my phone data back, to assuage momentary boredom or check in on friends back home. But after leaving, I mostly wish I still didn’t have it.

Disruptions is Kyle Chayka’s weekly column for Pacific Standard about personal technology and the way it influences our daily lives.