Smartphones make it easier for us to connect but do they put our personal relationships at risk?
It was the one missing ingredient, a type of nut so obscure I had never heard of it before (neither, seemingly, had the supermarket manager). My girlfriend had wandered up a couple of doors to the deli while I returned to the car to wait for her. As I plonked myself behind the steering wheel my hand moved to put the seatbelt in the socket and then, instinctively, for my pocket.
Oh shit, the rule.
It had just begun, our first micro trip away as a couple - and with it a challenge. We had not been together long but already she had discovered one of my defining traits: my reliance on my phone, and all that came with it. ''I liked you on Facebook, I followed you on Twitter, I connected with you on LinkedIn,'' read the front of the card she gave me early on, followed on the inside by: '' … this card seems very unnecessary.''
''Technology celebrates connectedness, but encourages retreat,'' said US writer Jonathan Safran Foer. I could be his poster child. Much of my time, including the bookends to my days, involves burying my head in my smartphone. It is not that I am retreating. It is that I hate being idle. There's always something I can be doing: replying to email, cleaning out my in-boxes, doing my banking using my smartphone app. And then once all that important stuff is done, it's on to my friends and acquaintances on Facebook.
My reliance on technology is hardly unique. A recently released survey co-authored by Google into the way we use technology, Our Mobile Planet, declared about 65 per cent of Australians owned a smartphone (a mobile phone from which you can access the internet) in 2012, which is fourth highest in the world and almost double the 37 per cent recorded just two years earlier.
Two thirds of those, it concluded, ''access the internet every day on their smartphone and most never leave home without it'', with about 70 per cent declaring they would give up their television before their fancy mobile. One chapter was entitled, not unreasonably, ''smartphones are indispensable to daily life''.
Last month's Melbourne Fringe Festival featured a comedy show entitled Social Needia: the epidemic, about those who ''get anxious when nobody comments on your Facebook status updates, Instagram food before eating it, tweet in the middle of the night …''
The UK Post Office has even given it a name, ''nomophobia'' (a contraction of ''no-mobile-phone phobia'') and ran a survey to identify people who experienced anxiety when they have no access to mobile technology. Even five years ago, when the survey was done, half admitted to addictive tendencies.
My girlfriend had suggested attempting to go a whole day without checking my phone. I stubbornly raised the stakes, predicting I could last the entire four days without checking my email or the latest sports scores, nor discovering who had liked me on Facebook, followed me on Twitter or connected with me on LinkedIn.
I'd forgotten about photo-sharing site Instagram.
The unsettling thing about being greeted by a rich sunrise on that first morning was how it felt - underwhelming. I could not brag about it, so did not know how to appreciate it. I immediately took a picture: the silhouette of the lone gangly gum tree, the lush canopies of its sturdier cousins, the bruised clouds, the gunmetal coast - of course, I did not share the photo. I did briefly consider snapping now and posting later. I guess that's what addicts do, find loopholes.
Television and the internet are regularly rated as two of the, if not the two, most significant consumer inventions since the 1950s. Smartphones essentially combine the key traits of each. The Atlantic magazine recently reported official estimates that 11 per cent of the total time spent online by US residents was on Facebook. An analysis of the issue in London's Daily Mail contended society's increasing reliance on smartphones was ''fuelled by people's growing fear of missing out''.
It can happen anywhere. Even in a parked car waiting for your girlfriend to buy some nuts. I suspect I audibly sighed when I remembered I could not use my phone. This might have been an opportunity to … Instead I started pondering what I was missing out on. My fingers curled around nothing; they ached to be dragging themselves across that glass touch screen. I turned the ignition midway so I could listen to the radio. It didn't help. Ad breaks - and neither of my two preferred bogan music stations was playing anything that interested me. Radio off. Silence. Again.
For more than a decade the internet has been a source of growing angst in relationships. The University of Chicago's Dr Alex Lickerman describes the internet as ''an electronic drug that often yanks us away from the physical world''.
''Like any addiction, the real cost, for those of us who are truly addicted, is to the number and quality of our relationships with others.''
Most of the focus, however, has until now related to one partner, typically male, accessing pornography online or using chat rooms for sexually explicit conversation, and sometimes liaisons. But the president of the Australian Association of Relationship Counsellors, Guy Vicars, says he is now starting to encounter relationships riven by issues relating to one or both partners' use of technology, without sexual undertones.
Vicars is scathing about the passive acceptance of habitually checking work email while off the clock, arguing society has classed it as an ''allowed addiction''. The association he leads is already planning to run at its next annual conference a session on the impact of technology and social media on relationships.
''Part of the problem with social media is that the couple get distant from each other and they don't realise they're doing it. They're physically present but they're emotionally absent,'' he says.
''You actually get to know each other [better] if you sit down and get rid of the distractions.''
That, he says, is why therapy works.
Vicars is a strong believer in the Attachment Theory promoted by psychologist John Bowlby in the 1960s based around the ''lasting psychological connectedness between human beings''. Vicars cites a parent with their newborn baby and a besotted couple in their ''honeymoon stage'' as examples of what he considers an unspoken but vital bonding process. ''As species that's what we do: we attach. That's why we hook up with partners,'' he says. As the pervasiveness of smartphones increases, the time that couples spend exclusively focused on each other diminishes. Vicars damns the reliance on smartphones to keep in touch with absent friends as ''actually not a social pastime … it's actually a very solitary pastime, because of the way it works''.
The calculations began: 30 seconds to walk from the supermarket to the car, 20 to load the groceries, 10 to shut the boot and walk to the front, 40 looking in vain for something to listen to, 15 to calculate the calculations … not quite two minutes. Still no sign of her. Brainwave: save her the walk back to the car by finding a new parking spot outside the deli (or, the real reason: save me the boredom).
Boredom. The very scenario that smartphones are designed to minimise or even eradicate. ''As a society, I would say all of us, not just those in relationships, have lost the art of being bored. It sounds weird but you do need time when you're just doing nothing, time to rest and relax. For couples it's nice to enjoy doing that together,'' Vicars says.
In the Daily Mail article, one reader commented that she could not remember the last time she had sat alone with only her thoughts: ''no phone, no TV, no laptop. It would feel very odd!'' For me it'd be less odd than wasteful. Doing nothing strikes me as illogical when there's an alternative.
Among the hardest moments of my abstinence was when, after I had entered an event into my phone's calendar, it used its initiative to check my email. In just over a day my svelte in-boxes had ballooned to 103 unread emails. Aaaagh! To make it worse that number, ''103'', was tattooed in red on the main screen of my phone. It felt like a taunt.
My name is Jesse Hogan. I am nomophobic.
Senior RMIT University academic Dr Heather Horst studies people like me. It was her training in anthropology that prompted her a decade ago to begin researching the link between new media, technology and social change - digital ethnography. This involved collaborating with British anthropologist Dr Daniel Miller, arguably the pre-eminent authority on that topic, who has just begun leading a five-year Global Social Media Impact Study charting the impact of social media on disparate communities in England, Brazil, China, India, Italy, Trinidad and Turkey. Horst says just as people are urged to have alcohol-free days for their health, they might also consider technology-free periods.
But is it social media that is the problem, or the people who use it? Guns don't shoot themselves. Another digital ethnographer, Dr Tom Apperley of the University of New South Wales, does not underplay the behavioural impact of smartphones. He does, however, argue they exacerbate antisocial behaviour, rather than create it, especially for people who are already prone to retreating from conversation without warning. In this sense, he says, smartphones simply provide ''an opportunity where they can be rude more often''.
That stings. I pride myself on treating others the way I want to be treated. It is not, I tell myself again and again, that I'm putting myself above others. I'm just clear with my priorities. I don't like to put things off. If a call, message or email arrives I want to respond straight away, irrespective of who I'm with at the time.
Back in the car, I reversed out, then darted the 100 metres towards the deli, scanning for empty spaces. I reached the deli and was just about to lift the handbrake when the pocket vibrated. I pulled it out and her name flashed. She was back where we agreed to meet, where I started; where was I?
It was not the first time someone had asked me that question.
My earliest long-term relationship began in the days all you could do on a mobile was call, text or play Snake. I later discovered I was lucky to get past the first date. As we ordered a post-movie snack I used the time until it was delivered to catch up on the day's papers. I was oblivious to her shock, and the black mark it earned me, until months later.
Though neither that nor my most recent relationship lasted (my use of technology, while not helpful, was not the culprit), those partners' perceptive observations of me, and the resulting self-analysis, has. How could it not after the absurdity of looking at a photo of a sunrise on a smartphone screen rather than at the original, or going stir crazy after two minutes alone in a car?
We arrived home to a barrage of legitimate, well-meaning questions about the trip. I greeted them with monosyllables without looking up from my phone. The magic figure was 229. Surely that suggested I was sorely missed? Not at all. Only one of the 229 was solely for me. That in itself mattered little to me; email is a formal medium.
The more significant slight was how little my absence from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram - was noticed. In the (almost) four days attempts to contact me were limited to six Facebook interactions, three on Twitter and two on Instagram, a volume I've regularly exceeded in a single hour.
Here was proof that I missed the social media world far more than it missed me. What was also clear, after skimming through four days' of photos, announcements, observations, birthday wishes and the like was the little I had missed out on during my absence.
Perhaps I am the rude person who Apperley says now has the opportunity to be rude more often. So what to do? I'm hoping that, as with more established addictions, the first step to recovery is admitting I have a problem.
Now to search for Nomophobics Anonymous - next time I have an idle moment.