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How I Lost My Smartphone And Found My Neighbors

A simple tale from Italy of a hundred strangers in a waiting room, and the limits of our modern obsession with privacy.

Image of People checking their phone on the subway.

People checking their phone on the subway.

Concita De Gregorio

ROME — Here's a small personal story that has made me smile and reflect for the past few days: It’s about our obsession with privacy, which can be a pointless battle at a time when, in an online crowd of strangers identified only by numbers, we all find ourselves connected.

We all know everything about each other already. We can even find out about each other’s personal tastes, mutual friends or phone numbers. It's a good thing — here's why.

I enter, as I do every day, the large waiting room of a public place where I will spend the next few hours in the company of a hundred or so people. We have known each other for months, but we do not know each other. We are identified by acronyms, a matter of privacy.

I realize I don’t have my phone. I left it at home or lost it — I don’t know. The place where I am is far from the place where I live, and without a phone I can neither use a car-sharing app to get home nor call a cab — and there are never any taxis to hail at the nearby parking lot.

Who remembers phone numbers anymore? 

As I was leaving home, I agreed with my family that when I was done I’ll call and ask for a ride. Of course, I won’t be able to call. At some point, perhaps late in the evening, they will call to hear from me, and I won’t answer. It’s shaping up to be one hell of an evening.

First thing to ponder: I don’t know any phone numbers by heart. I remember the landline from my childhood home, but my mother bought the offer from a relentless marketer and changed it. Of course, this is my problem: no doubt you know by heart the cell phone number of your spouse, children or siblings, a friend. I suddenly find out that I don't. I never thought about it.

That’s not good, is it, to rely on technology, and give up memory?

Mutual friends

How do I notify someone whose number I don’t know? I can ask one of the people in the waiting room to lend me the phone, but then what? Who do I call if I don’t know the number?

Social media. I can go into one of my children’s Instagram or Facebook or whatever and send a message, for example. Let’s try.

The people in the waiting room are just numbers. E126. A405. We’re all wearing masks, anyway: We wouldn’t recognize each other outside this room. Here, we distinguish ourselves by our eyes, and give brief nods of greeting.

A few days ago, however, U307 — a young, kind girl — told me that she was an avid reader and named some authors she loved. We talked about books and, greeting me, she introduced herself as Francesca. So, I go and talk to Francesca.

I ask her to look for my family members on Facebook or Instagram and send them a message. She does, but we discover that my family members do not follow her. So, since by the rules of the Internet, if you are not “friends,” you cannot exchange messages, let alone make phone calls, we wait for the recipients of the request to accept it.

It’s four o’clock in the afternoon. I mentally review what my blood relatives will be doing in their lives, and decide a quick response is unlikely. Never despair — but let’s look for other options.

In the meantime, the attention of the waiting room audience focuses on us: advice, more phones going off, a certain enthusiasm for the unexpected novelty, a piece of life wedged into the usual grind. Solidarity among numbers. Now, the twist.

In U307’s (Francesca’s) friend request to my husband (yes, we got him involved too, although his social media engagement is minimal, but just in case; you never know) the words appear: You have a friend in common. She is a writer of whom U307 is a fan, by virtue of her passion for literature. The writer is a close family friend whom I have not heard from in a long time. And yet to her U307 can send a message. She does — or, I do.

The waiting room is now all behind us — a cheering section. I write, “Hi, excuse me, this is Concita. I need you. Answer if you can.” The unimaginable happens. The writer friend replies. “This is not Concita’s profile,” she writes, “if you are really Concita, prove it.” I prove it with an anecdote.

The writer friend will tell me later that never in her life had she responded to a message, to a phone call that came from Facebook from an unknown profile, but that day, she did, because she also happened to be in a waiting room, her phone in hand.

Image of \u200bSocial media apps on a phone screen. Apps listed: Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, Youtube

Social media apps.

Geri Tech

From "friends" to friends

This mutual friend of U307 and my husband takes action and calls him. He, of course, doesn’t answer. These things happen. But in the meantime, several others involved in the emergency had friended my children, who all receive an unusual solicitation from strangers. Who knows what they must have thought.

Eventually, one son responds. He accepts:

Hi, this is mom. I’m without a phone. Let dad know.

Are you mom?

Yes, I’m mom. Confirmation anecdote.

Meanwhile, the writer calls back. We talk to each other from U307’s phone.

"What an incredible story," she tells me.

It sure is, I say.

By different routes, the case is solved. With at least 12 of the people/numbers in the waiting room, we had friends in common on Facebook. Now, we have all become “friends.”

From anonymous, numbered strangers to friends in real life

In the evening, at home, I find out what Francesca/U307's family name is. I know it because the friend who notified my husband tells me. My husband finally answered her too, and all is well.

So thank you, Francesca U307, now Francesca S. And thanks also to the You-have-a-friend-in-common friend, who never accepts phone calls or messages from strangers, but for some reason did, just this one time. Does luck exist? Does privacy exist? Is it possible to turn us into numbers, when we are actually all connected by someone we have “in common,” one, two, six degrees of separation at most?

Maybe in the future we will be friends in real life, too.

What a story. What a challenge to the sense of what we would like to be, and what we are. What an opportunity to think about our place in the world.

Privacy, I smiled tonight — but what privacy?

A605 is now a friend, and I know Francesca’s last name. Maybe in the future we will be friends in real life, too. For now, it’s just great gratitude.

Privacy does not exist. Maybe this will be a problem; for some, it certainly is. We are never alone, never anonymous. But for me anyway, today, that's okay.

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Life On "Mars": With The Teams Simulating Space Missions Under A Dome

A niche research community plays out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another planet.

Photo of a person in a space suit walking toward the ​Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

At the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

Sarah Scoles

In November 2022, Tara Sweeney’s plane landed on Thwaites Glacier, a 74,000-square-mile mass of frozen water in West Antarctica. She arrived with an international research team to study the glacier’s geology and ice fabric, and how its ice melt might contribute to sea level rise. But while near Earth’s southernmost point, Sweeney kept thinking about the moon.

“It felt every bit of what I think it will feel like being a space explorer,” said Sweeney, a former Air Force officer who’s now working on a doctorate in lunar geology at the University of Texas at El Paso. “You have all of these resources, and you get to be the one to go out and do the exploring and do the science. And that was really spectacular.”

That similarity is why space scientists study the physiology and psychology of people living in Antarctic and other remote outposts: For around 25 years, people have played out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another world. Polar explorers are, in a way, analogous to astronauts who land on alien planets. And while Sweeney wasn’t technically on an “analog astronaut” mission — her primary objective being the geological exploration of Earth — her days played out much the same as a space explorer’s might.

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