And yet, one night not so long ago, a handful of my enslaved brain cells sparked unexpectedly to life. I looked up from Twitter.
“Is this how it all ends?” I wondered out loud. “Is this what we’ll do for the rest of our lives?”
I’ve always been an internet junkie. When they made it really fast and put it on a phone, it was pretty much game over. My usage is heavy, best described as a zigzag, across apps. Baseball stats, flight status, email check, text, random article, who knows what. All it takes is a slim distraction and my thumb turns turbo.
Of course, it should have been obvious long ago, but on that revelatory night, I realized I had lost control. The reach for the phone had become involuntary. A bulbous chunk of my brain sucked up by phonethink. Where’s the phone? Is it charged? Should I charge it now, or later? At work or at home, notifications buzz me like low-flying planes. I’m crossing the street, I’ll stop and look at the phone and have no idea what’s going on. I’m with my kids and I’m still touching the phone.
It is, in short, pathetic.
More troubling is a sporadic buzzing I feel in my leg, which feels like a phone ringing when the phone isn’t actually in my pocket. I have found myself wondering if this is a matter of evolution. Maybe future humans will have legs that ring. And maybe knees that tweet.
And so I began looking for balance. In the midst of the all-consuming, politics-driven death spiral that is the US today, I shut down all notifications. Effectively, I banned news. It felt really good but it didn’t last long. I needed news. So I tried something else. I deleted Facebook and Instagram. That felt good too but it didn’t work either: I kept on bouncing between my apps, checking the damned New York Post.
Could I just chuck the damn thing in the ocean? Or just leave it at home? Alas, that really is the stuff of fantasy. I’m a freelance producer, so if I’m out in the field and miss some key correspondence, an excuse of “well, you see, my phone usage, it became a bit much” would merely be an efficient way to make sure I am never hired again. In today’s workplace, unless you’re Christopher Walken, you need a smart device.
Fine. But what if I could have a smartphone for when it was really needed but used a low-tech phone for less-essential tasks and times? Could that work?
I decided to find out.
The dumbest idea of all time?
The experiment began three weeks ago. I called my carrier and asked if there was a way I could put my number on two devices. The answer was yes, for $10 a month and a $25 sim card. So I checked out the Nokia 3310, a recent refresh of the classic candy bar phone, complete with T9 texting and Snake!
One reviewer said: “3G speed, forget even the most basic web surfing.”
Five days and $85 later I was up and running … and then my excitement was stopped cold, with a stern smack back to 2003.
It took an excruciating grind of trial and error just to get my contacts over and on to the Nokia. As an experience, it was not unlike like having your two-year-old kid spit up medicine that he must have but will not swallow.
Then my “dumb” phone failed to mount on my clever laptop, which meant loading music and podcasts became another hurdle to clear. To fly a 10-minute podcast on to the phone, Bluetooth wanted 25 minutes. Cornered, I moved content on to a micro sd card, using an external card reader, then moved that card into the phone.
All of this took four hours. This phone knew what it was doing: it was playing 4D chess with my brain. I was left stressed and exhausted and wondering if this was the dumbest idea of all time.
The next day, I walked back into the world. I felt vulnerable. It had been years since I’d been on the subway without a smart device. Almost everyone else was using one. One woman was watching a show on one phone and texting on another. Cowed, I reverted to the traditional blank, upwards stare. Nostalgia flooded through me like I was 25 again. I could almost taste the ramen noodles.
But as the day wore on, I noticed something. I wasn’t getting many messages. Strangely, even my wife was out of touch. She called, to ask if I got the photo she sent. I hadn’t.
“I can’t have a husband that doesn’t get photos,” she said, a clause that was not in any vows I took.
Later, it was my turn to go get dinner for the kids. My wife said she’d text me the order. I waited. For 10 minutes. Jittery from a day without apps, I came unwound. I walked home and turned on my iPhone and watched the missing messages fly in. Because most people I text with use iPhones, they were sending me iMessages. My Nokia didn’t get those. It was only capable of getting SMS.
I called a Guardian editor. The call dropped twice. Furious, I turned the Nokia off, put it back in the box and went on a reckless data bender. All. Night. Long.
A week later I was hooked again and ready to send the Nokia back. Against my better judgment, I decided to give the experiment another go. I went to work on the iMessage problem. After another two hours of minute technical maneuvers that would have made MacGyver proud, I finally figured it out.
And then the magic started to happen.
Over the next week, more and more, I stopped reaching for my iPhone. In the car, for example, I found that it wasn’t life-altering to not always know the most efficient route to follow. I began to recover a lost instinct for directions.
When I made my bed, I sent my hidden Nokia flying across the room, splitting it into three. But reassembly was simple and free.
I started to use a real, plastic credit card to buy things. On the subway, listening to a podcast, I conquered the temptation to bounce between other apps. I was paying attention to everything – even my kids. I watched proper TV shows without straying, I read actual books without swiping and I enjoyed more shared experiences with my wife. And as a bonus, I was able to harass her when she was browsing Instagram.
And so here I am, smartphone-free, most of the time. I do feel a little left out, which is probably inevitable considering how closely culture and smartphone tech are tied. During the Oscars there was a promo: check out Instagram for a behind-the-scenes look. That’s a call to action I would almost always ignore. But this time, it dawned on me that in some sense, I had less. I feel the fear of missing out.
Things are slower too, less instantaneous. People seem less inclined to share links or photos. That’s a bit sad.
But access is still there: when cell service is poor, or I need to check email, or want to video the kids or get a photo from my wife, I fire the smartphone up. I get a quick shot of dopamine and I feel immediately guilty. So I do what I need and turn it off. I estimate I’m using the thing 65% to 80% less.
And that’s OK. Clawing back a degree of autonomy is what I set out to do. I’ve decided to carry on.
That said, like a faint buzzing in my pocket when there’s no phone there, I can still feel my inner app-addict. He’s not dead yet.