My husband, Sheldon, was the one who introduced me to the idea of having the cheapest, dumbest phone around — on purpose. When I learned of his neo-Luddite ways, he was still just a guy I met in the dining hall during freshman year. He had no Facebook account. He liked to do origami and study bookbinding. He didn’t own an iPod but listened to music on an old mp3 player. He told me all about the field of media ecology, a branch of communication studies that examines the impact of technologies like the internet and how they change the entire ecosystem of modern life.
But even when we started dating, I didn’t adopt Sheldon’s radical ideas. I couldn’t bear the thought of giving up my smartphone. I loved it. I could Google the name of that actor instead of halting the entire conversation trying to remember. Long line for coffee? No biggie. Whip out my phone, and I could forgo awkward eye contact with other cafe patrons. I never looked lonely when eating by myself in the cafeteria because I could play with my phone and people would think I was fine. Most of all, I loved my phone’s camera. I snapped shots of anything that caught my eye and instantly uploaded them to Instagram.
Give it up? Not a chance.
But I began to notice how much simpler Sheldon’s life seemed compared to mine. He wasn’t concerned with staying abreast of current trends, memes, or YouTube stars. He had no social media accounts — just email — and yet he was well-connected to and well-loved by his circle of friends.
Then I started to notice little things about having a smartphone that bothered me. Many of my favourite apps peppered my screen with obnoxious ads. I felt worried when I ticked the box to agree to allow Facebook to “Use my current location.” It made me think of science-fiction novels in which technology is planted on Earth by aliens in order to brainwash the planet’s inhabitants. What if I signed away all my human rights to aliens and only found out about it when they abducted me because I hadn’t bothered to scroll down and read the entirety of the Terms & Conditions Agreement?
Paranoia aside, I started to notice that my smartphone habits were not good. Most of the emails I read on my phone went unanswered because, at the time that I read them, I was in transit and didn’t take the time to respond. My bathroom breaks were extended to five or 10 minutes instead of two because I sat on the toilet catching up on news or playing games. I always felt like I was being productive by having a smartphone, which allowed me to multitask, but living parallel to Sheldon forced me to evaluate whether in all my “multitasking” I was actually accomplishing more.
A comment from my applied health science professor got me thinking seriously about this. He said, “I respond to emails within a week. I take an hour every couple of days to read and respond to all of them. I don’t check my email every second like you kids do, but I am better at responding.”
That made so much sense. By spending an hour a couple of times a week reading and writing emails, my professor was actually saving time during all the other days of the week. But instead of that making him a less effective communicator, he was much more consistent in his email habits because he wasn’t checking his inbox every hour.
The idea that less communication could lead to better communication blew my mind. By the time it really started to sound attractive to me, I was in my junior year and feeling more and more overwhelmed. I worked 15 hours a week on top of being a full-time student. I was in a serious dating relationship and I was on my school’s improv troupe. The constant barrage of updates on my phone added to the chaos of my life.
I am the kind of person who desperately needs alone time to recharge, but with my smartphone in my pocket, I never really felt alone. People could contact me day or night via email, a phone call, a text, Facebook, Instagram, or WhatsApp. I also have a short attention span and am a major procrastinator. Having all of these media outlets feeding straight into my phone made me less likely to respond to anything, because the sheer volume of information intimidated me. People who I cared about felt neglected when I would answer an email one day but forget to respond to a text the next. My phone was becoming an object of anxiety rather than a time-saving tool.
I had reached a point where the joys of having a smartphone were outweighed by information and communication overload. I couldn’t keep up. I went to a phone provider and told them that I wanted the dumbest, cheapest phone they had. The clerks tried their hardest to sell me the equivalent of my sleek smartphone, but I was determined not to cave.
I walked out with a black flip phone and a huge weight off my chest.
My flip phone narrowed my communication to calls or texts. The simple layout of the phone helps me not to get distracted, because instead of the device being my phone, my compass, my camera, my mp3 player, my notebook, and my computer all at once, my phone is just a phone.
I’ve also become better at emails. Instead of checking a constant stream of them throughout the day and not reading them thoroughly, I check my email account once a day. I respond to most emails within two days. I have fewer contacts on my phone because Facebook and Google aren’t automatically uploading them, but I am in better contact with those few people than I am with the hundreds of “friends” I had in my smartphone days.
At the end of the day, I leave my phone in my purse. I leave it alone until the next morning and I am able to spend the rest of the evening giving my attention to Sheldon. We have meals together each night and read aloud to one another instead of broadcasting my favourite podcasts over my phone speakers. When we have a coffee date I am not checking it constantly, just in case. If someone urgently needs me, they will call.
The last thing I want to do is make it seem like I am holier than smartphone users, or that I don’t miss my smartphone. I miss it often. I have to work a little harder, because I don’t have all those tools at my fingertips all the time. I have to do quick multiplication figures on a scrap of paper instead of one my phone’s calculator. I have to jot things onto a calendar on my fridge instead of the one on my phone. I listen to CDs or use an old-fashioned mp3 player when I want music.
All of these things take a little extra time, but they also keep me more on my toes and aware of my surroundings. Especially when it comes to navigation. I used my smartphone for maps all the time. But now that I don’t have it as a backup I am extra observant whenever I go somewhere new, because I know I might have to find my way back. This is good for an artist, because if helps me be in the practice of looking carefully.
But I value what I have gained more highly than what I have lost. I have gained back the ability to focus on one task at a time. I have gained back the ability to give one person all my attention. Another thing that I have gained back is an old habit of mine, which I picked up after reading the books A Series of Unfortunate Events. I started to keep a commonplace book, because I wanted to be like the intrepid characters in the series. It was just a notebook where I would sketch, write reminders to myself, copy down quotes and keep scraps. Without a phone I have had to reinstate my habit of carrying a small notebook wherever I go.
You might ask how is that different from carrying around my phone, in which I have photos, reminders and a calendar. The main difference is that a phone is a passive medium, while the notebook is an active one. As a phone user I was passively snapping photos of the view instead of taking the time to sketch the view. It was building a habit of saying to myself, “I will snap a photo and then I can sketch from it later.” But of course “later” never came and the pretty view never morphed into an actual drawing.
Because I have cut out the dozens of five-minute phone breaks throughout my day, I am more efficient with my homework as well. Other students marvel at my early bedtime of nine o’clock. I tell them that it is partly because I work at six in the morning and partly because I use my time more effectively without the distraction of a smartphone.