A muffled garble drags me back to life. A sound I don’t recognise anymore. Childhood memories. Android bird. I scramble around, following the squawks with my fingers through cold crumpled sheets. The lights of stars illuminate the source. Time: 02:53. Location: near Tintern, Wales.
Inspired by my younger brother, I had decided that I would complete his ‘First Week Flip Phone’ (FWFP) challenge* — a detox. A smart detox. Smartphone detox. I like detoxes. They make me remember how small I am, and how simple. And yet how powerful my mind is, clicking away on switchboards below. To not touch a five-inch rectangle of metal and glass for seven days consecutive. The horror! The horror!
Check phone. Message from a friend? Email? Has time passed? Is my battery out of breath yet?
A one-week journey down a dark river I had long forgotten lay ahead. I had already set out a couple of times earlier this year, at the start of previous months, but each time something had called me back, hours, or a day, after setting out. Forecasted storms ahead. I would be needed back home. A week is a long time. The distance ahead was too mysterious.
How had I arrived at this state, of being terrified by the mere thought of the difficulties of a journey, not through rainforest, or over mountain, but simply in a state of being without one thing, one small thing? I hoped that I would find out, by travelling straight to the heart of the matter. Switching off my battered iPhone 5s, I turned on my old Alcatel with pride. This would be my guide. Already I felt lighter. They say the soul weighs 21 grams. I’d died twice, shed two souls, in picking up my 59 gram baby, my little black beast.
Anxious, sweating in the sun, I check my screen time stats; I have spent 2 hours 51 minutes per day on my phone in the last week. Through my headphones, I hear a strange noise. A dog fight is taking place ten feet from my eyes. A snowy ball of fluff being grappled by a black beauty, pure lean meat. The air smells of pizza, pepperoni.
So, how did I get here? Aged 11, I was given my first mobile phone, a snake-ridden Nokia 3330. Several newer models followed. Some dropped, smashed. One marketed as indestructible, I took with me into the shower for no reason other than that I could. Turned out I couldn’t. It flashed angrily back at me in a language I didn’t understand. Several lost in cities, strange houses, misplaced by drunken hands. As playground talk morphed into MySpace, then settled into Facebook, our phones grew into things unrecognisable from that 3330. Suddenly I could contact anybody in the world, any time I wanted. Well, I could do that before. I could take limitless photos. I could navigate. Find out anything that wanted to be known. Search: “should I take my phone into the shower with me?” You know it — all of these things were possible before: camera, map, library, wizened folks, old wives’ tales. Now, though, they all fit into my palm. And so, I resisted, genuinely terrified by the power. Could I be the last to go, the last to switch off the lights before we had all walked out of the door, from before to now?
One New Year’s Eve, I sat and mused these things through with a friend in a lonely pub in Brighton. He called me a philistine. He laughed, I laughed. We drank, kissed girls we hadn’t yet met at midnight. The next day, I wandered through a hangover, sat on a beach, without my wallet (lost in a pub or bar or stranger’s hands). My stupid phone couldn’t tell me anything useful. Lost, I wondered who was right.
Finally, five years ago, on arriving in Boston, MA, I walked into a Verizon store without a game plan, without a wall of reason around me, with nothing on the horizon but knowledge and power, and was sold an iPhone 5c within seconds. I think my friends were as surprised as I was. I spent the first days aggressively accumulating apps like a child in a supermarket aisle full of treats — I had seen, tasted, what everybody else had, vicariously, and I wanted it for myself, cramming what I could into my 16GB trolley. Confused acquaintances received photos of my face, fully fitted-out with stick-on squiggles. An etch-a-sketch for the modern age. Before long, like a bloated boy who has greedily grabbed for too many candies, I felt sick. Saturated. I’d sit on the toilet scrolling through facts, messages, photos, quicker than my eyes could take them in. Before, I’d spend these blissful private minutes looking around me at schoolboy scribbles on the cubicle wall: “Catch twenty poo”, “Das crapital”, “On the origin of faeces”. Leaving the toilets with a wry smile (and sufficiently cleaned hands) I’d meet a stranger on the streets. Now, I’d bump into a member of the public, phone glued to hand, offering my apologies without seeing their face.
Grab phone before I hear the voice in my head telling me to do so. Skip through my familiar trip: emails, sports, time, messages. Fuck, may as well check my own name. I’m still here. Put phone down, pick phone up, down, up, down, up.
Enough of the past. Back to Wales. Under a clear night sky, fear of rain felt only in the ephemeral cries of circling birds, free as loons, we made our tent. By the time Sunday evening came around, I’d enjoyed two peaceful nights (save for my rude awakening by the guilty Alcatel — must remember to switch off the alarm which was inexplicably set for 02:53) and two days full of walks, trees, teacakes from dusty pantries. Panting down a hill, in discussion with Tony, a local man in his seventies, we stopped for a drink before driving home. The real business would start on Monday morning.
Down-dogged, surrounded by sweaty bodies in a basement yoga class, my thoughts slipped back to my phone. Holding a pose, I tore it apart in my mind, battery smashed against a wall, grabbed my SIM — sorry SIM — and jammed it back into my iPhone 5s, waited impatiently for WhatsApp to load, and was greeted by a little red circle with an unrealistically large number inside, triple figures, five-figure, infinite, endless, x + y + z. The yogi’s voice soothed me back to the open space around me, to my taut muscles.
Out of a thick peasouper fog of words and photos I glance back up at the blue ink on the page. A girl near me is writing notes in a thick paperback. Pot smoke drifts over the summer grass.
My brother won’t like hearing this, but I don’t mind. I didn’t complete the week. I sort of might have maybe told him that I did. There we go. Planning on making it through to 5pm on Friday, I had received several text messages asking whether I was okay, had I lost my phone? Had I lost myself, was I out of my mind? One particular email struck me: a dear friend asking whether I had blocked them on WhatsApp. In a rush, I clicked my smart phone back to life. I haven’t switched it off again.
What did I gain during this almost-week? Well, for a start, an extra 1 hour 26 minutes per day, over 10 hours in a week, a working day, plus commute, of free time. For most people, especially the young, the busy, this figure will be considerably higher. As I said before, in the last week I’ve spent double this time on my iPhone 5s. They say it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. At this rate it’ll take me less than a decade to become an iPhone master. The horror!
There are less tangible gains, too. I felt closer to myself and to those I choose to spend my time with. I felt closer to the trees around me, the stars I spent two nights blanketed by. I felt empowered as the week went on, less a slave to my phone. I spent evenings chatting with my brother, our stupid phones connecting us through satellites I’d seen, false stars, on previous evenings, looking up. I’d spent more time looking up. My dreams were more serene. I wrote more. I could concentrate. I felt more in control of my feelings and actions, less urgency, more alive in my body. I learnt more in the hospital where I am a student, no longer trawling the wards with my thoughts concentrated on a five-inch piece of metal and glass, but on the people and situations unfolding around me. I watched my brother perform a song he’d written and dedicated to me, at Catweazle, the wonderful open space off the Cowley Road, Oxford (Thursday, 8pm).
Here, Lou Reed’s do do doing and I’m sending a text message to a friend, planning an exciting evening ahead. My football team score, 1–0 up. Back to black screen. Take a walk on the wild side.
What did I lose that week? Friends? Well, no. I might have missed out on seeing exactly what several of them were up to, and I do care about that. I caught up later. In fact, one or two of my closest friends probably did feel slightly uncomfortable on picking up my phone call, 90s style. Hardly a friendship-ender. Opportunities? Who can say! Work? I did miss out on the hospital firm’s WhatsApp chat. I still made it in to work, when I was needed. Perhaps we shouldn’t be expected to be constantly pinged with trivial and serious hospital-related matters on the same application we use to send GIFs of dancing babies. My bearings? I got lost, once, looking for a friend’s house. I finally found it — not Bartlemas Road, but Bartlemas Close. She had offered to give me a ride to the hospital. We snuck in a couple of minutes late, blending in, orange-badged, to the nursing team’s morning updates and gossip. We survived.
Did I fail, that second Friday of the month? And how do I reconcile with doubling my screen time just a few weeks on? Thankfully, some of the things I’ve learned transcend my little iPhone 5s. All of the times I ‘failed’ before were similar hiccups on the road to a more settled stomach.
At the start of the year, I decided to stop drinking alcohol. This was an easy decision: I had come to firmly believe that I would be better off without alcohol than with it. In order to achieve this, I told myself and those closest to me that I wanted to make it through the whole year without a drop of booze. Why? Some friends asked me why I needed to be so serious: couldn’t I just decide from day to day, moment to moment, that I didn’t want or need a drink. The simple answer is no. I am still working on a fuller explanation. When something has power over us, we need to find ways to beat it. Moderating my drinking, or taking it a day at a time, wouldn’t be a strong enough force against the lazy pull of beer, wine and spirits everywhere we look. It is deeply engrained into our society. I recognised that I needed to use whatever tricks I had up my sleeve to take control over government policy, multinational companies and the smarmy barman who looks with a mocking snarl as you ask for a tonic water. Tonic and tonic and tonic.
I had tried this before, however, and had failed, often in dramatic fashion, to stop or cut down my boozing. Having a plan isn’t enough: you need to positively want to do it. Phones, pills, drugs, booze, porn, the bookies, all insidiously seep into and fill whatever empty holes that have grown inside of us, over time, anti-matter. We are not born gasping for a cigarette or draining the dregs from our brother’s drinks cabinet. There was a pint-glass-sized hole inside of my heart. Only through hard work did I fill this with other things: love, self-esteem, self-care, care for others and the world, fun! And only then did I stop drinking: because I wanted to, not just because I didn’t need to, and most of all not simply because I couldn’t or shouldn’t drink. The last eight months have still been rocky at times: there are other, smaller holes still inside of me. But I certainly feel healthier, more capable of loving, and have had more fun.
I don’t hate booze. I like it. It brought me so many good times, taught me things about myself and the world I may not otherwise have known. But, for now, I don’t want or need it. The way I used to feel when walking into a supermarket, or a friend’s kitchen, beadily scanning the shelves, is not so different from the urge which pulls me to stop at the cigarette counter. It is the same impulse which shoves my hand down into my pocket in a greedy lunge for my phone. It acts on us, each in subtly different ways, as a drug.
Still, I like my phone. I like being able to listen to Lou Reed’s back catalogue, anywhere, anytime. I like sending silly photos to people I love. It is in many ways a security for us: in some ways we are safer with our phones, fully charged, in our pockets. For others, smart phones combined with the remarkable rise of social media to open new doors to friendships where there had previously stood solid brick walls. They have furthered open discussion of issues which had formerly found no forum. My brother, Ben, regularly publishes uplifting updates about his life through his smart phone. Thank you, Apple.
As with booze, phones are great for many people, much of the time, when used as a tool. They must remain just that: a tool which enables us to get more from life, to grow and find enjoyment and wellbeing. It is not simply a long-term issue of all-or-nothing: viewing phones or booze as such is disempowering. We can be stronger than these little machines and chemicals. They should help us to live in the world more fully. I would like, in a decade, to be an iPhone master: master of the technology we feel we may have no control over, if we ever stop to think. Really, in ten years’ time, I hope I’m sat in a peaceful spot with a glass of red wine, calmly sending a beautiful photo to…who knows?
What would I tell my younger self in that pub in Brighton? Go easy on yourself, young man. You possess the power to live the way you want to, in each and every moment, and, more importantly, to forgive yourself when you think you’ve fucked up.
Some practical tips to anybody looking to embark on a smartphone detox: 1) tell your friends before you do it. I didn’t do this, and since most social circles revolve around an expectant axis of immediacy, perhaps I’d have been better off doing so. 2) Tell your friends: they might do it with you! Support is key. 3) Give it all up, including the Instagram account you use to post photos of delicious beaches and juicy peaches. You might even enjoy your food, the environment, more, without the anxiety that comes with searching for the money shot. And at the end of the week, you can post all about the little things you noticed through wider eyes. 4) Don’t worry if you don’t make it. It’s all good. Just cutting down is a good step. Simply becoming aware of the amount of time and energy you spend on your devices will be eye-opening. You might learn which bits of your phone you missed, and which missed you. Use Screen Time in order to set limits — particularly useful for enjoying bedtime without the crippling blue light. 5) Most importantly, enjoy it. Be kind and gentle to yourself. Reflect on what you gain. Be grateful for what you have.
For, what I have really learnt, is this: to care less, to love myself, to look around me more. That I can’t really ‘fail’: there is no such thing. But that being with myself is a joy that booze, pills, fags and phones can’t replace. It is a journey, which we are all on together, and there is no end.
Airplane mode on. Fly away. Write these last sentences, then sit in the sun and breathe a deep breath. Breathe in the smells of pot and the sounds of laughter, and float…
Will I do it again next month? Yes. Will I succeed? That is entirely up to me: by realising that ‘success’, in the traditional sense, does not exist, I will have gained something. Should you do it? If you are asking the question, try it. You have nothing to lose. Except, perhaps, your mind, as you sit in a toilet cubicle and look up: “War and pees”, “A room with a poo”, “Animal fart”. And if you do happen to find yourself sleeping peacefully under the stars, remember to turn the alarm off on your flip phone, your flipping stupid phone.
*Visit: FirstWeekFlipPhone.com for more information and testimonials.