Reclaiming Our Cognitive Sovereignty
By Jim Rutt
Recently, after more than 10 years as a smartphone user, I ditched my fancy iPhone X for a flip phone. Yep, a flip phone: Verizon’s bottom-of-the-line Kyocera Cadence LTE. It doesn’t get much more basic.
As a result, I’ve begun reclaiming my time, my deep-thinking ability, and, in a real sense, my cognitive sovereignty.
This essay describes what prompted me to go down this path, what I learned about smartphone overuse, what I decided to do about it, and then how I did it.
Definitely Not a Luddite
Before going any further, let’s be clear that I’m about as far away from being an anti-tech Luddite as you can possibly imagine. I bought my first personal computer, an Apple II, in 1980. I’ve been a tech entrepreneur and a tech executive, and I’m active today as an advisor to and investor in tech companies. I even helped start one of the cell phone companies. Some of the gory details are here.
These days I work as an AI researcher and advisor, dabble in cryptocurrencies, and still write computer code — for fun — like the new online game I’ve been developing.
In short: I’m a confirmed technologist and I love technology!
Nevertheless, I have come to realize that my pattern of heavy smartphone usage was a pattern that made me less capable, less effective, and in some ways, less me. Moreover, I no longer felt totally in control of my thinking habits and patterns. If “sovereignty” refers to a self-governing fully autonomous state, then my cognitive sovereignty had been substantially eroded.
Early Wake-Up Calls
My tale starts in July of 2018, when my millennial daughter persuaded me to get an Apple Watch. The damn thing was annoying as hell. First it started beeping at me, telling me to “breathe deeply.” WTF? And then, soon after, it started telling me it’s “time to stand up.” Then it was after me like a cut-rate personal trainer trying to get me to walk and climb stairs!
What I want from a watch is for it to easily and reliably tell me what time it is. And the Apple Watch wasn’t even very good at that. When I looked to check the time, more often than not, the watch body had slid around on my wrist so that I had to manually adjust the watchstrap just to see the time. It failed at watch job number one!
And the silly thing seemed to change its watch face every day or two. Why?
Plus, it has a short battery life, along with a unique charger you have to remember to take with you when you travel. In the end, it was just one more device whose voracious needs wasted my time and attention.
“Enough!” I ditched the Apple Watch and retrieved my old Seiko Diver’s Watch from my bedside table drawer. The Seiko tells me the time — and that’s it. And it’s a “self-winder” that does not require charging or any other maintenance other than resetting the time maybe once a month — a very satisfactory trade-off.
This Apple Watch experience was my first wake-up call that, at least for me personally, things had gone too far.
My next wake-up call came a month later, when I took up “water walking” at my local YMCA swimming pool. Water walking is a really good form of exercise for my somewhat arthritic self. I get two or three times the resistance from walking in chest deep water, and the buoyancy from the water really spares my creaky joints — a double win.
That’s when I encountered a most interesting “found experiment.” Naturally, I couldn’t take my smartphone into the pool. Almost immediately, I found that while I was getting my exercise, I was regularly using my pool time for deep thought on a wide range of topics. More than once I became so lost in deep thought that I went several minutes beyond my 30-minute water-walking goal.
It soon dawned upon me that because of the way I’d gotten used to using my smartphone — walk to the elevator, check the news; go to the bathroom, check email; stand in a supermarket line, tend to my social media groups, etc. — I had lost the habit of continuously thinking for many minutes in a row.
Perhaps you remember, during “The Time Warp” in the Rocky Horror Picture Show, when Columbia sings, “Well I was walking down the street, just a having a think, when a snake of a guy, gave me an evil wink”? Well, if you can’t stay focused on a train of thought on just one thing for several minutes in a row — which means, among other things, not checking your phone whenever you possibly can — then “having a think” becomes much less likely, perhaps impossible.
During my water walks, I solved computer programming problems. I crafted rough drafts of essays in my head. I pondered where we should go for vacation this winter. I practiced my joke routine for an upcoming dinner club performance. I planned my day. And I luxuriated in random long-form daydreams.
Once I realized that I was doing this every time I went to the pool, I began to consider how to reclaim this ability out of the pool. I wanted more of the many-minutes-at-a-time interior flow state that I was experiencing: a nicely balanced dynamic between my mind’s conscious and nonconscious elements, the place where my real thinking and problem solving occurs.
The key to maintaining that state long enough to do something useful or fun is to not be interrupted.
It was quickly obvious to me that the absence of my smartphone in the pool was the essential factor enabling me to do the kind of thinking I wasn’t doing outside the pool. Pondering on it, I realized that my smartphone was always with me, with its siren call of an infinite universe of immediately available information and interaction. And I started to think seriously about what it was doing to me as a thinker and as a person. I concluded that it was the number one cause of not doing the long-form thinking I used to regularly practice.
At that point I decided something major had to change about my relationship with my smartphone.
The Undeniable Upsurge of Ubiquitous Usage
A late-model smartphone is an incredible artifact. Smartphones give us everything from real-time maps to visual voice mail to highly capable cameras and video recording to ways of watching, listening to, or interacting with virtually any kind of content or service available on the Internet. And let’s not forget an ever-available flashlight!
So what’s the downside?
Well, for starters, let’s consider rising usage patterns. The numbers show that young adults are using their phones up to five hours a day, older adults are using them up to about three hours a day, and as of late 2017, average Americans checks their smartphone 80 times a day! A significant number of Americans (you know who you are!) are checking their smartphones 300 times a day or more.
Seriously? How many people have lives such that they have good reason to look at their phone 80 to 300 times a day? Or does this sound more like compulsive and addictive behavior?
But still, you might ask, why are such usage patterns problematic?
We’ll begin with some mundane physical-level concerns, then turn to emotional and social problems, and then focus on the issue that is central to me: how our smartphones are hijacking and structuring our attention.
Real-World Physical Dangers Associated with Smartphones
Frequent smartphone usage can be physically dangerous, especially when people are using their smartphones when they shouldn’t be. From walking into other people and fountains to being one of the leading causes of death and injuries from car crashes and even train wrecks, being on your phone and not in the real world (an important distinction we’ll return to later) is often dangerous and sometimes has catastrophic results, especially for children. To the degree that compulsive usage continues to increase, real-world accidents of all types will also continue to increase.
Psychological, Emotional, and Social Concerns
While smartphone addiction disorder has not quite yet made it into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the official manual of mental illness used by psychologists and psychiatrists, proposed diagnostic criteria are being proposed and discussed, including:
• Continued inability to resist the impulse to use the smartphone
• Symptoms of dysphoria, anxiety, or irritability after a period of withdrawal from use
• Using the smartphone for a period longer than intended
• Persistent desire and/or unsuccessful attempts to quit or reduce smartphone use
• Heightened attention to using or quitting smartphone use
• Persistent smartphone use despite recurrent physical or psychological consequences
As for the impact on our social lives, there is little doubt that increasing omnipresent smartphone usage has negatively impacted many types of ordinary social behavior. Consider the term “phubbing,” which the online Oxford Dictionary tells us has become the colloquial expression for “the practice of ignoring one’s companion or companions in order to pay attention to one’s phone or other mobile device.”
Let me relate a fresh experience of the strange social world being created by smartphones. Recently I was on a cross-country flight (without a smartphone!) reading a book and observing the people around me. As they sat down after boarding the flight, every single person within my sight immediately pulled out their cell phone and dove in. And they all stayed hypnotized by their little screens until takeoff.
Nobody talked to anybody else — not even people traveling together! After takeoff, every single person within my sight put on earphones or earbuds and again dove into their phone. Listening to music, playing games, watching videos … but certainly not talking to anybody.
I really missed the customary small talk with one’s seatmates that in the past so often led to interesting conversations. There was no “is this the end of the line for you?” or “is Dallas home?” that in the past would often lead to interesting and pleasant conversations with a wide variety of random but interesting folks. As an experiment, I tried out the “is this the end of the line for you?” gambit with my seatmate. We had a very short pro forma conversation. And then he dove back into his phone.
The flight lasted about an hour and 45 minutes. And the instant we landed, everybody — every single person — instantly sprang to life, turning off “airplane mode” to voraciously check their messages and who knows what else.
What in the world was likely to happen in 105 minutes that would require instant attention — for every single person within my sight? I very much doubt everybody on the plane was a cardiologist with a patient in intensive care!
By listening to those nearby, I can say with confidence that nearly everyone on the plane was urgently checking the status of their online world the instant they could, and the whole time we were taxiing to the gate, the conversational level throughout the plane was essentially zero.
This is not normal human behavior. Humans are a famously social species. And we socialize first and foremost by talking with those around us.
How Smartphones Hijack and Structure Our Attention
For me, the ultimate downside of smartphones is that they are constantly hijacking and structuring our attention, as the following schematic flowchart illustrates.
Starting at the top of the chart, I have long said that attention is the cursor of consciousness. This means that whoever or whatever controls my attention controls my consciousness, and whoever or whatever controls my consciousness ultimately determines who I actually am.
For example, if your attention is always negatively focused, then your consciousness becomes negatively focused, which means you actually are — or are becoming — a negative person. But if you are always looking for ways to get people to cooperate and make maximum effective use of available resources, then you are — or are becoming — a positive and effective person.
Well, if my attention determines who I am, then as a cognitively sovereign citizen, I want to be the one who is controlling it. But attention is a mercurial thing, with some built-in attributes that make it manipulatable. First, cognitive science shows that we can only really focus on one thing at a time — multitasking doesn’t really exist. When we think we are “multitasking,” we are actually rapidly switching our attention from one object of focus to another.
Second, cognitive science says that our brains decide, about every one-quarter of a second, whether to continue staying focused on whatever we are currently focused on or to switch our focus of attention to another object.
Our nonconscious minds are constantly evaluating our “conscious contents,” including what we can see, hear, smell, and feel. It also evaluates the contents of our short-term memories, our internal self-talk, and deeper nonconscious “suggestions” as to what should next get our attention.
There is, in effect, a contest being run in our minds about every quarter of a second as to which one object in our conscious contents will next get our attention. Mechanisms deep in our nonconscious minds “pick” this next object of our attention.
And what drives the selection? We have ancient nonconscious processes that select for extreme things — like a ball headed toward our face or the sound of a firecracker unexpectedly set off outside our window. But most of the time, where the choice is less obvious, our memories — especially how they have been tagged with associations of reward or punishment — are determinative of the selection.
Enter the modern smartphone, a device that, along with its apps, is purposely designed to be hyper-rewarding. Then, as we will discuss below, a set of reinforcing behavioral factors builds on this hyper-rewarding experience to induce us to pick up our smartphones again and again.
Hyper-palatable foods provide a useful analogy to the hyper-rewarding nature of the smartphone experience. These are foods that “hit the ‘sweet spot’ in your mouth and immediately tell your brain to have more.” Such foods, chock-full of sugar and fat, and made super-easy to chew and swallow, “are deliberately engineered in such a way that they surpass the reward properties of traditional foods, such as vegetables, fruits, and nuts.” Think Cheetos, Snickers, KFC, Taco Bell, or your own favorite manufactured snack or prepared food item. These foods have been designed to program you to want them again and again.
The hyper-rewarding nature of smartphones is conceptually similar, though different in the details. Rather than being designed like Cheetos to provide a very strong reward with each swallow, smartphones and their apps are designed to provide a large number of generally small rewards every time we use them.
The “rewards” I’m talking about are the chemical signals in our brains that indicate whether an experience is positive or pleasurable. The rewards system is complex, but an important part of it is driven by neuromodulators such as dopamine, serotonin, and endocannabinoids. Of these, dopamine is the most heavily researched part of the reward mechanism system.
Our pre-technology-evolved brains gave out these rewards for activities like engaging in social interaction or finding something useful that we were looking for (like food). Obviously, this makes a lot of sense for a social hunter-gatherer species.
In our techno-era, when we “find” something interesting using Google or get a “like” from Facebook or receive an email from a co-worker, these ancient reward systems kick in and send a positive signal. And while these signals are often weak, they are strong enough for our nonconscious minds to tag the memory of the experience with a positive valence.
Repeat many times, and our nonconscious minds have now associated picking up our smartphones with the expectation of being rewarded. So now, whenever we see, hear, feel, or think about our smartphone — and it thereby comes into our conscious minds — it gets “scored” by our nonconscious minds to be a likely source of reward, and so it is much more likely to be selected for our attention.
The makers of smartphones and apps are well aware of this phenomenon. They have every incentive to use psychologically informed techniques to drive a “reward.” Our smartphones force themselves into our conscious minds via beeps, buzzes, and social media’s notorious “notifications” — all so they can hijack our attention.
These reward stimuli affect our minds whenever we look at our phones. As a result, we’re being programmed to expect and desire a very unnatural state of immediacy. Compare this with how the brains of our species — which evolved in the material world — until very recently made use of our neuro-modulator-based psychological reward system. That system was called on far, far less frequently — certainly, not constantly.
Today, things are different. We reach for our phones the instant the plane lands — or when we have 15 seconds of downtime in the grocery checkout line — not because our lives are so insanely fast that something actually needs our ATTENTION RIGHT NOW, but because we have been nonconsciously programmed to experience a neuromodulator reward whenever we take out our phone and get an inbound update, text message, email, or like. The same thing happens when we gain a false sense of “having found something useful” by scanning the news for what’s happening right this very minute with the dramatic political absurdities gripping our country.
In short, the instincts of our social hunter-gatherer brains — to seek social interaction and be constantly scanning the environment for food and sources of danger — have been co-opted to instead hook us on yet another like or incoming text message about something that is usually trivial, or is otherwise consciously designed (with the help of cutting-edge cognitive science) to manipulate us.
I’m not making any of this up! A great deal has been written about how the neuromodulator system releases dopamine in our brains when we interact with our phones. “Dopamine, Smartphones & You: A battle for your time,” by Trevor Haynes, from Harvard Medical School, is a good introduction. And Chamath Palihapitiya, who was vice president for user growth at Facebook before he left the company in 2011, said, “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth.” And in “Has dopamine got us hooked on tech” Sean Parker, founding president of Facebook, says, “The thought process was: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’”
Research shows that smartphones make people stupider when they are visible and in reach — even if they are turned off! A University of Texas study found that “the mere presence of one’s smartphone reduces available cognitive capacity and impairs cognitive functioning, even though people feel they’re giving their full attention and focus to the task at hand.” The little devils are always calling out to us for another dose of neuro-reward, even when we’re not aware of it.
And if you happen to doubt that the mobile technology industry is using psychologically informed techniques to manipulate its customers, just do what I did and search for “jobs psychology Facebook.” As I’m writing these words, Facebook has over 500 job openings listed on LinkedIn that use the word “psychology” in the job description. Consider that!
Reinforcing Behavioral Factors
On the one hand, then, we have the hyper-rewarding nature of the smartphone user’s experience. But then, as if this wasn’t enough, smartphone overuse is further fostered through three distinct reinforcing dynamics.
First is the real-time tracking of how we use our phones and the ever-more seductive feedback that arises from this. Let’s go back to the hyper-palatable food analogy for a moment. There is a crucial difference between hyper-rewarding food items and hyper-rewarding smartphones. The designers of hyper-palatable food items receive slow, intermittent feedback from store sales on how they are doing, and they receive that only in the aggregate.
In contrast, smartphone and app designers receive real-time highly personalized data that allow them to rapidly tune the interface and the apps themselves to further hijack our attention. These designers are literally being paid to monetize our attention by constantly tweaking, evolving, and personalizing the ads, apps, and content we receive. And as rising usage data clearly shows, they have gotten very, very good at it.
The second factor involves co-evolving social and workplace needs, norms, and expectations. If everyone you see has a smartphone on them all the time and feels free to check it whenever there is a five-second gap in their daily activity, you’re more likely to model the same behavior.
The final reinforcing factor are the mental habits or grooves in our brains that can be thought of as procedural memories — things we have done thousands of times that we now do automatically — like putting on a seat belt when we get into our cars or washing our hands after using the bathroom. These are things we literally do without thinking about them, including things we “know” we don’t want to do. On top of everything else, then, we have simply built up the procedural memory or mental habit of always reaching for our smartphones (especially if they are on our person).
Let’s put it all together. Our smartphones and their apps are designed to provide us with a hyper-rewarding experience. With repetition of the cycle of looking at our phone and getting a mental reward, we are nonconsciously conditioned to want to re-experience that hyper-rewarding experience every time we are pinged by — or even look at or think about — our smartphones.
In short, we have lost our cognitive sovereignty. We aren’t much more than trained lab rats when it comes to compulsively looking at our phones 80 to 300 times a day!
Shades of Bilbo: My Smartphone Was Still in My Pocket!
Here’s a personal example of how strongly the procedural memories — the mental grooves — are cut into our brains by the combination of our smartphone’s hyper-rewarding nature and reinforcing behavioral factors. After I’d come to the conclusions espoused in this essay, and had mostly migrated to my flip phone, I was working in my office and had my iPhone out to manually transfer some contact information over to my new flip phone. The next morning, I realized that somehow my smartphone — my precious iPhone — had ended up in my pocket.
Soon after, as I was transferring things from a pocket in one pair of pants to another, I found myself picking up my iPhone and saying, “Well, instead of going to the living room to check my newly deployed Amazon Fire, I’ll just look at my calendar on my phone to see what’s on the schedule for today.”
Ten seconds later I was checking my email, and next I was hitting the Reuters newswire. My very supportive wife then called out, “Hey, Jim, what are you doing?” At that point the “spell” was broken, and I carried my iPhone back upstairs to my office, where it belongs, plugged it in, and put it on the shelf. I’m guessing, though, that without her intervention, I would have wasted 20 minutes flipping through various sites chock-full of trivialities appealing to my nonconscious desires and my conditioned need for artificial immediacy.
Perhaps you remember Gandalf the Grey saying to Bilbo Baggins, near the beginning of The Lord of the Rings, “Bilbo, the ring is still in your pocket.” Bilbo was supposed to have left his precious behind, but somehow, like my smartphone, it was just too hard to resist and it found a way into the nearest pocket.
Inner vs. Outer, Near vs. Far
One final distinction worth considering is exactly where our attention is being hijacked to. The bottom line of the schematic flowchart states, “Being regularly pulled from inner to outer, and from near to far.”
What this means is that when our smartphones hijack our focus, the first thing that happens is that our attention — and therefore the contents of our consciousness (which makes us who we are) — has moved away from our own inner thoughts to a set of outer stimuli.
Captured by our phones, our attention is focused on images, sounds, text, memes, and action prompts that are generated from far away.
Of course, there are times when we need to or really want to interact with faraway signals, but the choice should be ours, not the result of intentional programming of our nonconscious brains by smartphone and app makers. And I’m pretty sure that almost none of us need or really want to be interacting with the far away 80 to 300 times a day.
And certainly, getting our attention pulled far away every few minutes eliminates the opportunity for doing the kind of long-form thinking that started me on this quest.
Admittedly, we don’t want to be inwardly focused all the time. But still, doesn’t it usually make sense to be mainly focused on what’s happening nearby in the actual, physical world we inhabit — e.g., enjoying conversations with friends and family, experiencing a good meal, or productively cooperating with our co-workers?
For an extreme example of people being pulled far away, you can read this article about the “sex recession” in The Atlantic magazine, which calls out overuse of smartphones as one of the causes for people — especially younger ones — having less sex. If smartphones can overcome our sex drives, you know they have a strong effect.
What I Decided to Do, and How I Began to Go About Doing It
After gaining the insights and perspective described above, I realized that my constant, reflexive smartphone usage was bad for me. With my newfound awareness that I had lost my cognitive sovereignty, I became committed to taking strong action to reclaim it.
Could I give up my smartphone? Everything I learned indicated that these powerful devices had turned into seriously sticky traps for our attention.
So, I started to think about whether I could give it up, and if so, how.
I certainly needed to be able to make and receive phone calls and texts while outside the house or office. I concluded that I also needed email, because it was generally the mechanism my friends and I used if one of us were going to be late for a rendezvous. A basic flip phone ought to be able to do all that, but without the temptations of all those apps and full-on access to the web.
So the starting point was: ditch the iPhone for a flip phone.
What else did I truly value that I was getting from my smartphone?
Again, I’m not anti-tech, and for me there were many positive things that my smartphone made possible. By enumerating them, I’d be able to figure out if there were other ways of doing the things I needed and wanted to be able to do. I set myself a reasonable challenge: if I couldn’t find a way to do most of the things I wanted, I would not pull the trigger and actually mothball my smartphone in favor of a new flip phone.
My Initial Specific Steps, Workarounds, and Reconfigurations
I started by considering how I would play my music in my car without a smartphone. I regularly listen to a number of curated playlists that I created and downloaded to my iPhone. I could go back to using an iPod, but that would be yet another damn device to manage, which was not what I wanted. Looking at the dashboard of my Jeep, I then asked myself, “What would happen if I stuck a thumb drive with a bunch of MP3s into the USB port of my car?”
It turns out that most newer cars have software that will directly read a thumb drive and look for playlist files. I experimented with a small playlist. To my delight, it worked just fine. With Windows Media Player on my computer, I could easily create playlist files and copy the audio files and playlist files to a thumb drive. I was able to get my music to my car without a smartphone. And in some ways, the media services interface in my car is set up better for playing music from a playlist on the go than my iPhone was. It required a little upfront work, but in this case, I gained more useful functionality than I previously had.
The next functionally important activity I wanted to make sure I could replicate was very important to me: being able to sit in my easy chair (or anywhere else) and browse the Internet looking for random information, news, or anything else that intrigued me. Maybe I didn’t need to know the history of the Popsicle stick, but still, I wanted to be able to look it up when I wanted to look it up. I’m an avid Internet researcher, especially while reading serious science or other nonfiction books, something I do a lot. In the past, my smartphone would always just be right there on the arm of my reading chair, so I needed to find a replacement.
At that point, I came up with the idea that an Android tablet would do the job. I could do Internet research when I wanted to, but without the temptation that comes from constantly carrying the thing around with me.
After quite a bit of research, I decided to try out the Amazon Fire HD10. It was advertised as having an elegant and simple docking station: when you were done with it, you simply put it back on the docking station, and without the need to fiddle with charging cables, it would be automatically fully charged the next time you wanted to use it.
I got one, and it was great — the high-resolution screen is fabulous, and much better than older versions of the Fire. And the docking station was better than I had expected. A clever use of magnetic centering allows you to drop the tablet back into its reasonably elegant base, at which point a magnet tugs the tablet so that the contact points on the tablet’s case are automatically and seamlessly aligned with the charging element.
Unfortunately, the software setup wasn’t quite so wonderful. Amazon has created a heavily modified version of Android that seems clearly designed to limit one’s choices. Most annoyingly, instead of the standard Google Play Store, Amazon has created its own version, called App Store.
And a rather pathetic store it is, since it doesn’t even offer the basics, like Gmail, Google Calendar, or Microsoft Word or Excel. I did many comparisons between the Amazon App Store and the Google Play Store, and it was embarrassing. Even popular games weren’t available from Amazon. Fortunately, it’s not hard to install Google Play on the Fire. Amazon won’t tell you how, but here’s a link describing how to do it. Once I’d done that and installed my favorite apps, I found that the Fire was more than good enough for the task. And there’s a great plus: the Fire is inexpensive. The nice-sized 10-inch HD10 is just $189. (The low-end 10-inch iPad costs at least $389.)
My hope is that Jeff Bezos takes a good, hard look at what is being done with the Fire. And that he then either tells the product team to make the large commitment necessary to get the Amazon App Store up to the level of Google Play, or better yet, cuts a deal with Google to get Google Play on the Fire. The Amazon brand shouldn’t stand for a dysfunctional, second-rate experience!
Another of my personal needs is reading books electronically. I’m a big fan of paper books, but in some cases — usually for consuming fiction — it’s just easier (and cheaper!) to read electronically.
I’ve been a Kindle user since the Kindle came out, and I’ve sometimes used the Kindle reader on my iPhone. Fortunately, there was an easy fix for my electronic reading needs: just remember to take my dedicated Kindle with me when I’m likely to have some downtime on the go, such as at a doctor’s office visit.
Compared to a smartphone or a tablet, the Kindle has some real advantages: it’s super rugged — I’ve dropped mine at least a hundred times without any harm done; it has a long battery life, and it affords a better form factor for reading. Moreover, my Kindle doesn’t tempt me to stop reading whatever I’m focused on to check my email or surf the web. A dedicated Kindle was perfectly aligned with my goal of reclaiming sovereign control over my attention.
As to interacting online in social media or other online venues, the obvious answer for me was to get away from a false sense of needing to be constantly monitoring them. Instead, I returned to my historical pattern of “doing my online correspondence” once or twice a day using my desktop computer. Another functionality win: I no longer needed to type “interesting stuff” on my iPhone’s tiny keyboard while fighting its evil spell-checker/word-changer.
Living with My Flip Phone: Getting Used to It, Workarounds, and Trade-Offs
The flip phone I acquired is the Kyocera Cadence LTE. It’s reasonably compact and will go 14 days on a charge with no usage. More realistically, you get three or four days from a full charge — certainly a big improvement from smartphones that sometimes don’t even make it through a single day. And it uses the same charger as the Fire and Kindle, so it further simplifies my “power management” duties — now there’s just one charger in my life!
The Cadence also has a modest exterior “character crawl” screen that shows the calling number without having to open the phone and lets you “send it to voice mail” with the click of a button. It also shows the time, which is handy if you prefer to go without a watch.
It supports Wi-Fi and “Wi-Fi calling” when out of a cell phone coverage area. This is very handy for me since I spend a lot of time out of cell phone range. It even has a browser built in. It’s very cumbersome and tedious, but could be handy in a pinch, without being addictive.
The downside, of course, is that since it’s not a full-powered smartphone, there are some capabilities I’ve had to find new solutions for or, in a few cases, simply forgo.
As for the camera, it’s serviceable for taking basic functional pictures but not the kind of beautiful photos people like posting on social media.
Fortunately, most of us still have a dedicated camera we can take with us on those occasions when we know ahead of time we’ll want to take meaningful pictures.
Also, not having a great camera always available may actually be a plus. Many of us may be better off taking fewer pictures in the first place. Some recent research shows that people are enjoying their lives less and remembering less of what they experience when they compulsively take photographs and videos of nearly everything they see or experience.
As I mentioned above, email on the go was a “must have” for me. The Cadence LTE has support for email via IMAP, but it turns out not to work out of the box with my go-to email service provider, Gmail. Even worse, the Verizon techs — even the top-tier ones I ultimately spoke to — didn’t know the answer. But I eventually figured it out, and it’s actually very easy. Here’s a link to what to do to get Gmail running in three minutes.
You do, though, have to do your “typing” using old-school multi-tap entry, so it’s better for reading than for sending anything beyond a brief reply, which is all that I need.
One of my favorite smartphone features is Google Maps, but it isn’t practical on my flip phone’s tiny browser. Initially I went back to my pre-smartphone technique and printed out my Google Maps for where I was going. Then I got curious about the navigation system in my Jeep. Being an early adopter of Google Maps on a smartphone, I’d never fooled around with the onboard navigation system in my cars.
As it turned out, my 2017 Jeep’s navigation system is great! Overall, it’s better than Google Maps on an iPhone because the screen is big and right where you want it to be, and it even prompts you near the speedometer when a turn is coming up. This is another case where I’m now actually better off than before the switch. If your car doesn’t have built-in navigation, and you are dependent on real-time directions, there are excellent and inexpensive dedicated car navigation systems like this one from Garmin.
Speaking of improvements, an important improvement is that my flip phone is a better telephone! The angle off the opened phone perfectly places the speaker right next to my ear and the microphone right next to my mouth. (What a concept!) So it’s much clearer for voice phone calls, and with the long battery life, much less likely to run out of juice even on an hours-long boring board meeting call. The speakerphone mode is better, too; and, again, it’s more parsimonious when it comes to battery power usage.
One of my favorite smartphone conveniences is the flashlight. Having a light always with me is just so handy. But alas, my Cadence flip phone doesn’t have one. Fortunately there is a very easy fix here: a two-dollar key-ring LED light, such as this one.
As for not being able to Yelp restaurants and other stores or services in real time, for me this was only a minor issue. I asked myself what I used to do before I had a smartphone, and the answer was I would look up a place online and make up my mind ahead of time. Now, when we are in a new location while traveling, we just walk around or drive around and pick out a place that seems good — like we used to in days of yore. Enjoying some serendipity and exploration in life is a good thing!
Smart Living sans Smartphones in a World Full of Trade-Offs
With a little bit of effort, I was able to retain most of the functionality I really wanted after giving up my smartphone for a flip phone. And as I already pointed out, there were some functionality pluses, including my flip phone serving as a much better voice telephone, and a modern built-in car navigation system being even better than my beloved Google Maps.
And not needing the latest and greatest mobile tech can save you some serious money. My flip phone cost $129 versus about $1,000 for my iPhone X. The newest generation of iPhones cost even more. The Amazon Fire HD10 costs $189 versus more than $350 for the most basic 10-inch iPad. My Apple Watch was about $900. I replaced it with the old Seiko Diver’s Watch, which cost $299 new, from my dresser drawer. And it never needs charging. For many years, I wore Timex Indiglo Watches, the fanciest of which cost under $50.
And if you get rid of your “unlimited data” plan from your cellular network provider and go with a basic data plan — all you’ll need with a flip phone — you can save a good deal of money on a monthly basis, as much as $30 a month or more.
I’d hoped to completely transition to my flip phone, but I found one app-based service that I just couldn’t duplicate or live without, which was summoning Uber or Lyft while traveling. Similarly, while traveling, there are other “don’t really need ’em but they’re really sort of nice” features, like Yelp and OpenTable.
So my final arrangement — for now — is to keep my iPhone on a shelf in my home office, with the number forwarded to my flip phone. But I do take my iPhone with me when I’m out on overnight or multiday travel.
I believe there is a nice entrepreneurial opportunity out there for someone to build a somewhat more functional flip phone with a few key apps such as Gmail, Uber, a better camera, and a flashlight, but no full-fledged browser. I’d certainly have bought one if it existed. Then I really could — and would — completely get rid of my smartphone.
It has now been about six weeks since I “flipped back.” So far, I’d describe the experience as a big personal win.
Yes, there’s some functionality — some apps, some real-time capabilities — that I occasionally miss. But, as described above, I’ve been able to find good enough substitutes for the functionality I really need, and in some areas even better solutions than what I previously had (mobile music, driving navigation, and voice telephony).
As I was hoping that it would, my switch to a flip phone freed me from my smartphone’s constant nonconscious tug for attention, to which I far too often succumbed. I am once again able to easily and regularly engage in long-form thinking and musing. My family reports that I am more “present.” I’m spending more time focused on things near at hand versus far. And I am being unquestionably more productive on my many projects.
This is a huge result. It’s the largest and most positive change in my state of being in many years. I can honestly say that I feel that I have regained a large part of my cognitive sovereignty. I am much more “the me that I want to be.”
Yes, smartphones are astounding engineering artifacts that bring amazing functionality right into our hands. But as I hope this essay has demonstrated, the smartphone and its apps have co-evolved with the human cognitive reward system — driven by corporate monetization, real-time data, and insights from cognitive science — to the point where the harm caused by the high-frequency capture of our attention may well outweigh the benefits brought by these devices. This is especially true given that there are readily available alternatives for much of the functionality that smartphones bring.
If this essay has resonated with you, I would strongly suggest that you inventory the most valuable functionality your smartphone provides and then see whether you can find reasonable substitutes. These won’t be perfect, but if they are good enough, you should ditch your smartphone and reclaim your cognitive sovereignty.
I am very glad that I did, and I strongly suspect that you will be as well.