Dumbing Down: My Quest for a Sort-of-Smart Phone

Joshua Beck
Mar 4, 2018 · 10 min read

Addiction is a scary term.

But lately, I’ve become more aware that I’m addicted… to my phone.

And frankly, it shouldn’t be that way. My phone is a utility. A means of connecting to people via calls and text, and a creative tool. But as technology grows, I’ve found myself on the looming edge of distraction. I am constantly on my phone. And it would be one thing if I were using it for good purposes. But, no, I’m using it to waste time.

If I Could Take Back Time…

I know I’m not the only one. So many people I know are addicted to their phones. Next time you are at a restaurant, just look around. Most of the people around you are on their phones. They aren’t conversing with the person they are sitting with, but staring at their screens.

Just this Friday, I sat with my fiance at dinner and stared at my phone.

And sometimes when I’m staring at the thing, it isn’t even because I wanted or needed something from it. I find it is out of my pocket and in my hand with the screen on without my knowing sometimes, and I’m just staring at the home screen waiting for my brain to decide on something to open.

And I feel like it shouldn’t be this way.

We shouldn’t be so beholden to our devices that we are transfixed by them. After all, God did say that we should have no other gods before Him, and isn’t the iPhone just a 21st century god?

And even if you aren’t a Christian, you can see the dark meaning: is your time so invaluable that you willingly devote it to your phone?

…If I Could Find A Way

Of course, there’s always self control. But any addict would tell you that “self control” and addictions don’t go well together. Even with the best intentions, I’ve still found myself looking at my phone too much. Last month, I downloaded an app called Moment, which was designed to tell you how much time you are spending on your phone, even down to which apps you are spending the most amount of time on. It’s a great app; it lets you set goals for how much (or little) you want to use your device, and it sends you constant alerts to let you know how long you’ve been on the phone. It is all designed to remind you to put the phone down.

But it requires self control. And as a phone addict, I quickly became annoyed with the constant harassment from the app, harassment designed to help me. And as quickly as I had downloaded the app (and paid to unlock all of the features), I had uninstalled it.

There’s also “cold turkey,” a phrase which here means I could give up the smart phone. Naturally, if I’m addicted to a thing, removing that thing from my life should fix the problem. So I began researching “dumb phones.”

Dumb phones- also known as feature phones- are, if you remember, the phones we had before smart phones. They are the flip phones, the candy-bar phones, or even the Blackberry phones (in some cases). They don’t have touch screens. Most don’t have qwerty keyboards (remember T9?). If they are merciful enough to have a camera, they are of such low quality that you won’t feel like using them.

Feature phones haven’t really progressed a whole lot from the phones of old, at least not visually. They are still, for the most part, ugly, unless you opt to spend $200-$400 for something like the Light Phone or the Punkt MP01.

And forget features. Despite the name “feature phone,” there’s not a lot to most of them. Even those beautiful, expensive feature phones have only the barest of features. If you are lucky, you might get a 2 megapixel camera (again, neither of those super expensive models even have a camera), basic (and I mean basic) internet access, and maybe, maybe a music player (also, forget subscriptions to Spotify or Apple Music).

But the feature(less) phone might be exactly the cure. I mean, if I’m addicted to my smart phone, the goal is to not be addicted to it. Taking away all the features that suck me in- the constant access to the internet, Facebook, Tumblr, newsfeeds upon newsfeeds, etc- should help me quit “cold turkey.” I’ve got a friend rocking a flip phone right now, having broken his smart phone. And he tells me that he’s been more productive in the last few days than he has in the last year with his smart phone.

Checking out Light Phone’s website, you’ll find a whole list of things that their phone can’t do. But what it does it allows you to become less distracted. I mean, if your phone can’t surf the web, then you won’t be wasting time on it. If your phone can’t have Facebook, then you won’t waste your time there, either. And, for fun, look a their companion site, “Introducing the Smartphone,” to see a comical list of everything smart phone users have to deal with. I mean, there’s truly many reasons beyond smart phone addiction that makes sense about going to a dumb phone (battery life and radiation chief among them).

And we haven’t even talked about the financial savings. Now, I’m not about to spend $200+ on a dumb phone, no matter how beautiful it is. Most feature phones from the big carriers run around $20-$50. Nokia specifically has made some nice throwback feature phones in the last year, in the 3310 and the upcoming 8110. And beyond the cost of the phone itself, there’s great savings in the service as well. Without needing a data plan, or paying the monthly lease cost for the latest and greatest smart phone, the plans are dirt cheap.

So a dumb phone seems like the cure for the common smart phone addiction. Except…

Sort-Of-Smart Phone

There are genuinely things that I use my smart phone for, things that a feature phone can’t replace. First and foremost, the camera. I use my iPhone camera daily. If you visit my photography page on 500px, nearly every photo you see on there was taken- and edited- on my iPhone. I use my iPhone to take down book notes- and even edit chapters in my book- on the fly. I use my iPhone to communicate, not just through text, but through Facebook Messenger (for the people I don’t have a phone number for) and to share pictures to friends and family. I use the GPS to get around. None of these things I consider distractions, they are legitimate reasons to own a smart phone.

And even without legitimate reasons, it might just be hard to go “dumb.” After years of having a smart phone at my disposal, who’s to say that I’ll ever be able to give it up? As Lewis Hilsenteger from Unbox Therapy discovered, it isn’t so easy just to walk away from a smart phone when you’ve gotten so used to using one.

There needs to be a middle ground. There needs to be a sort-of-smart phone.

That aforementioned Nokia 8110 might work as a middle ground, but we have to wait and see once it comes out in May. But when it releases, it is supposed to have the ability to run Google Maps and even Google Assistant, among a few other essentials (and non-essentials, as Facebook and Twitter will also be available). That’s a big step for a feature phone. But it is still saddled with that 2 megapixel camera. And even if it has a notes feature, typing out notes with T9 will be tedious (not to mention, I wouldn’t be able to transfer my notes to my computer like I can do with OneNote or Evernote).

But I may have found an alternative. A work-around, if you will. Just a few days ago, I read an article on Gizmodo about a man who turned his iPhone into a dumb phone. The article- now eight years old- has some good merits. What if you removed the distractions from the device?

Of course, this boils down to self control again. But choosing not to open an app when you don’t need to and deleting it from your phone entirely are two entirely different steps. Granted, downloading Facebook again is only a few clicks away with the App store, but having to spend a minute or two to download it again and then log back into the app might just curb the desire to open it in the first place. In fact, it already has.

Reader, two days ago, I turned my iPhone into a dumb phone. Or rather, a sort-of-smart phone. Taking a (literal) page from Jake Knapp, I deleted all the apps that cause me distraction on my phone. The three news aggregators, the social media apps like Facebook and Tumblr (full disclosure, I kept Facebook Messenger for the aforementioned connections), even the multiple browsers I had installed. Yes, I even disabled Safari, restricting the service from being used on my phone entirely (similarly, I can even place installing apps behind a password restriction). I can’t stop myself from getting these distractions on my phone, but I can certainly make it more difficult. And with that difficulty, I’m hoping I’ll break the habit.

So how am I coping? Well, it is still early days. And I still find myself whipping out my phone a lot. But once I realize there’s nothing to do- unless I need to do something- I just put it away again. If I need to look something up, I still have Google Assistant (and Siri, I guess) to ask. I can even get to a website through Assistant if I need to, but that extra step- having to ask Assistant for it- keeps me from just browsing newsfeeds constantly.

It’s not a perfect solution. But it is a first step. And it’s working for me, for now.

Will I ever go to a dumb phone? Who knows. In a perfect world, I’d like to imagine that there’s a healthy in-between, something halfway from dumb to smart. Something a little smarter than the Light Phone II, but still not a media hub like the iPhone. Something that has the capabilities of a smart phone- GPS, information, photography, etc- without the constant distractions that they afford us. Right now, I like having my phone intentionally dumbed down.

Of course, as a smart phone addict, this is only a temporary solution. I have no doubts that one day, I’ll find myself wanting the Facebook app back or reinstating Safari. I’ll ask those distractions back onto my phone, welcoming them as old friends.

But maybe, just maybe, when I do, I’ll have more self control. I’ll use them when I need them, and not just to waste time.


UPDATE #1:

It’s been a difficult couple of days. A few things I realized right off the bat were going to be different. And a few things I allowed to creep back in quickly took over my day-to-day.

First and foremost, I decided to restrict not only Safari, but the ability to install apps. That means if I need to use either, I have to go through the trouble to reenable the app. It’s an extra step, and hopefully one that will keep me from using them unless I need them.

But you’d be surprised how often you actually do need them. For Safari, restricting it means links that are sent to me via text no longer work. I discovered this when my dad sent me a link to a website for a minimalist clock, and the link would not open. Wouldn’t even respond to my touch. At first I thought my phone was acting up (I am running iOS 11.3 beta, after all). But then I decided to unrestricted Safari for a moment and then BAM! The link worked. So if anyone sends me a link (so long as it doesn’t open in an app I have installed, like YouTube), I’ll have to reenable Safari to view it. Which isn’t all bad, again just an extra step designed to keep me from endlessly browsing. But doable if I get sent something I need to open.

Restricting Safari also has the drawback of restricting Spotlight search, which I hadn’t realized I’ve gotten quite used to using. Spotlight will still search every nook and cranny of your phone, but when it comes to tapping “search the web” you are immediately at a loss. There is no web to search. Same could probably be said for Siri’s ever-useful (read: useless) non-spoken links (“I found this for you.”), but I haven’t given that a go (I prefer Google Assistant). And having deleted all of my other browsers/news aggregators, I am definitely feeling withdrawals (more on that in a bit), having nearly missed things like the passing of one of my favorite actors, David Ogden Stiers, or several articles Google found for me that are actually related to this very experiment.

Restricting the App Store, however, proved not to work for me at all. I almost instantly restored it, once I realized it not only restricted me from installing apps I didn’t need, but also from updating the apps I already have. So self control will play a big role there. No redownloading Facebook!

So far, however, everything has been manageable. But I broke down and reinstalled Google Search, which was one of my news aggregators. I primarily installed it for the new iMessage app, as those features are quite handy (though if I am using GBoard, it is kinda redundant, if not repetitive). But I quickly fell back into my old habits, endlessly scrolling through news articles that weren’t important to my day-to-day, and ignoring the actual work I needed to do on my manuscript or the books I wanted to read. So that is going back into the trash.

I realized today exactly how addicted I have been to these things. To the point I don’t know what to do without them. I still pull out the phone and stare blankly at the screen, waiting to decide why I wanted it out (to help curb this, I did turn off “raise to wake.” I mean, if I’m going to wear an Apple Watch, I don’t really need my screen turning on all the time anyway, right?). It is a strong hold, and like an addict I look for any little hit. At first it felt harmless to reinstall Google Search, because I knew even if I did look through the newsfeed, it is a finite supply (only two pages of news before you reach the end of the line). But I still find myself scrolling through it, reading and rereading titles I’ve already read several times over. Today I scrolled through that feed on both breaks at work and several times over the course of the evening, and the feed only refreshed with new articles once (and even then only a third was new).

It’s gonna take a lot of effort and compromise, I realize. And part of me really wants to just buy a flip phone and be done with it. But I’m determined to get used to it, to break my habit without actually having to give up the useful parts of my device.

More to come in update #2.

Joshua Beck

Written by

I am just clever enough to get myself in trouble…

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