The Life-Changing Magic of Downgrading Your Phone

A Personal Story

This week, I downgraded my phone. I bought a second-hand iPhone — now four models behind the current iteration — and put my new smart phone on the market. While it took a few days to adjust to the smaller screen, I was wonderfully surprised at how snappy the performance was and how long the battery was able to hold. Despite that this phone came out three years ago, which doesn’t seem so long ago but is equivalent to a decade in the smart phone industry, it has easily shown to meet my needs.

This begs the question: why aren’t more people downgrading their tech? Does every phone user need all the features that are now on offer? Or are we inventing problems to the unsolicited solutions that we neither asked for nor wanted?

Return to First Principles

If you, like me, found the excuses that used to create an over-reliance to your smart phone, I suggest a return to first principles. Ask yourself two questions: (1) what do you need your phone for and (2) what do you use your phone for?

The disconnect will most likely surprise you.

The laundry list of activities that I used my phone for was unnecessary, the worst being trading exchange-traded funds (ETFs) through the Questrade app. It was as if logging into the Questrade website on my laptop was too inconvenient.

Today’s Cult of Convenience

Last year, Tim Wu wrote an incredibly cogent article for the New York Times about the evolution of convenience. Wu argues that convenience was seen as liberation, in which we would have more free time for leisure. However, convenience isn’t always necessary and, alternatively, inconvenience is not always bad.

As task after task becomes easier, the growing expectation of convenience exerts a pressure on everything else to be easy or get left behind. We are spoiled by immediacy and become annoyed by tasks that remain at the old level of effort and time. When you can skip the line and buy concert tickets on your phone, waiting in line to vote in an election is irritating. This is especially true for those who have never had to wait in lines (which may help explain the low rate at which young people vote).

One area that I find most troubling is the financial technology sector (“FinTech”). Betterment and Wealthsimple, robo-advisors in the U.S. and Canada, make trading ETFs as simple as possible. You can set up an RRSP account (or a 401k account for Americans) with them entirely online and it takes mere minutes. As you soon as you sign up, you are required to complete a questionnaire under the guise that the software is customizing a portfolio for you based on the degree of risk you are able to stomach. However, in reality, the software is simply selecting one of the prefixed portfolios based on your answers. Within ten minutes, it spits out a portfolio for you, and you can begin to deposit money into your account, in which the software will buy/sell the ETFs within your portfolio on your behalf.

While this is undoubtedly convenient for those who don’t feel secure about self-directed investing, it eliminates the ability to choose what companies you fund, some of which might be against your moral or ethical preferences. It also discourages investors from learning about the basics of investing, which is concerning given how dependent we often are on these funds to support us in the future.

These companies have no real incentive to empower their consumers to make their own investing decisions. If so, they would stop using their services and invest on their own through a brokerage at a significantly lower cost. These companies don’t want you to know that self-directed investing can be as pain-free as using a robo-advisor while also giving you complete ownership of where you invest your money. If you want to exclusively invest in a bundle of clean energy companies, there’s an ETF for that. If you want to exclusively invest in a bundle of companies who have been prized for fair labour practices, there’s an ETF for that. You don’t necessarily have these options when you use a middle-man who dictates what funds are for you. (I wrote about how Wealthsimple’s Social Responsibility Investing (SRI) portfolio was investing in not very socially responsible companies. You can read it here).

What do we lose when we give up some of our autonomy to tech companies that are confined, by law, to only advance the best interests of their shareholders (and are subject to expensive penalties when they do not)?

A Perennial Balancing Act

To conclude, I do not think convenience is bad. I don’t encourage us to return to the flip phone. But it is foolish to blindly accept that convenience is good or necessary in all aspects of our lives. Friction is important because it begets patience, discipline and critical analysis. Instead of relying on a solution that a team of designers and engineers in Silicon Valley produced, engage in the hard work of creating your own models of convenience based on how you think, learn and habitualize your tasks.

In the words of Dr. Daniel Susskind, “Technology is a two-faced beast. At the one hand, it displaces certain tasks and activities that people might have done in the past. By the other hand, it compliments people in doing lots of other things. It makes other tasks and activities more valuable and more important. And so the consequence of technology… depends upon the interaction of those two things.”