One Year Without A Smartphone

“Sometimes nothing is a pretty cool hand.” — Cool Hand Luke

It didn’t start as a crusade to combat the imposition of technology on my life. It started with a nagging sense of dissatisfaction and a simple question.

What impact is my digital life having on my real life?

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed an increasingly disconcerting pattern. The greater the smartphone use, the greater the general discontentment. The infringement of digital life on real life is not only minimizing our collective presence, it is removing empty space by framing and cropping our perspective.

“In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame. On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.” -Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values

Framing life through an iPhone screen is equally repressive and mundane. The screen, pervasively, promotes experiencing life and information from the comfort of the compartment — which is both homogenizing and absurd.

I’ve always found technology and social media somewhat cumbersome. It’s not that I subscribe to a nostalgic view of analog simplicity. It’s just that I find the framework’s fundamental agenda and planned obsolescence daunting and laborious.

I was late to Myspace, Facebook and Instagram. I still can’t make heads or tails of Twitter. My first iPhone was a 4s and my last was a 6. It isn’t that social media, or smartphones are only negative, it is just a question of the tradeoff. What is the price for all of these convenient benefits?

The framework of these systems impose, with increasing pressure, an unwanted value system and perspective on daily life. The greater the imposition, the lower the benefit.

“The big three killed my baby.” — Jack White

Quitting the big three, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter instantly cut down on my iPhone use. But, YouTube, Medium and LinkedIn are also social media, and great consumers of attention, so after deep diving into a few persuasive Ted Talks and a couple articles, I heeded a friend’s advice and sold my iPhone 6 on November 4th, 2016.

The decision and process was documented in a two-part article.

It’s been a one-year bedlam of flip phone jokes, hillbilly comments, having to ask for directions and one off conversations with strangers laughing as they notice my phone. Beyond the hysteria, it has been a successful year of redefining connectivity, creating empty space and considering time itself.

“The thing about social media is that it sort of weaponizes blandness. It gives people a platform for the most mundane, uninteresting aspects of their lives because they have to constantly be producing some sort of output.“ — Sebastian Junger

When I moved to New York City I didn’t own a smartphone. Then the iPhone came out and I didn’t buy one. People started getting on Facebook and then Instagram and Twitter but I didn’t join them. Eventually though, I did.

I bought an iPhone 4s and got connected. It was great, I didn’t have to carry a book on the subway, or wait until I was home to check my email. I could capture a picture on the fly and send long, thoughtful text messages with ease. I can’t say when exactly, but at some point it stopped saving time, and started devouring it. But that is how it’s designed to work.

It was all the micro-moments. The five minutes here and there, the time when I would usually read a page from a book, write a few notes for a story or just sit quietly and think. The in-between time disappeared without so much as a whimper.

Before long checking a platform, or catching up on email, or coming up with something to post became an activity. It wasn’t something to do just in between moments, it became the moment. It isn’t just a way to document our favorite moments and activities, it is the activity.

Without a smartphone, the pressure to post and the expectation to check was gone. Not only was it no longer a problem, after a couple days it wasn’t even a concern. I signed out of email at 5:30pm when I left work, and except for the rare work related exception, I didn’t log back in until the next morning.

When you give up having a smartphone and social media you notice a few things.

Getting access requires granting access. It is a trade off. To have access to every piece of information on the internet, you are giving the internet access to your life. While that trade off may be worth it to many, going without a smartphone immediately shines a light on what an imposition access really is.

Being on every platform and available all the time allows contact through every platform and at every hour. It is the path of least resistance. Rather than making yourself always available, you can limit your access to these digital pathways, which will limit access to you.

24 hours is a lot of time. All those notifications, refresh swipes and habitual phone checks add up. Reportedly, the average iPhone user spends 2 hours and 15 minutes a day using apps on their phone. That adds up to about 1 month every year.

If you’ve owned a smartphone for 5 years, like most people have, you’ve spent almost 1/2 of a year using your device. If you worked out 2 hours a day for 5 years you’d be cut like a Greek god.

If you read 2 hours a day you’d burn through approximately 200 books a year. And if you spent 2 hours a day doing anything you are passionate about, you’d hit Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000hr Tipping Point in just over 13 years. At the current rate, we will all be smartphone masters in just over 13 years.

“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” -Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

Our content feed is digital food. It is a constant drip of content, perspective, opinion and evaluation into out life. I don’t think that you are what you read, or listen to, or watch, but I do think there are better ways to spend our limited time.

Listicles, tweets, click bait columns and prank videos probably aren’t going to destroy our souls, but it is time that could be spent on something of genuine interest and real value. It takes the same amount of time to read a sentence of Walden as it does a sentence on Facebook.

We have instant access to the greatest literature, music, art and film ever created. I can listen to Dylan Thomas recite, And Death Shall Have No Dominion, or read every back issue of The FlyFish Journal, how did I end up reading Facebook rants and Twitter feuds?

There is power in intentionality. Wealth and Value are Time and Attention. Disconnecting your smartphone and social media immediately connects you to the value of your time. Rather than scrolling for something to focus on, you are forced to open your laptop, Google search and approach content with intentionality, and that is an important difference.

If necessity is the mother of invention, boredom is the father of creativity.

As a writer, working in a variety of competitive fields, there is an indisputable correlation between my downtime and my creativity. Mining for inspiration online rarely results in fresh creative ideas.

Consumption and creation are opposite activities, and most people aren’t effective multitaskers, especially when being pulled in opposite directions. In the end, we have a choice, we can mindlessly spend our time consuming what we are given, or invest our time creating what we want.

Smartphones and social media isn’t the adversary of accomplishment, its just an unbelievably easy way to burn our greatest resources, time and attention.

Life without a smartphone certainly requires sacrifice. Sometimes you miss an event, find out about a concert after the fact, miss out on a funny group text, have to ask for directions or have to call instead of message a friend.

But it also has a lot of benefits — deeper focus, time management, general attentiveness and increased creativity. It forces you to pay attention during all those in-between moments and interact more in person. And that has real results.

Using a flip phone may not be for everyone, but disconnecting improved my connection to the real world. Is the trade off worth it for you?

Give it a shot, whether its for a day, a week or a year, all that urgent content will still be there waiting if/when you log back in.

So will I get a smartphone again?

Sure, only with a better appreciation for the tradeoff of every digital interaction. This time, if my digital life to real life balance gets off and I see my empty space eroding — somebody will be getting one hell of a deal on an iPhone X.