I know what many people will say when they read the title of this post: “What do you mean, ‘going?’”
However, in this case, I’m specifically referring to my recent decision to downgrade to a “dumbphone.” After more than 10 years with an iPhone, plus a few years before that with a Palm Phone (remember those?), I’ve returned to a device that only calls and texts (it doesn’t even take photos!). My phone is now basically just a phone.
As you can imagine, this is a major decision, but I think it’s one I had to make. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the impact of modern technology in our lives. I wrote over at Crisis Magazine about the potential impact modern technology is having on Catholicism, but I’ve also been looking at its impact on me personally. After decades of submissively embracing the latest technologies, I’ve taken a step back and re-evaluated how much I really need them.
All-Consuming and Addictive
It’s not that smartphones have no value. Of course they do—they are hugely popular for a reason. But during the decades I’ve had a smartphone, I’ve been ignoring its costs—costs in wasted time and distraction (and also the cost of lost privacy, which I’m not going to detail here, as I’ve written before about the need for online privacy). I’ve come to realize that I can still obtain many of the benefits that typically comes from a smartphone without actually owing a smartphone, thus eliminating its costs.
Smartphones gain their value from their apps. Those apps, however, are designed to keep us using them as much as possible. And since smartphones are with us 24/7, “as much as possible” can become all-consuming. And it’s important to realize that smartphone apps are purposefully designed so we spend as much time as possible using them.
For example, the ubiquitous “pull down to refresh” feature is designed after slot machines to give a dopamine hit to the brain, and the notification badge is red because that stimulates the brain to react more quickly. Our addiction to these devices is not a bug, but a built-in feature.
When I did a serious self-examination of my own use of my smartphone, I found that I am often sucked into the vortex of mindless use of the device. Do I really need to see what my Twitter feed is telling me every ten minutes? Do I need to keep constantly updated to all the Discord, Slack, and other group apps I’m part of? Do I need to check my email when I’m out in the garden?
More than once, I’m ashamed to admit, I have been with family or friends and excused myself to go to the bathroom in order to check my smartphone. That’s the behavior of an addict!
Designed to Distract
But beyond the wasted time, the smartphone is a distraction. After all, that time I spent on my smartphone could have been spent doing something else. The smartphone became a distraction from the things I value most, such as my family and time spending reading and studying.
I also believe that the constant distractions of the smartphone keep my mind from going deep. My smartphone-based distractions stay with me even when I’m not on my smartphone—I end up thinking about what I was doing on my phone even when I’m not using my phone. My brain has lost its ability to really focus.
When I was in a Master’s program in the early 1990’s, I would spend 10-12 hours a day reading deep theological texts. I look back on that time and two things come to mind: (1) that was a time of deep and enjoyable learning; and (2) there is absolutely no way I could do that today—my brain simply wouldn’t handle it!
Of course, the distractions I’m talking about aren’t limited to smartphones; the whole internet ethos is built for distraction. Yet smartphones take those distractions to a new, personal level, one we carry with us everywhere.
All the Benefits, Few of the Costs
Of course, it’s not like the dangers of smartphone usage are a new revelation to me. Over the years I’ve been uncomfortable with my smartphone usage for many of the reasons I’ve mentioned, and I’ve done all the tricks to try to reduce it: grayscaling the screen, removing apps, turning on Do Not Disturb mode during certain time frames. While each of these tricks would help temporarily, I always fell back to my bad habits.
So now I’ve made the biggest adjustment: remove the smartphone from the equation. I decided to buy the Light Phone II, an admittedly expensive dumbphone. But in addition to having limited functionality, it is purposefully designed not to be used. It has an e-ink screen, which is less stimulating to the brain, and it has soothing, short notification sounds, so you don’t get jacked up every time you receive a message.
But does this mean I’m off social media and all the various messaging services? Does it mean I’ve become a luddite hermit?
No, I haven’t left any platform or service (yet). Instead, I’ve shifted how I interact with them: now I use them only on my desktop computer.
Using Twitter via a browser on a Mac is a radically different experience from using the app on my iPhone. First, I’m tethered to my desk, so I can’t keep up with the latest tweets unless I’m in my home office. This means my brain isn’t thinking about what’s going on at Twitter once I leave my office, either (although it admittedly took about a week or so for my brain to detox from those bad habits).
Second, the overall screen experience is less frenetic. I’ve installed a browser extension that removes Twitter’s “What’s Happening” recommendations as well as ads. So now I get on Twitter, see what’s going on, maybe send a tweet or two, then move on to other activities. It’s not a constant and demanding companion, but instead just a tool I control.
And it’s not only Twitter: all my messaging apps are on my desktop, so people can communicate with me, but I am not in a constant state of being “on notice” that I might have to respond to someone at any hour of the day. I’ll get to it when I get back to my computer.
Dealing with the Downsides
I admit there are downsides to getting rid of my smartphone.
First, there is a chance I’ll miss out on some breaking news or message. Honestly, I don’t see that as a big deal. Humanity survived for millennia without constant access to information; I figure I can as well.
Second, some of the tools on my smartphone were quite useful, such as the camera and GPS. I do have a cheap camera that I can bring with me if I want, and I’ve actually found that being somewhere without a camera makes me engage in the moment more deeply, instead of wondering if I can “share” the moment on social media. Not having a GPS is a real issue, but I don’t do a lot of traveling and I’ll likely buy a stand-alone GPS at some point.
The biggest downside is in messaging with people, particularly family and close friends. They are used to being able to message me any time day or night and me responding relatively quickly if I’m awake. Now they will have to learn that I might not get back to them for a while, particularly when I’m not in my office.
But I don’t foresee that being a significant long-term issue. Most messages aren’t urgent anyway, and those who need to contact me for emergency situations can still reach me on my dumbphone. For most situations, that’s probably not a big deal and just a learning process for everyone involved. Yes, I might miss out on a funny exchange in the family chat, but I should be able to survive that.
I’m not arguing that ditching the smartphone is for everyone, but I do think we should all be more intentional in how we use new technologies. Instead of just embracing them because everyone else is, we should think through our needs and our actual usage, making a cost/benefit analysis and deciding if and how they will become part of our lives.
For me, at least for now, the costs of a smartphone greatly outweigh the benefits and so it will not be a part of my life.