In the early summer of last year, after I’d gone into a few stores that didn’t have anything dumb enough, a T-Mobile rep located a Kyocera flip phone somewhere in their shop’s back room. I don’t think he had sold this model to someone under 60 before. Once he gave up trying to upsell me, he seemed amused. Even before the SIM card was in, flipping the new device open and closed brought back memories of how visceral, how tactile, it was to end calls with a snap. No more dabbing the screen with my thumb.
Each time it cracked shut it felt like I was severing myself from all the bad habits which had accumulated around my smartphone. During some of my pandemic low points, my average smartphone use had crept upwards of six hours a day. The aspects of the internet that prove most ensnaring differ person by person, but for me, it had been YouTube videos and clickbaity articles. I won’t say I enjoyed either of those things, but that’s what trapped me in binges. It would often begin with something substantive and worthwhile — maybe two experts debating the projected impacts of global warming — and that would lead to something a little less illuminating, say, an MSNBC interview or a late-night comedy clip, and pretty soon I’d be watching hashed up clips of a movie I’d already seen or two hours of epic fails or whatever else the algorithm had identified as something my particular psychological profile would be unable to resist at that moment.
After a binge, all the colors of my aura felt faded to gray. There were times when I’d be too enmeshed to even get off my bed and plug my phone in, and I would feel immense gratitude when my phone finally died, like I had been freed from a spell, because I didn’t have an outlet next to my bed. I felt reduced into an almost hypnotic state — a paralysis digitalis. I was anxious and unhappy with how I was spending my time, but couldn’t seem to stop. My dentist told me I’d been grinding my teeth in my sleep.
I would feel immense gratitude when my phone finally died, like I had been freed from a spell.
On the one hand, this had to do with the world shutting down; in the void created by the shutdowns, before any more substantive or interesting routines could establish themselves, the easy frictionless entertainments of the phone and other screens rushed in to stake their claim to my habits and time. On the other hand, I had to admit that my screen time had been higher than I would have liked for years. Statistics suggested that I wasn’t alone in this. According to Statista, a consumer database company, 57% of Americans average five or more hours on their phone each day.
But before opting for anything so outlandish as rocking a flip phone in 2020s NYC, I first sought out more reasonable solutions. I downloaded an app that would pop an alert onto my screen once I’d gone over an hour per day. This worked for a couple of days, but once my reserves of determination had been depleted, the app lost all its power. Every 15 minutes, I would swipe away the warnings updating me on just how much I’d exceeded my limit.
I’d always felt myself more than equal to handling the gauntlet of pre-digital temptations. Alcohol, narcotics, gambling, high-calorie food: I vaguely understood the draws, but never felt any of them to be in a serious contest against my self-control. I had perhaps a mild tendency towards procrastination, an appreciation for staring at clouds as they drifted by, or the swaying of trees in the breeze outside my window, but that felt like a minor, charming flaw that refreshed me even as it picked off an occasional half hour of my life here or there. The internet was different, especially when it could be entered so easily through a portal held in the palm of my hand.
* * *
I’d joined a tribe that consists of those lacking tech savvy, those who don’t want to pay for a data plan, and those deliberately rejecting one of the most alluring fruits of modern technology.
The terms “net” and “web” were chosen for their images of computers as a vast array of interconnected nodes, but they were perhaps more apt choices of metaphors than we could have realized when we started using them. At the bottom of my gray-auraed binges, I’d feel every bit as captured as the fish or fly by the fisherman or spider. It became clear that 24/7 access to an infinity of engaging content wasn’t the ideal environment for me, and that I had to be more careful about the devices I kept on my person.
By the evening of May 1, 2021, the transition was underway, and I said farewell to my various WhatsApp and Signal threads, sending along a video of me unboxing the new device, which yielded the expected OMG vibes and slack-jawed emojis. I’d joined a tribe that consists of those lacking tech savvy, those who don’t want to pay for a data plan, and those deliberately rejecting one of the most alluring fruits of modern technology for one reason or another. A disparate tribe to be sure, which reportedly includes Rihanna, Aziz Ansari, Chuck Schumer, and, until recently, Warren Buffet (“It’s the one Alexander Graham Bell gave me,” he told Piers Morgan while burnishing his Nokia flip phone in an interview).
With a design that would have been considered nifty in 2004, my new (old) phone boasted a camera with just over 1% the pixelation of the current top-of-the line model and a texting interface that crammed 26 letters onto eight buttons. It could make phone calls and not much else. Web access could theoretically be achieved at mid-’90s dial-up speeds. I’d forgotten just how clunky were the interfaces of yesteryear: every incoming text had to be individually selected and opened, so it was hard to keep up with group texts that might have 50 entries. When someone “liked” a text, that showed up as a separate message. Picture texts and GIFs sometimes worked and other times didn’t, according to criteria I haven’t been able to suss out.
In too many ways to chronicle, it turned out to be easier to glamorize the minimalist simplicity of a smartphone-free life in the abstract. It was like the time I broke my arm and realized how even something as basic as getting dressed or putting toothpaste onto a toothbrush could be difficult. Showing tickets for movies, plays, trains, airplanes was no longer a smooth or automated process — there was almost always a workaround, usually involving getting a human or kiosk to print my ticket for me, but on at least one occasion I had to pull out my laptop to retrieve a confirmation number. What I missed most (other than Google maps) was a sleek no-sweat calendar app that I could access and modify quickly rather than pecking my flip phone for at least thrice the former amount of time. I toyed with the idea of buying a paper datebook. At one point early in the year-long experiment I even missed a flight since the airline had shifted its time of departure an hour earlier; my Google calendar automatically updated itself, but I’d neglected to manually make the change on my Kyocera.
My year featured a lot of jotting down addresses and directions on scraps of paper, a fair amount of relying on the kindness of strangers with smartphones, and not a small amount of getting lost.
I went back to asking for physical menus and hailing cabs when they could be found. I’ve never had an impressive sense of direction and what I’d once had was pretty well atrophied, so my year featured a lot of jotting down addresses and directions on scraps of paper, a fair amount of relying on the kindness of strangers with smartphones, and not a small amount of getting lost. Over time I’ve settled into a laconic T9 texting style. Pithy. Economical. Lots of “sounds good” and “copy that.”
Food delivery apps could all be accessed via computer, as could Venmo, Uber, or my bank. Meditation, it turned out, didn’t require an app either.
But my new system was fragile, unable to deal with unexpected events and generate a plan B. The directions I’d jot down to navigate an unfamiliar neighborhood worked fine unless the train line I was supposed to take was down and I needed to figure out the buses. And on upcoming trips, how will I navigate the strangely named streets of foreign cities and translate the menus?
* * *
As a kid in the ’90s, I used to be bored sometimes. I’d pace around, past my TV limit for the day, and I had to figure out something to do. It’s a nearly inconceivable feeling when you have access to a smartphone and other screens. We can be half-bored, doing something we derive no great satisfaction from, but not fully bored in the sense of being compelled to expend creative energy to come up with an activity or something to think about. Before my year of technological abstinence, I realized I hadn’t been properly bored in years. The second that uncomfortable blankness hit my mind, my hand would make a Pavlovian beeline for the phone, and within seconds I’d be surfing headlines or texting or immersed in some other stream of its digital flow.
But what if the sensation of boredom is not a flaw of existence, but a feature that causes us to search and grasp for some new idea or meaning to fill the void, just as hunger causes us to seek out food? Is our achievement of a techtopia devoid of an instant’s boredom shortchanging us in an intangible but profound way?
Time is a thing we’re always looking to kill, or at least fill, even if in the end it’s all we have. From Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel “The Hours”: “there are still the hours, aren’t there? One and then another, and you get through that one and then, my god, there’s another.” When that was published in 1998, Cunningham was writing about a dilemma that had plagued humanity since its inception but that was about to go the way of polio and smallpox. If the larger screens of televisions and computers have been providing us piecemeal cures for the unfilled hours of our lives for decades, then smartphones feel like the final step: omnipresent, mobile, hovering almost as close to our eyes as goggles, a conduit for content to rush in and fill every vacuum, every last empty bit of time that remained. For better and worse, we have cured the problem of the hours.
As I was working on this essay, I asked friends and family about their smartphone usage stats. Most were reluctant to show their numbers, but also maybe a bit relieved like we’d all been carrying around a secret shame. Said one friend: “Oh God, you really want to know? This is going to change how you view me.” His numbers were thoroughly ordinary: about six hours a day.
When I ask people the admittedly leading question of whether their phone time enhances their life, there is usually some combination of laughing and wincing before they shake their heads and admit that it doesn’t. Story after story had a similar theme. “Last night I picked it up because I had to send an email, and then I spent two hours on Tiktok,” one acquaintance said.
Questioning nearly everyone I knew on the topic painted a picture of a whole cohort whose attention spans have been shot to slivers by Instagram.
It’s also been fun hearing about the coping mechanisms people have developed. One person installed parental control software to shut down all her devices at 9 p.m. There was a lot of removing the phone from hand’s reach — to the bathroom, into a backpack, under a mattress — but I think the funniest I heard was from my brother, who tosses his phone onto a ledge he can’t reach and then moves the ladder to the other side of his apartment.
It’s anecdotal, but many people I spoke to reported reading less than they used to, or at least reading fewer books that required depth of concentration. Questioning nearly everyone I knew on the topic painted a picture of a whole cohort whose attention spans have been shot to slivers by Instagram and the myriad tools built to siphon off our time. In Nicholas Carr’s 2010 book “The Shallows,” he describes the situation thusly: “the Net seizes our attention only to scatter it. We focus intensively on the medium itself, on the flickering screen, but we’re distracted by the medium’s rapid-fire delivery of competing messages and stimuli.”
As I pass the one-year mark and re-evaluate my own relationship with technology, I have to weigh the healthier habits and increased free time and productivity against the inconveniences of being de-wired and the quixotic man-out-of-time neo-Amish oddness of it. “Do you have it ironically?” a woman new to Brooklyn asked about my flip phone, trying to decide if I was one of those hipsters she’d heard about. And it would be nice to get fewer texts saying “I tried to send you a picture but for some reason, I can’t seem to do it.”
But healthier habits are pretty undeniable. The algorithms still manage occasionally to hook me into screenland by pulling me in through one of my other devices, but those are less portable, less easy, less omnipresent, which gives me the ability to resist them more often than not. I would estimate that my non-work screen time is down by about half. Some of that regained time has been productive and some of it hasn’t, but even in the latter case, it feels more relaxing. Smartphone relaxation can be like drinking soda instead of water to quench your thirst.
My year of living archaically has heightened my sense of both the benefits and drawbacks of smartphones. There are times when not having one makes me feel less connected to the culture at large, like I’m not meeting the world where it’s at. Other times, given the state of the world and the collective ADHD, FOMO, depression, and anxiety we as a culture seem to be giving ourselves, that can feel like a distinct advantage.
personal essays about technology