Reflections on a Dumb Phone

October 29, 2017

Two weeks ago, I went down to AT&T and bought a $35 flip phone. I was tired of picking glass shards out of my thumb after my Nexus 5x encountered one too many g-forces and had its screen shattered. But mostly I was tired of this goddamn “always connected” culture we’ve somehow cultivated.

I was going off the grid, at least, off the mobile grid. I expected it to be a little scary – how can someone like me, someone who works in tech, survive in this Western day and age without a smartphone?

It wasn’t. After a few days, it began to feel very liberating.

The first thing I noticed was the battery life on this beast: something like ten days. I’m sure that you could spin that out into twenty with the same sorts of planning you can use to get two days out of your smartphone. I went to San Francisco for a week. I didn’t bring a charger. It was fine.

The impressive battery life here is to be expected, I suppose; literally the only things this baby does are making calls, sending texts, and setting alarms. Ostensibly it can browse the internet, but it requires a wifi connection and I haven’t tried it. There are no games on it, let alone any kind of app marketplace.

I stopped bringing my phone places. During the era of owning a smartphone, I couldn’t fathom being out of my apartment for more than two minutes without my phone. It just Wasn’t Done. The fecklessness of this didn’t strike me until the first time I brought my dumb phone for the ten minute journey down to the convenience store below my building. Why did I even need a phone for that trip? To spend the unbearably long 45 seconds in the elevator mindlessly scrolling through Facebook? Just in case someone sent me a Snapchat that needed to be viewed now?

It’s pretty silly when you stop and think about it.

Maybe it’s just in my friend group, but there seems to be a higher burden behind sending a text than sending some sort of chat message. This means people bother me for less banal shit, but I’m still contactable for important things (like hanging out in person!) And when we do hang out, I’m no longer tempted to ignore these people in my immediate vicinity for meaningless things happening to other people far away.

That’s not to say the entire thing has been positive, however. One thing I’ll say about having a smartphone is that it makes “not having a plan” a more viable option. I damn near missed a flight because I would always use a ride sharing app to get around. Guess what functionality doesn’t exist on my feature phone?

My friend and I were out one night and the Denver weather had dropped something like 15C since we’d last been outside. We both started shivering, and, being in an unexplored part of town, weren’t entirely sure what to do. My usual strategies would be to look up somewhere nearby and open, head there, and figure it out – but her hands were too cold to operate her phone, and mine didn’t have the requisite functionality.

We walked home in silence through the biting winds. It sucked.

Now I have the number of a local cab company stored in my quick-dial. I haven’t used it yet, but I’m kind of excited about the whole thing. I’ve decided I want to start optimizing my life for interesting situations. Cab dispatchers usually aren’t the most scintillating people on the phone, but you have to admit, it’s much more capable of engendering an interesting situation than I’d ever get in the Lyft app.

I’d like to leave you with this thought: if, deep down, you’ve noticed a growing dissatisfaction with the world, consider if it might be caused by always being connected to things you fundamentally don’t really care about. If it might be caused by faceless advertisers buying and selling your attention. If it might be caused by push notifications from Google Now telling you that something terrible has happened halfway across the world.

If any of this rings true to you, maybe try going for a week without your smartphone on you every moment of every day. Maybe you’ll have to bring a book with you to keep yourself entertained in periods of extended downtime. Maybe someone won’t be able to contact you right this second, and, come to think of it, maybe that’s OK.