Modern Day Gollums

You can see the hype building. The rabid, foamed-mouth speculation. Apple is about to release a new, never-before-seen iPhone model. Edge-to-edge screen, no home button? What will it be called? You can see the upcoming queue at the Apple Store, the zombies lining up for the feeding. My precious...

For many people nowadays, the smart phone has become the single most important object in their lives. In public places (like public transportation, cafés, or restaurants), I frequently see the vast majority of people glued to their phones, often ignoring the people they're there with.

Once upon a time, it was thought that smart phones were created to improve our lives. Think how much time you'll save! Access to the whole of the world's information in a tiny form factor that also happens to take great pictures. I worry that exactly the opposite is happening, that current-day smart phones are hurting us more as a people than they are helping.

I don't have any answers, but I'll tell you how I'm coping with it.

Our Minds, Addled by Push Notifications

A recent Wired article proclaimed, "Push notifications are ruining my life. Yours too, I bet."

If you value deep thought and creativity, it's hard to argue with this. Phone apps have been optimized for microengagement, slurping up little bits of your time and figuring out how to get you to come back as soon as possible for your next hit. Every favorite, every like, every Snap is a tiny dopamine fix that leaves you yearning for more. The phone is a slot machine that is always paying out.

App developers are not evil people (well, not all of them), but fine-grained data collection and A/B testing may have had unintended consequences. Every aspect of every app has been vigorously optimized for engagement and revenue. They're supposed to be addictive. Smart phones have become revenue syphons. Your data is a commodity that is sliced and diced and sold to the highest bidder. Advertisers bid on ad space based on your internet behavior. As someone once quipped (and I can't find the original quote), "Facebook knows what you do with your friends; Google knows what you do when you're alone."

A Message from the Universe

Steve Jobs famously said that the 4-inch iPhone was the perfect size. In 2014, I upgraded to an iPhone 6, the first with a larger form factor. Something didn't seem right. It was too big. What was worse, I found myself spending more time on the phone. This was a device that was more about content consumption than about living your life.

A little over a year later, I sold my iPhone 6 and "downgraded" to a 4-inch iPhone SE. This was fine for a while, but I continued to be skeptical about how much time I was spending staring at my phone. I found it was especially bad when I was stressed out or procrastinating. I deleted social media apps like Facebook and Twitter and tried to train myself not to mindlessly look at e-mail, news, or time-wasting internet sites. The results were mixed.

Then Donald Trump got elected President of the United States. I'm a fairly apolitical humanist, but regardless of your affiliations you can probably agree that the news has been a continuous tire fire since last November. I found myself looking at the news more and more and my stress levels escalating.

In July of this year, I was visiting Portland and hung out with my friend Kevin. I had been thinking about ditching my smart phone, and while we were talking shop he mentioned his dumb phone project. My resolve to do something about the phone situation became firmer.

When I think about this topic, it always brings to mind the Technology Loop sketch from Portlandia. In it, Fred Armisen is bouncing around between different devices and has a mini-meltdown (watch the video, it's only 2 minutes). So as I was leaving Portland a couple of days after hanging out with Kevin, I was in line for a flight to Burbank and... there's Fred Armisen boarding my flight. It was a Message from the Universe.

Dumb Phones, Data Zombies, and the Future

After a few days of contemplation between different kinds of "dumb phones" (like flip phones), I decided rather than going "full dumb phone" that I would instead get the dumbest smart phone I could find. It needs to do:

  • Text messages with with physical or virtual keyboard
  • Phone calls (with Bluetooth for hands-free)
  • Pictures and MMS
  • Ability to Google things in a pinch
  • Possibly some forms of maps (but not a hard requirement)
  • Not be Android or iOS-based, because that's a gateway to the phone apps I'm trying to avoid

The best option I've found is a ... Blackberry. I was able to pick up a Q10 from Amazon for about $100, one of the last phones Blackberry made before going out of business. I switched from my $60/month data zombie plan with T-Mobile to a $25/month plan from Simple Mobile. So far it's going great.

I still have my old iPhone at home which I need for various random tasks, but I am quite happy to no longer be tethered to the internet 24/7. I've been enjoying leaving the home and spending time with friends without even having the option to look at the internet in a meaningful way (the Blackberry being so crippled by modern standards). There's other options like the Light Phone to consider, too.

I hope that, in the future, some phone option exists which is optimized for helping you live a productive and mindful existence that is more focused on creativity and engaging with people. I find that my best ideas occur after periods of deep thought, and I've already found it more beneficial to spend my idle moments thinking about things instead of mindlessly poking around apps.

I'm not sure how to make this happen so long as smart phones provide a conduit for internet businesses to monetize your attention span. If anyone reading has any ideas, I would love to hear about them.