3 Lessons From 1 Year With No Smartphone
I had just moved back to the United States with no bank card, no car, no home, not even a form of identification aside from my passport, and I lived for a year without a smartphone as I rebuilt my life in the United States. Here are some things I learned from that time.
In 2018, I quit my job in Asia. Family needs back home and a lack of opportunities to move up professionally and pay-wise signaled it was time for the curtain to close on my expat experiment. I had been working and living in Korea for four and a half years. Anything you would need to live there — bank accounts, housing, insurance, and an income — I had, including a smartphone. But coming back to the United States, I was suddenly starting over completely, which did not even occur to me at the time.
The lack of a smartphone seems almost insurmountable to people to many people nowadays — and even to me now that I use one again — however going without is surprisingly easy and I was able to do just that while re-establishing myself in the US. It gave me some interesting realizations. To be clear, I did have my iPhone which I used in Korea that I still carried with me. I just had no regular income to support a phone plan including data.
You’re not using it as much as you think you are
To be more specific, you are not using it in meaningful ways as much as you think you are. With no internet access outside, I realized that many of the interactions I would have using data on my smartphone, once absent, were great at helping me pass time or ‘check out’ of what was happening in front of me, but were not critical interactions or conversations on social media which were not affected by being postponed until I was able to connect to wireless internet.
There was an anxiety that lingered telling me people would be somehow upset if I didn’t respond to their messages within 1–2 hours of receipt. This was not the case at all. I would simply explain I had gone to the store, gone for a walk, or to a restaurant and the exchange continued. There was surprisingly very little strain on my close relationships maintained digitally through this experience. I would encourage you to simulate this from time to time by just not turning on your data when leaving the house. Even in instances when I felt I really wanted to communicate with someone soon I would make a note of it in my notes app, or simply just wait as usually the time between our location and home or WiFi was no more than 15 or 20 minutes away.
You are not valuing relationships
So I am not going to take the stance that access to data and apps (especially social media) outside of the home distracts you from being invested in people around you — although that can be argued — rather, this realization I had was that by having a mode to constantly connect to my friends and family, I began taking this for granted.
When I had no access to the internet outside of my home I became more aware of what was going on around me in order to convey by observations or wishes by story or a message later once I reconnected in person or over the internet. For example, seeing a friend’s favorite item had been re-introduced to the store I was in meant I needed to make a mental note of this, really feel the excitement, in order to recall it later when messaging or calling them. There were many more celebratory moments of “So-and-so would love this shirt, dog bed, etc.” or “This song playing at big box store reminds me of my cousin!”
Rightly so, many of us question the effects social media use has on our social and mental wellbeing. But I believe from my experience of living without constant access to it, we should also question how it devalues relationships by making them too accessible. They become dry and uneventful from repetition and constant rehearsing of the same small conversations(think Groundhog Day).
You are not doing anything novel with it
Smartphones may be convenient, but they are not really reinventing the wheel. Their convenience is that they are condensing many uses and tasks that used to require separate devices or alternative means of accomplishing something into one device. While they are extremely helpful, the world will not end because I have to order my Starbucks drink by verbally interacting with the cashier as opposed to mobile ordering. Additionally, mobile banking and mobile pay while convenient are not necessarily crucial either. ATMs still exist. Cards still exist. I could check my balance online before leaving home if I truly needed to watch my spending or verify a deposit went through before treating myself.
There really was no task that I ran into that was not able to be done without my smartphone. And if I truly was in such dire straights that I needed to make a phone call on the spot or print a document, for example, most places you find yourself in public are able to perform these functions if you just ask staff.
The Third Way: Semi-Smart or ‘Dumb’ Phones
If you are interested in reducing smartphone use but do not want to unplug completely, or would still like the ability to call or send texts without the distraction of social media, there is a new breed of phones emerging which are semi-smart or ‘dumb’. (I want you to know that these items haven’t sponsored me, I just find them interesting products relevant to this discussion.)
Light Phone 2
The Light Phone is a semi-smart phone which does use data, but can only call or text among other basic features. It apparently will never be compatible with or support social media apps or email. The design is interesting and unique, featuring a digital ink screen similar to those found on e-readers which I find quite calming in its simplicity and accomplishes the goal of reducing the worry of smartphone use.
Punkt. is a company based in Switzerland that is creating dumb technology to reduce dependency on such devices in our daily lives. Their newest model of phone, the MP02, allows you to tether its data to a device such as a computer or tablet to allow easier typing and internet access when necessary, but no features on the phone itself support social media or needless distraction when mobile.
There is value in moving away from smartphone use
If you had told me as a child that a device would exist which would allow me to search for and deliver items to my house, book airplane tickets, contain a map to every country on earth, communicate by video with my loved ones, and so much more, I would have jumped for joy. But there are drawbacks.
I have to admit that now that I’ve started working once more, the job I have currently does pretty much require a smartphone and so it isn’t an ideal path for everyone to reduce such use. If your life circumstances permit it, I would really recommend trying to ditch the smartphone, or at least cut back. As mentioned, there are many ways to benefit from ceasing constant connection.
Regardless of whether you choose to keep your own smart device or not, I hope my humble insights from my year without a smartphone might offer some reflection for you on your relationship with mobile digital technology, and if not, at least some entertainment on how this crazy man could have gone so long without scrolling…scrolling…scrolling…