Back in 2019, I was using a public toilet in one of the most heavily populated cities in the world.
On my way out I noticed something strange. Men were using their phones while standing at the urinal.
Stepping outside on the street, I noticed another thing that was strange. Hundreds of passersby walked and stared into their phones, at the same time. That’s when it first dawned on me.
Smartphones are bad news.
In fact, it’s not just smartphones but the entire coterie of “smart” technologies.
Have you taken account of how many cellular towers popped up over the last couple of years? They even installed them on mount Everest peak, for good measure. Do you really think it's all about faster download speeds?
Granted, everyone has their theories about four-gee and five-gee so I won’t try to dissuade you from yours. All I know is this: the more I distance myself from all those “smart” technologies, the smarter I feel.
Indeed, the longer I stay away from my phone, the better my thinking and decision-making seems to be, the calmer and more settled I feel.
Let's zoom out for a minute.
In the space of a decade, smartphones have relegated key parts of our lives into meaningless and trivial activities.
Take flirting, for example. This deeply human behavior has become as casual and meaningless as a touch-screen swipe. Gone is the art and effort of wooing someone in real life.
What about our photos? They are now disposable and mechanical. Gone is the discipline of capturing a great shot.
And what about reading? Well, most of us infinite-scroll behind the toilet door, if that’s what you mean by “reading”?
Ditto for eating, companionship, and entertainment. Everything has been deflated and depressed down to a sterilized and flat “ecosystem” of apps. Our entire life has become a mere transaction in those apps. Apps that are programmed, aggregated, and quantified by entities other than ourselves.
And the optics are not that sexy either: iPhone-in-hand, AirPods, face diaper, sunglasses – the whole thing is surreal.
Speaking of sunglasses, let me get something off my chest.
Last year I finally gave up on them.
My practical reason for wearing shades was to prevent squinting and crow’s feet wrinkles. I was trying to prevent my skin from aging. Because, no greater tragedy can befall on the western man, it seems, than growing old. Let’s face it, anything old is seen (and felt) as the opposite of progress and "science". Aging, in our brave new world, is verboten.
But the innermost motivation for wearing sunglasses is not skin-deep.
Sunglasses serve as a protective social barrier, minimizing the brutally human outcome of eye contact. Sunglasses are the lockdown of the human spirit. No wonder mainstream media is so keen on you wearing them. Oh yes they are.
But I digress. Back to our smartphone predicament. After years of trying, I believe I’ve finally cracked it. . .
I figured out the right way for using smartphones.
The secret lies in changing how we view our handsets. In as few words as possible, their default state needs to be OFF. They need to be a just-in-case tool. When we need them for a task, we switch them ON and, once done, we promptly switch them back OFF.
“But I use smartphones for everything.”
Bingo. That’s what needs to change. I know this sounds like an impossible mission so let’s fast-forward to specifics. Here is how I relegated my handset to a just-in-case, switched-off device that sits in my backpack.
All my computing tasks now happen on the laptop. No more half-assing them on the phone. If a task deserves to be done, I will attend to it when I use my laptop. Otherwise it was probably a waste of time to begin with.
No more multi-tasking. Example: I used to listen to podcasts while eating, while doing the dishes and when tidying up the house. As it turns out, it is much healthier if I focus on one thing at a time. If I’m eating, focus on the food. If I’m cleaning up the house, focus on the cleaning. And if a podcast is not worthy of my complete and undivided attention, then why listen to it in the first place?
My phone has no SIM card, which means it’s only usable in WiFi. When hiking, I pack an old device with a pre-paid SIM card, just in case. That dumbphone doubles up as an SMS authentication device for any apps that require it (banking etc).
I no longer take photos with my phone. All lenses are covered up with tape. As it turns out, sunsets are even more colorful when you don’t try to capture them. Same goes for those precious moments with family. Should a productive need for a camera arise, I’ll probably get a GoPro.
No more reading on my iPhone. I get out of my way to source printed books. Back in 2020, I got rid of my Kindle reader, and have no plans on going back on that, either.
I’ve replaced the Google Translate app with a paper dictionary that fits the side-pocket of my backpack.
Oh, and I no longer take my phone to the toilet. Enough said.
With most unimportant use cases out of the way, I can now switch the phone off and place it in my backpack. If needed, I can switch it back on for a specific task, and then promptly switch it off, knowing I won’t need it again for a good while.
The key distinction is this:
The phone is a just-in-case item; not a lifestyle accessory, wearable tech, or extension of my body. I use it intentionally, just like any other tool.
“But how will you stay up to date with things?”
When it comes to updates, less is probably more. In Black Swan, Nassim Taleb implored his readers to skip the noise of daily newspapers and read the higher-signal weeklies instead. In Antifragile, he talked about the Lindy effect. The longer something has been around, the longer it’s likely to be around in the future. Case in point: published in 1932, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World explains what’s happening in the world right now, and it does so better than any website, podcast, or newspaper from the last few weeks, months, or even years.
“How will people get through to me if they need me?”
If you are a parent or caretaker, you can use a dumb phone. And if the earth won’t stop spinning in your absence, you can train people to not expect an immediate reply.
“What about photos and videos?”
The GoPro is a decent standalone camera that won’t break the bank. If you care about photography, get a proper camera with lenses and all. Honor whatever it is that you are doing. Don’t half-ass your life.
“But I can’t afford all those extra things. My smartphone has everything I need!”
Much of the technology we use these days is free, in monetary terms. But what is the actual human cost involved? How do you value your energy and attention? Aren't they priceless? If we don’t appreciate those gifts, there will always be those who will take them off our hands for a dime-a-dozen. Don’t fritter away what makes you human. Hold on to your treasure.
“I live in a big city. How will I navigate without Google Maps?”
Go ahead and use Google Maps. What I am suggesting is that you use your phone the same way you use your car. Would you leave the car engine running after you’ve reached your destination?
“What if my boss needs to get hold of me on Slack?”
Yes, employers these days expect to see that green dot indicator on Slack, lest they suspect their slaves, I mean their “employees”, are slacking off. This is not a smartphone issue, it’s a job issue. A freedom issue, rather. To address this, I’d suggest you start with my Plan B series and I’m always here if you need support.
From the trivial to the intentional.
Having a smartphone in your pocket has a net-negative effect. That effect is unquantifiable, so most of us tend to ignore it.
If you want to reclaim the essence of your days, I’d suggest you divert your computing usage away from your phone and towards your computer. You’ll find that most of the things you did on your phone were unnecessary. You may even find yourself with an extra hour or two in your day. Imagine that.
Disentangling ourselves from smartphones is hard, but doable. The decisions and small sacrifices you make as you break your "smart" shackles will seem obvious in the long run.
And your new self will thank you for it.
Okay, time for some housekeeping.
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I'm looking forward to some offline time in Thailand.