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If you time-traveled to the 1960s, or even the 1980s, and tried to describe smartphones to the people you met, they wouldn’t believe you.
It would simply seem too good to be true—an affordable, pocket-sized
device that provides:
- instant telegrams or phone calls, from anywhere to anywhere, usually free
- maps of virtually every city or rural area, even showing current traffic conditions
- searchable encyclopedias
- up-to-the-minute news about anything in the world
- step-by-step instructions for doing virtually anything
- quick translations between dozens of languages
- endless articles, courses, movies and TV shows
- a camera that takes stills and video, and can transmit them to anyone instantly
- the means for anyone to create their own regular column or newsletter, or audio or video broadcasts
- the ability to adopt new functions at any time, usually for free
These are just a few basic smartphone functions, but to your new friends, they would all sound like life-changing superpowers. Their imaginations would run wild at how much easier such powers could make their lives.
They might assume that due to these devices alone, people of the 21st century will be achieving their most important goals at multiplied speed. It would be hard for them to believe that even one of those superpowers—the ability to find decent instructions for virtually any task, for example—wouldn’t make a person vastly more capable and fulfilled. Imagine what would they pay for those powers.
They certainly wouldn’t guess that a growing number of 21st century people find these devices barely worth the trouble, and frequently consider getting rid of them.
Yet here we are. If you Google “getting rid of your smartphone,”
you’ll find countless personal stories, especially from the last three years, mostly
with few regrets.
The smartphone should be, and perhaps still could be, the most personally empowering device ever invented, yet many people are now trying to reduce or eliminate their role in their lives.
I’m one of those people, and I still wonder: why is it such a close tradeoff? Why do these superpowers outweigh the downsides by such a small margin that anyone would consider giving them up? The downsides must be pretty bad.
Our phones are in many ways empowering. They can help us do more of what makes us happier and more capable. They can (theoretically) save us a lot of time and trouble, making more space for family, friendship, creative work, study, or whatever else we find truly fulfilling.
They are also disempowering. For most of us, they easily soak up far more time than they save, capturing our attention dozens of times daily, and directing it to gratifying but mostly forgettable activities, usually infused with advertising. They get us repeatedly doing things we didn’t know we needed to do, such as perusing dozens of our acquaintances’ random photos several times a day.
It’s hard to separate the empowering functions from the disempowering ones. For me, Instagram (for example) seems pleasurable enough and relatively harmless. I can scroll through the new posts in a minute or so. This still makes me smile once or twice a day, and helps me feel a little more in touch with certain people. But I scroll through my feed not once or twice a day, but five or ten times, and more out of a lab-mouse-like pleasure-seeking habit than a conscious desire to connect.
And each of these seemingly harmless sessions may lead to an indefinite period of further low-level pleasure-seeking—flipping through screens for similar apps I haven’t checked in a while.
Even when I unlock my phone for a decidedly empowering use—looking up a fact, entering something in my calendar—it’s unlikely I won’t also tap on Instagram, and maybe Pocket, Yahoo Sports, or whatever other icons pull the eye in that moment.
It’s this reflexiveness, this hyper-conditioned way I’ve come to use the device, that concerns me most. I’ve spent most of my adult life, including ten years writing on this blog, learning to be more conscious, more present, more intentional, and less reactive, which has all been very empowering.
But my phone, at least the way I currently use it, works against all that. It’s so strangely resistant to conscious, intentional use.
Why is this thing so compelling?
It’s not because of its unprecedented usefulness. It’s because of its unprecedented salience. The smartphone is utterly magnetic to the mind and hands. It might be the most compelling object ever created (at least outside of a Tolkien story) and not because of its value as a tool, but because of its value as a toy.
I’m all for “play,” as a concept and a virtue. But I don’t think I want playthings mixed in hopelessly with my tools. If I’m going to play, I’d rather do it with some paper and drawing pencils, or a Frisbee and some friends in the park, than repeat the same engineered swipe-and-reward patterns another hundred thousand times.
We don’t play with tape measures, envelopes, maps, dictionaries, or calculators. We don’t go to staple something and end up watching a movie review.
We don’t play with our keys or debit cards when we’re waiting for the bus—but we do play with our telephones, because they are now 90% toy.
Our phones remain as powerful as ever, but every utilitarian function they have is compromised by the presence of these weirdly magnetic recreational functions. I can appreciate a slick, portable multi-tool, but I no longer want to carry in my pocket the most compelling toy ever created.
Separating Tool From Toy
Here’s my plan. I’m going to see if I can make my phone into the empowering digital supertool it would sound like to a 20th-century person.
I want it to be as useful, and as boring, as I can make it. I want it to be attractive for intentional, practical uses, but not for a reflexive diversions—a Swiss Army knife, not a carnival, in my pocket.
This is my latest lifestyle experiment. I will make my phone as utilitarian as possible, for 30 days, and see what I learn.
Aside from freeing up some hitherto poorly invested time and attention, and beginning to de-condition some of my information-age habits, I’m interested to see how hard this actually is.
Is it even possible to separate tool from toy? In the “attention economy,” app makers have every reason to mix addictiveness in with the usefulness—is some degree of mind-control always going to come with these digital superpowers?
Or perhaps I am personally too far gone to train myself out of reflexively cycling through my apps for sporadic lab-mouse treats. Seven years of daily conditioning will be hard to uproot in a month.
There will surely be moments of frustration, neediness, and FOMO. I expect to not know what to do with myself in certain situations, and that’s probably good. I’ll interpret these moments as simply what it feels like to re-adjust to living without a pocket supertoy (which is how I lived most of my life).
This experiment begins today. I’ll report my discoveries periodically in the experiment log, along with more details of how I’m actually doing this. As usual, you’re welcome to join me, and report your discoveries in the comments too.
The more unexpected difficulties this experiment entails, the more worthwhile it probably is to do. We don’t know how deep the hooks go until we try to pull away.
Photo by Andrew Neel