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One month in without a smartphone -- growing doubts about the value of technology in general

Journey away from smartphones

by Tom Johnson on May 7, 2022 •
categories: technical-writing

It's been about a month since I moved away from smartphones. In this entry, I explain the distaste I've developed for screens, my rediscovery of photography, and more.

Context and catchup

For those of you just catching up on this series, which documents my journey away from smartphones, see the previous posts for more context. Earlier posts explain my rationale and goals. Read these to get caught up:

Books, printing things out

It’s now about a month since I abandoned my smartphone. Not only have I continued to read and enjoy reading, I’ve now begun wondering if perhaps I need to review each book I read. I guess earlier, when I would finish a book, I thought it was such an achievement that it merited a review. For example, I wrote a massively detailed review of Autonorama. Now I’m thinking maybe a few short paragraphs, or maybe not at all? I want to retain the information, to remember the arguments and reasons and so on. But do I need to write a review for that?

Still reading

In reading more, I initially thought Kindle would be the way to go, but early on, when I couldn’t get one of the books I wanted in Kindle and so ordered the print version, I realized that reading print material is 10x more enjoyable to me. In fact, I’ve grown to hate reading from screens altogether — not just smartphone screens. If someone sends me a long email (e.g., a work-related newsletter), I print it out. I can focus better, annotate it, and save it when reading in print. I really enjoy reading from paper. It turns out hardback books, especially used, are much cheaper than Kindle versions anyway.

When did we all start reading exclusively on screens in the first place? Screens are too distracting. Not only are there dozens of links to click on each page, there’s no investment to stay on the screen for any prolonged period of time. As a result, it’s too easy to jump from page to page, task to task, until I’m scatterbrained and unfocused. When I print something out, I can take my focus off the screen and read more linearly in a prolonged way. It’s a much more enjoyable experience to read offline.

While initially I developed a distaste for smartphone screens (due their attention-wrecking influence), I’ve become more distrustful of screens in general, including computer screens. When I look around me, it seems that everyone is focused on screens of some sort almost all day long. In the morning, we eat breakfast looking at our smartphones, then we sit at our desks and stare at the computer screens all day at work, then in the evenings we look at TV screens for entertainment. Those driving new cars often have huge multi-color infotainment screens as well (e.g. look at any Tesla). Is this what life has come to — to always be looking at screens?

I do feel a growing cognitive dissonance about technology in general. Since moving away from smartphones was so pleasing, I keep wondering, what else can I abandon? How else can I move back into the 90s or early 2000s with tech? Do I start composing blog posts longhand? Do I explore vinyl records?

Driving without a screen

Let’s talk about driving, because mapping applications are supposedly one of those can’t-live-without-it apps. Not wanting a screen in front of my face while driving, I have now removed the smartphone mount entirely from my car (a 2013 Accord). There are no more screens in my car beyond the blue built-in infotainment displays.

I needed to go to an unfamiliar address the other day (picking someone up), and I consulted a paper map. After one trip, I’d committed the entire route to memory. I didn’t need to time the trip to perfectly fit the drive into my timeline. I just estimated — and it worked out great.

I really enjoy driving without having to constantly look at a digital map. Seriously, driving is so much more enjoyable when you know where you’re going without having to look at a digital map in the corner of your eye, and when you don’t have a robot telling you what to do.

Additionally, I have a keener sense of the cardinal direction I’m traveling, and when I combine that directional sense with the general avenue/street intersection that I’m aiming for, it works out. So what if my route takes me an extra minute or two. I’d much rather become familiar with the route than take a confusing shortcut that gets me there faster but which just confuses me about where I am.

There are multiple studies documenting how reliance on digital in-car maps reduces your brain’s spatial awareness. For example, see Smartphones and Cognition: A Review of Research Exploring the Links between Mobile Technology Habits and cognitive Functioning by Wilmer, Shermen, and Chein. The authors explain:

It has been posited that constant reliance on GPS navigation systems, which are now integrated into smartphone devices, interferes with our natural tendency to develop cognitive spatial representations. (8)… The available evidence suggests that when we turn to these devices, we generally learn and remember less from our experiences. (9)

As I’ve been driving around smartphone free, I can attest to this effect: it’s so much better screen-free in the car. And I’m reclaiming my spatial awareness. Those neural pathways that orient me in my world are reconnecting, reforming.

ebikes … nope

The other day at work, there was a micro-mobility fair of sorts, with all the micro-mobility options on display and available to try. Lime bikes and scooters, Wheels scooters, Vanmoof bikes, other scooters, and more. All electric powered. To try them out, the vendors said I just needed to scan a QR code to complete an online waiver. “Uhhh, I don’t have my phone with me,” I said. It was awkward. Some were like, “Well, come back when you do.” Others said I could use their phones. I even sideloaded a QR-code reading APK onto my flip phone, and it worked — once. Then it froze. One guy saw my phone and said, “Oh, old-school.” He assumed I had it for security reasons.

At any rate, I got the waivers completed and rode around on the bikes and scooters. They make it easy to get around, for sure. If you want an electric-powered motion device (such as to replace your car for inner-city travel without sweating), they’re great. But I realized that I really like my 5-mile bike ride in the mornings and afternoons, the way it gets my heart beating and my blood pumping. It’s like a natural caffeine, waking me up and making me feel alive. For someone substituting the ebike/scooter for a car, great. But I already sit on my butt all day long. Do I really need to sit without exercise while commuting? No, I decided, I did not.

Micromobility options

I still don’t understand why all micro-mobility options are app-based and electric-powered. The Wheels/Veo option (like a scooter with a seat) literally feels like an electric-assisted shopping cart that you see in grocery stores for people unable to walk.

I asked if finding each bike/scooter and unlocking it inevitably required a smartphone app. One guy explained that I could actually unlock a Lime bike through texts; it would involve going into a 7-11 to use a kiosk of some kind. Then I thought, how will I know where the bikes are, and where the 7-11s are, without a location-based app or a lot of pre-planning? At the very least, Lime seems to be more considerate of basic phone users.

Shutting off incoming email from lists, groups, newsletters

I have been unsubscribing relentlessly to everything that arrives unsolicited in my email inbox. Last Friday I looked at all the lists I’m on at work, lists that channel endless messages into folders that I never read (via filtering rules). I decided to unsubscribe to 90% of them, choosing instead to visit the groups messages online when I decide to visit them.

With less email arriving in my inbox, I’m much less distracted and have less incentive to keep checking my email. In my personal inbox, I also deleted all my previous filtering rules. Life is better with email that is personal only.

When I wake up in the morning, my first instinct isn’t usually to check my email. Instead, I mostly pick up the book I was reading the night before. By helping make email more of a disappointment (e.g., spam to delete, more privacy change notifications to confirm, etc.) I hope to have reduced the whole cycle of variable rewards that powers the drive to constantly check email.

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Music on CDs

On my way home, driving from the train station to my house, I noticed, for the first time in years, a CD slot above my car radio.

CD slot

Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, to have my own classical CDs where I could choose the type of music, and where I wouldn’t have to listen to membership campaign drives? So I ordered a handful of classical CDs. (I did not anticipate ordering CDs in 2022.)

At a thrift shop, I also found a whole shelf of CDs and picked up a a handful for a dollar each (one included Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which brought memories of watching Fantasia back to my kids). I realize that I could get classical music from a radio, from Spotify, or elsewhere, but I like being offline. I like having more control and awareness of what I’m listening to. I like being unplugged. There’s something deeply calming about it, not to be interrupted by someone speaking between each track.

Cameras

The point and shoot camera I bought (a Canon Powershot Elph 180) has been disappointing. I thought that even with a point and shoot, I wouldn’t need to do much besides press a button. Nope. I have to re-learn how to use a camera as well. Even after learning how to use it, though, the pictures are still poor. I searched online for a better point and shoot and realized that all good options cost more than I want to spend (for example, most decent options are around $500).

Then I remembered that I actually have an old Nikon DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera, a D60, which I got for my wife about a decade or more ago, before the smartphone revolution, and had tucked it away in a closet. We stopped using it because it was too bulky to carry around, I guess. Then the cameras on smartphones got pretty good, and it seemed redundant.

As I played around with the DSLR, I realized that it takes fantastic pictures! I ordered some smaller lenses (35 mm and 50 mm) to make it more portable, rather than the default 18-55 mm zoom lens. Granted, this DSLR is bulky and not something I can stuff in my pocket. But you know what? I’ve noticed that I mostly just take pictures during events. For example, a final track meet for my daughter. Or a trip to a new place. Or during a social outing somewhere. During these events, it’s okay to bring a camera. I don’t actually need to have a camera always in my pocket (and if I do, my flip phone has a crappy camera that I can resort to, for example, to take a picture of where I parked).

I just printed out the Nikon D60 manual (200 pages long), and have started to read it, re-learning how to actually use the camera. I have to remember what aperture, ISO, shutter-speed priority, aperture priority, F-stops, etc., all mean. I’d forgotten how smartphones have basically made cameras so dead simple that one doesn’t need to know anything about photography anymore.

Rediscovering my old camera made me think that perhaps those apps on my smartphone that I thought were indispensible — the camera, the mapping application, etc. — might not be so great after all. Could life actually be better without them? So far, yes! Taking pictures is fun again.

Here are some pictures I took with my DSLR today. I feel like I’m rediscovering photography.

Ponyo chilling

Shannon and Lucy

Molly with shears

I remember taking photography in high school and loving it (especially developing photos in the darkroom). In using a smartphone, I seem to have totally forgotten how enjoyable it actually is to take pictures — for example, to swap in a 50 mm lens and take closeups so that the background totally blurs out, directing focus to the subject.

Flip phones and Voxer, texting

Speaking of my flip phone, I did install the Voxer app on it. (Voxer is an app that allows you to leave recorded messages to other people.) Why did I install this? My wife started sending me long voice-transcribed texts that were cumbersome to read over text. We do communicate well with Voxer, as it allows us to leave asynchronous voice messages to each other during the day. So basically, Voxer and Audible are the only APKs I’ve sideloaded onto my flip phone.

I am still glad that I got a phone with an Android operating system (Android 9) so that I can sideload APKs onto it. As I said previously, the screen is so small and the interaction so tedious that even if you were to sideload a social media app onto it, the app would be too cumbersome to use. To use Voxer, I have to triple-click my asterisk key to switch my cursor into mouse mode, slowly move the mouse over the the buttons I want to use, etc. When finished, I triple-click twice to switch back to D-pad mode.

I admit, though, that after having more real time conversations with my wife over the phone, I prefer those real-time conversations to Voxer. But real-time conversations aren’t always convenient, for example, if I’m focused on some task or a meeting and my wife wants to chat, or when I want to chat but she has a meeting right then. In those situations, Voxer works better. This is a scenario that I’m sort of mixed about. Presumably, having a basic phone helps reduce disruptions. However, if I always take calls in real-time, I open myself to more disruptions. But disruptions from my family are usually good ones that I welcome. And ultimately, I’d like to talk on the phone more with my family. So I’m not really looking to find a better way to text because, as Jonathan Foer writes, texting diminishes us. Foer explains:

Most of our communication technologies [e.g., texting] began as substitutes for an impossible activity. We couldn’t always see one another face to face, so the telephone made it possible to keep in touch at a distance. …

But then a funny thing happened: we began to prefer the diminished substitutes. It’s easier to make a phone call than to make the effort to see someone in person. Leaving a message on someone’s machine is easier than having a phone conversation — you can say what you need to say without a response; it’s easier to check in without becoming entangled. So we began calling when we knew no one would pick up. Shooting off an email is easier still, because one can further hide behind the absence of vocal inflection, and of course there’s no chance of accidentally catching someone. With texting, the expectation for articulateness is further reduced, and another shell is offered to hide in. Each step “forward” has made it easier — just a little — to avoid the emotional work of being present, to convey information rather than humanity. (Jonathan Safran Foer: technology is diminishing us)

In other words, technologies like texting and email start off as substitutes for challenging scenarios (like the one I described). But then these technologies become the default rather than more in-person, real-time interactions because the substitutes take less emotional energy and effort. But they are diminished forms of communication.

Perhaps I need to stop looking for ways to text from a flip phone and instead actually use the phone more. In short, to use my phone as a phone. (Seeing that last line as a revelation is astonishing.) I’m not great at phone conversations, I admit, but I shouldn’t be looking for ways to texts instead of use the phone. I imagine that, like all the other activities I’ve learned to enjoy (driving within an app, taking pictures with a real camera, etc.), speaking with other humans on the phone is something that will enrich my life more, if I but take the effort to do it.

Deeper doubts about technology

I keep looking for opportunities to get less techy in my life. I have started to have deeper doubts about the value of the technology that has transformed our lives. I’ve begun to wonder whether technology has made our lives worse. For sure, all of these single-function devices I’ve resorted to are forms of technology, so I’m not so sure why I’ve turned against the latest forms of tech. The DSLR camera is a much more sophisticated piece of technology than a pinhole camera, for example, and probably more sophisticated than a smartphone camera. My flip phone is an incredible piece of technology too, no doubt. And so is a music CD. Maybe it’s all just novel and different to revert to retro tech, a phase I’ll soon outgrow.

But it seems like the technology that I’m reacting against today is the always online, always connected tech that entails apps and screens with incoming messages and other information to continually distract and pull away or fragment my attention, or which pull us away from others in a more diminished, reduced way. I tried searching for some articles on this topic, like, is technology just making everything worse, and found this video:

The video is great but doesn’t make strong enough recommendations toward the end, opting instead for balance. If you watch the video, be sure to read through some of the comments on the video too. Here are a few comments I liked:

I remember the world before social media. It was so much better than it is now!!

Man, I feel sorry for kids being raised on social media. Being in middle school, high school, and always comparing yourself to other people was tough back then. Today, there’s no escape from it because of social media. It’s constant. And god, the freedom of being able to go to a show and not feel compelled to film it. Of not worrying about missed calls, texts, of just being able to disconnect. Those days are gone forever

It all changed around 2008. All in all I really prefer the 90s and the early 00s. But I doubt society will be able to go back to that incredible mindset we had! Internet was great too.

I’m so thankful my entire childhood was without computers, Internet etc.. we had our friends and lots of outdoor activities.. exploring the world around us made me ready for adulthood.

I got my first smartphone when I was in 6th grade and it all went downhill from there ever since. People of all ages today seem to become more and more dependent on the internet and social media that it’s actually crazy…I think things really started to change around 2008 when social media started to take a huge rise.

Yeah I don’t find life to be that interesting as a whole in this social media digital age. It’s like everything caters towards technology and social media wayyy too much! It takes away from so many aspects of a persons life like their communication skills, their attention span, and most importantly their time.

Reading these comments is sad. They reinforce my sense that I’m not alone in my experience of smartphones and social media. I haven’t quite pinpointed exactly what it is about smartphones, and at what point technology started to degrade my quality of life instead of improve it, but there’s definitely some time period, maybe 2008 as one commenter says.

Maybe it’s just social media that poisoned technology (a sentence that seems ironic coming from a blog), though my sense is that it’s more than that. It’s likely the deluge of never-ending information that comes to you through using the device. Not just social media feeds and posts (from Linkedin, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.), but news, texts, emails, and other notifications that make the device constantly buzz and signal you with more incoming information to process, pulling you away from life and into a digital realm.

Are we trapped in a world of smartphones and apps, in which not having one becomes impossible to function in society? Will there be a massive backlash against smartphones? Am I part of the beginning of the anti-smartphone movement?

The sad thing is that kids growing up today don’t know how life was different before smartphones. I was born in 1975 and grew up in the 80s and 90s. Those really were great times to be a kid. I loved playing baseball outdoors at the park, riding my bike and motorcycle everywhere, playing catch with my dad, and so on. All my great memories seem to take place outdoors. Today, kids interact through texts, Discord, Instagram, etc. Will they even realize how much richer and full life can be offline and outside? They might just assume that this is how life is. Looking further into the future, what kind of nostalgia will our children have about their childhood? For example, they might remember a time when they could go on walks outdoors, before the air became too hazardous to breathe.

I’ve started to wonder about my career as a technical writer, about my time blogging (which I’ve been doing since 2006). As I said, tech wasn’t always this way. In the 90s when everyone was first going online, and that first decade in 2000, tech was growing/evolving/expanding in fun, interesting ways. It was exciting. That’s when I became a technical writer. It was engaging to be working in the digital frontier, as it seemed like so much potential was ahead. And blogging, too, was such a compelling, interactive hobby.

But it does seem like tech has sort of caught up and surfaced its true face. It has made us more disengaged with those around us, diminished us as people, made us less present, more overwhelmed with too much irrelevant information, exploited our psychological vulnerabilities, and more. I just want to turn back that dial to 2000 and go back to that time. Is it even possible? This series all about finding answers to that question.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer / API doc specialist based in the Seattle area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.

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