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Six weeks in -- returning to smartphone (but not as before)

Journey away from smartphones

by Tom Johnson on May 29, 2022 •
categories: technical-writing

All right, so you knew this post was coming. When would I abandon my basic phone and return, at some level, to a smartphone, and why? That's what this post is about. The TLDR here is that texting became too challenging on a basic phone, and it was creating more stress and disruption with my other family members who were trying to communicate with me. But let me provide more details here, because there was a key turning point.

The pivotal moment

Last Saturday was the pivotal moment in my smartphone experiment. I was coordinating a small detail with my wife, namely what type of potting soil to get at a local nursery (before driving there), and she sent me a link to the brand via email. I checked my gmail (on my computer) for her message but didn’t see the email, so I walked upstairs to verbally ask/confirm the brand, but my wife looked at me annoyed and frustrated that she had sent me a message that did not reach me due to my phone. She wouldn’t just tell me the potting soil name, so I snapped back and said well fine I’ll just go back to my desk and hit refresh again on my email and see if it comes up, or she could simply tell me the brand name now while I’m up here.

This surprised me because prior to this, I was just reflecting on how calm, unstressed, and generally peaceful I had been in having removed my smartphone from my life. But now all of a sudden, my wife was visibly frustrated, and I was snapping back.

This moment had been building. Some weeks ago, she’d been sending me texts, but they were intercepted by the Messages app on my Mac because I’d temporarily configured it to receive texts at my phone number. But I didn’t realize that texts intercepted by Mac Messages would prevent them from reaching my phone, so I was not getting her texts (which described which tampons I was to buy for one of our daughters at CVS). She had to talk me through the product label image and colors while I wandered the feminine hygiene product aisle. At the time, it wasn’t clear why I didn’t get her texts, but my new dumb phone was to blame.

So when she sent me an email about potting soil and I didn’t get it, she automatically blamed my phone. It wasn’t even my dumb phone’s fault. Sometimes emails seem to get delayed a bit, as our email applications wait an extra minute or two before refreshing. Also, I was checking my email at a computer, not through my phone. But I realized right then something important: I was using a communication technology that wasn’t aligned with the communication technologies my family was using.

Many of us grew up in pre-smartphone eras, and when we look around at people glued to their phones, who say it’s impossible to live without smartphones, we balk at this mentality and remember our own blissful childhoods where we got along just fine without smartphones. Of course you can live without a smartphone. My childhood was just fine without one growing up!

But what I’d failed to realize is this: in those pre-smartphone days, no one had smartphones. We all communicated using the standard communication technologies available back in those days — landlines, mostly. No one complained about someone not getting texts on a smartphone because neither smartphones nor texting had been invented yet. When everyone is on the same page with technology use, it’s fine. But when you’re the only one who can’t text, and everyone else prefers to text, it’s a real issue. For a historically contextualized analogy, it’s the equivalent of insisting on snail mail when everyone else has landline phones. In short, not using a smartphone in a society where smartphones are ubiquitous is a different scenario than not using a smartphone in a society where smartphones don’t exist.

From this experience I started to question other ideas. I thought that my family would enjoy me being more present. I didn’t interact with my phone during conversations with my family, as my wife often does, and I thought others would appreciate this. Isn’t Dad more attentive and present? Doesn’t he listen better? Isn’t he calmer, less stressed? Although I certainly thought so, apparently no one in my family noticed. The only thing they noticed was that I was less responsive to texts.

One time I tried sending my sister an email to coordinate something, rather than the usual text. I never heard back from her. She’s apparently all in on texting only. Same with my kids. Send them an email and they might see it next month. Send them a text and they see it within a few minutes. Which method works better?

It turns out that texting and the full keyboard are the killer features of smartphones. You can get by without most of the apps, without the camera, without a map app, without email even, but when you eliminate texting, or reduce the experience to texting on a 9-digit numeric pad, it makes life really cumbersome. Not just cumbersome for the person with the basic phone, but for everyone else who needs to communicate with the person.

The day after the potting soil argument, my 15-year-old daughter, who had also gone back to a basic phone with me, asked to revert to her smartphone (an older iPhone). Unlike me, she hadn’t made the decision to switch to a basic phone out of philosophical objections to the constant interruptions from smartphones; instead, she had wanted a flip phone due to her fascination with old TV shows that showed people using older cell phones. What broke her was spending 5 hours waiting in a parking lot outside an Urgent Care facility, waiting to see a doctor to get Tamiflu (which, by the way, does nothing except create nausea); during these 5 hours, she had only a basic phone. I can’t imagine spending 5 hours in a minivan with nothing to really read, watch, or do.

Her reversion to smartphones didn’t involve any behavior-changing realizations. She just liked Spotify, mostly. She said she didn’t notice a change in behavior before or after the switch, neither going to a basic phone nor returning to a smartphone. I was bewildered. Was my experience a placebo effect? Like, I anticipated that a certain behavior would result from the switch, and then I simply imagined that it did? Then again, she wasn’t a heavy smartphone user in the first place, nor did she have a lot of friends she texts.

The inevitable progression of technology

Before I reverted to my smartphone, I was also reading a book called What Technology Wants, by Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired, that influenced my thinking. Of all the books I’ve read, this has been my favorite because of the depth and boldness of Kelly’s ideas. Really, this book is worth checking out. Kelly says that technology keeps increasing, proliferating, diversifying, fragmenting, etc. no matter what we do. There’s both an inevitability and an acceleration about it.

He compares the emergence of technology to a living organism that keeps growing and spreading, saturating the whole planet. I plan on expanding my thoughts on Kelly’s book in another post, but in a nutshell, even people who reject technology, like the Unabomber, still end up relying on technology to live. Those who reject technology just sort of get pushed away as technology continues evolving and advancing forward. They’re like a single pebble stuck at the ground bottom in a flowing river.

Kelly has a fascinating chapter on how the Amish selectively evaluate the technology they want to adopt. And while Kelly seems to be much more ambivalent about technology’s role early on in the book, posing the question of what technology wants, probing its ultimate aim and design (trajectories, aims), and noting how he traveled across technology-ridden areas of Asia until 28, then returned to bike across America and live with minimal technology and tools, by the end of the book, he celebrates technology just like Walt Whitman celebrates leaves of grass.

Kelly sees new technology as something we figure out the best uses for, the proper ways to adapt/adjust to, etc. But ultimately, technology usually adds to our number of choices and opportunities rather than detracting from them. And by opening up more choices, technology allows us to realize our unique talents and capabilities. For example, one might say that blogging opened up opportunities for me that helped me find a space for writing, which might have otherwise become a squelched talent.

When we do share our talents, they often open up doors for others. For example, my API documentation course (spawned from my blog) has helped many people expand their skillsets. There’s a symbiotic benefit (“mutualism”) to technology, just like the mutualism that often exists in nature, where an oxpecker and rhino find a mutually beneficial relationship. With the Internet, the more that people collectively use it, the more it benefits each individual.

I realized that life was only going to get harder and harder trying to live with a basic phone. You can sort of get by now, in 2022, but what happens in 5-10 years? Technology doesn’t recede. Every year, we accelerate faster and faster. Eventually you have to learn to live with contemporary technology. You can’t run the other way. Better to figure out ways to adjust to it rather now than later.

Returning to smartphones

But you don’t have to adopt technology wholesale, especially every app on a smartphone. I think we’re still figuring out smartphones. Many of us are realizing that for as much wonder and awesomeness as it is to hold the internet in our pockets wherever we go, we’ve traded something precious for it: the ability to read long-form. In gaining the smartphone, did we give up the capacity to read books? This is where I was particularly torn, because in my six weeks with no smartphone, I’d read more books than years previous. To be specific, I read the following:

  • Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention–and How to Think Deeply Again, by Johann Hari.
  • Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, by Cal Newport (audio book)
  • Stop Reading the News: A Manifesto for a Happier, Calmer and Wiser Life, by Rolf Dobelli
  • Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy, by James Williams
  • Autonomy: The Quest to Build the Driverless Car, by Lawrence Burns
  • Ludicrous: The Unvarnished Story of Tesla Motors, by Edward Neidermeyer (got half way through the book and lost it)
  • Autonorama: The Illusory Promise of High-Tech Driving, by Peter Norton
  • The Loop: How Technology Is Creating a World Without Choices and How to Fight Back, by Jacob Ward (got half way through and gave up due to boredom and bad writing)
  • The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr.
  • The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, by Tim Wu (audio book)
  • WALKABLE CITY: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, by Jeff Speck (audio book)
  • What Technology Wants, by Kevin Kelly.

In a personal way, I rediscovered the joy of reading. If I returned to my smartphone, would I stop reading books?

There’s only one way to find out. I switched my SIM card back into my smartphone (a Google Pixel 5a) and put my basic Kyocera DuraXV Extreme phone for sale on eBay. With this move, I began the second phase of my experiment: living with a stripped down smartphone.

My adjusted rules

Even though I’d returned to the smartphone, I still wanted to keep many of the previous rules I’d set. As I said, when new technologies come out, they often undergo an adjustment period as we try to figure out how to best integrate them into our lives, what boundaries we set for them, and so on. It’s not too unlike figuring out the best route to commute to work. I spent many mornings trying out different combinations of car + train + bike before settling on the commute I prefer the most. Same with my smartphone rules here. Consider this a phase two of my rules.

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Here’s a reassessment of my initial rules, with my notes about whether to keep, modify, or drop the rules:

Use a dumb phone instead of a smartphone

  • Modify — switch back to a smartphone but strip it down to essential apps only. Get rid of social and news apps on your phone. Social media apps are what require constant checking, which is the behavior to avoid. Basically, remove any motive to be constantly reading your phone except email. Keep other practices from before as well: remove work email but not calendar or work access. Remove work chat, groups.

Carry the phone in a bag, and don’t sleep with it on your nightstand

  • Keep — one exception here is if you’re biking and listening to audio books.

Prefer calling instead of texting

  • Drop — I’m not sure that calling unlocked anything exciting for me. I wanted to have richer, more frequent conversations with my family, but it didn’t happen too often. Texting is just too convenient.

Turn off notifications (except from family)

  • Keep — Putting the phone on permanent Do Not Disturb seemed to be a good move.

Stop reading the [daily] news

  • Modify — I felt a bit like I’d stuck my head in the sand. Consider limiting your news intake to one newspaper, and spend no more than 5-10 minutes per day on news. I’ve never been a news junkie or anything, so I might be over-indexing on this point.

Unsubscribe from newsletters that don’t have high value to you

  • Keep — I love having space to breathe in my email. I do feel a bit out of touch, though. I still find it hard to put my finger on which newsletters I miss.

Avoid social media

  • Modify — I might have overdone my digital detox. Maybe allow a few outlets here. Not sure. Although I participate on Twitter and Linkedin, my participation has always been minimal. I usually just post links to new blog posts on these networks. Like the news, I’m probably singling these sources out too much.

Don’t rely on mapping applications for directions

  • Modify — I like developing my sense of direction, but I will allow smartphone map use in certain conditions, like going to new/unfamiliar areas, times of emergency, or other needs, like finding a Taco Bell when we’re off our normal route.

Use a separate camera

  • Keep — I like the larger camera for any kind of capturing of family events and other photography. Allow the smartphone for a utilitarian use of the camera, such as remembering a parking spot.

Use a tablet or smartphone only for specialized apps when there’s no alternative

  • Drop — not necessary if the apps are available on my phone. What are these specialized apps? Cue reader (at-home Covid tests), banking apps, mobile ticket apps, membership card apps.

Realizations about reading

The neat thing about experiments is that they lead to realizations that wouldn’t come otherwise. In using a basic phone for six weeks, I made a number of realizations, specifically related to reading. In no particular order, here they are:

  • Still no creative flow. I did not slip into moments of creative flow, unfortunately. It’s been years since I slipped into a state of prolonged flow while writing that lasted more than an hour. (Maybe this mindstate doesn’t exist with tech comm?) Part of the problem is that even giving up a smartphone, it reduced only a sliver of tech from my life. My main habitat is the computer, where I work all day as a technical writer and then in my spare time as a blogger. The times when I’m away from a computer are actually scarce, so I’m not sure why I thought giving up a smartphone would magically transform my life. Giving up a computer, on the other hand, really would change things. But since I primarily write on a computer and work on documentation, blog posts, or coding, giving up a computer would mean giving up my occupation, hobbies, and identity. These technologies allow me to think, and then rearrange those thoughts into coherent narratives. There would be no point in giving up computers because their influence is overwhelmingly positive in my life.

  • Neuroplasticity. The brain is plastic, and it learns by repetition. If you constantly read by scrolling feeds, skimming and scanning, then you’re training your brain to consume information in that pattern. This pattern doesn’t work for reading books that have long arguments that require page after page of concentrated, slow reading. I think people might be way too alarmist in lamenting how the internet is changing our brains. I seem to have fixed everything in a matter of a few weeks. There’s also a potentially simple solution to it all. You don’t have to abandon the internet to reclaim your book reading. Just print out the long-ish articles that you want to read. This leverages the best of the net (findability, selection, access) while maximizing the focus of offline reading. I even realized that I can print entire chapters from O’Reilly books online! This floored me because I’ve had this subscription for years (I grandfathered in at a cheap price), but I never use it as much as I should.

  • Cultural shifts about long-form content. If no one reads anymore, will books die out? At what point do books hit a free fall where book publishers throw in the towell and try to reinvent the genre (like O’Reilly Books Online, where everything is modular?) Do we still try to write for book readers, or do we chop everything up into pages consisting of 500 words or less? Even developers, famous for their dislike of long-text reading, prefer long web pages. They say they prefer long web pages so they can use Ctrl+F to find things, but long pages also provide more context, coherence, and structure to information.

  • High-level summaries. Getting high-level summaries of things can be really helpful. e.g., Blinkist. This is how I discovered the first book that I really wanted to read in full. Using the same app, I was able to get a gist of some other books that I thought might be appealing but which actually weren’t. With so much information, we need summarization to figure out what to pay attention to. It’s really hard to pick a book that exactly addresses what you’re trying to learn/answer/solve. Additionally, not all books are worth all their printed pages, so there’s a possibility that you feel compelled to read a book that isn’t actually addressing the information you want, solely because you purchased the book and have read half of it. New advanced in AI announced at Google should allow for more computer-generated summaries of information, which will help us find and assess material faster.

  • Tech writing and reading. Previously, I wondered why we tech writers spend so much time interfacing with a computer instead of reading. I mean, we’re always looking at the screen, from the moment we arrive to work until we leave. Why? One reason why tech writers don’t read so much (at work) is because we’re working on the cusp of knowledge, trying to gather information that isn’t written down coherently anywhere. It’s not as if we can just read a book about what we’re documenting. If we could, there would be no purpose to writing your documentation. As such, we’re using the computer as a tool for gathering, collecting, finding information sources, and then writing.

Some situations that become very difficult with a basic phone

Finally, I want to note some scenarios that become problematic with a basic phone, in case anyone else is considering a similar experiment.

  • Emergencies. I had to go to the emergency room in downtown Seattle in the middle of the night (not a time sensitive issue), and while I navigated there by memorizing the directions from Google Maps on my computer, there was road construction that routed me off course. I found the ER (with a little meandering), but I could have easily ended up in Bellevue. I had another week where I had to go to multiple Urgent Care facilities in distant towns (Marysville, Everett), followed by Taco Bell after I picked up my sick kid from science camp in Stanwood (2 hrs from my house). Try doing this with paper maps or by memorizing/writing down instructions on paper. I did memorize the route there, but also ended up tethering my old smartphone for part of the trip, as I didn’t think it appropriate to prioritize my technology experiment at the expense of someone’s health. But this prompts another question. For emergencies, do you always need to have a smartphone or tablet as a backup navigation device? And if so, isn’t this a bit expensive, having two devices?

  • Specialized apps. There are a small handful of apps that aren’t available on the desktop. For example, the Cue reader. This is an at-home Covid test kit + app that is the most convenient thing I’ve had during the pandemic (thanks Google!). Every time a kid misses school due to flu-like symptoms, we have to provide a negative covid test for their return. Some other specialized apps include banking apps, mobile-only ticket apps, and more.

  • Spam. I’m not sure why Verizon can’t identify “CBD gummies” texts as spam, but they can’t. Mostly, phone companies seem to rely on spam filtering apps on smartphones to deal with spam. But on basic phones, there aren’t any spam filters. There’s also not a Do Not Disturb option. Try configuring the ring and notification options so they’re off for everyone but on for contacts on your Favorites list — it’s not easy to figure this out. I probably spent more time hacking workarounds on my phone than I ever anticipated.

  • Cost. Basic phones aren’t cheap. Nowadays, they’re non-standard, boutique devices. A new Kyocera DuraXV Extreme costs $240. As I started switching to paper everything, I bought a handful of maps, lots of books, some security keys, music CDs, a grammar reference, a large dictionary (this purchase really irked my wife), some new photography lenses, various shoulder bags to carry my electronics in, and more. So yeah, the transition to an offline world is not cheap, ironically. My wife insists that I add all of these costs up. When I told her I was using my smartphone again, she was only too happy to say “I told you so!” The glee in saying this only slightly offset her frustration at how much I spent on this phone experiment.

  • Texting. As I noted earlier, typing on a 9-digit pad doesn’t work well. But also, when someone sends you an image attachment, it’s often not viewable on the tiny screen. I ended up forwarding texts with images and links to another text number that I could view on the web (messages.textfree.us). It was kind of ridiculous. And just as the screen is too small to see images and text well, any APKs you sideload have only a marginal chance of being something you can navigate (with the Apps4flip Mouse cursor in mouse mode).

  • Missed meetings. Since I didn’t have my work calendar active, I missed a few early morning meetings. For example, I didn’t think I had a 9am Monday morning meeting because who in their right mind schedules a meeting for this time? But when I logged into my computer and glanced at my calendar, I realized I was 24 minutes late to it. I felt so dumb. This happened a couple of other times, where I was just oblivious to a meeting because I didn’t have any notification reminder for it.

By the way, many basic phones are more limiting than the one I had (which had an Android operating system). I could still sideload APKs like Audible and Voxer onto it. Without Audible, I would have probably carried around my Kindle and bluetoothed to it or something cumbersome like that. I did a lot of texting by emulating my phone on my computer using Vysor and scrcpy, which could be too techy for mainstream users.

Conclusion

Although it seems like I flip-flopped a bit on my technology choices, I’ve come to realize that there’s a whole genre of literature written by people who feel ambivalent about technology (e.g., see The Machine in the Garden by Leo Marx). The whole “pastoral” genre of people yearning to return to nature is an example. Even Kevin Kelly notes that the same technology that offers virtues introduces vices as well; it opens new opportunities while also introducing new problems. In my opinion, smartphones are the posterchild of this mixed benefit that technology offers. Kelly writes:

If we examine technologies honestly, each one has its faults as well as its virtues. There are no technologies without vices and none that are neutral. The consequences of a technology expand with its disruptive nature. Powerful technologies will be powerful in both directions — for good and bad. There is no powerfully constructive technology that is not also powerfully destructive in another direction, just as there is no great idea that cannot be greatly perverted for great harm. (246)

And he later says, “The greater the promise of a new technology, the greater its potential for harm as well” (246). This isn’t too unlike other sayings — With great risk comes great reward. Or with great talent comes great responsibility. So it is with tech: With great possibility for good comes great possibility for harm.

This reassures me that my smartphone concerns and experiment has not been a fool’s errand. There are serious consequences for the reading behavior that smartphones seem to encourage. I’m noticing it more and more. On my bike ride home (through the heart of downtown Seattle), I watched as the cyclist in front of me checked her phone at two stoplights. On the train, someone came up to me and asked if he could plug his smartphone into my computer because it was dead. I politely said no, since it was a work computer. And also, I didn’t mention it, but c’mon, really? Did he need to play Candy Crush on his ride home? He seemed flummoxed, as if I were denying him first aid. But as I disembarked, I noticed he was engaged in a lively conversation with another passenger sitting across from him. All is not lost.

Continue on with the next post in this series, Random notes on recovering the lost art of reading.

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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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