1.3. First experiences in moving away from smartphones
Getting a basic phone
I debated just leaving my smartphone on Do Not Disturb permanently and keeping it in my bag. However, my daughter, who’s into vintage and the 80s, kept asking me for a flip phone, which made me continue wondering what life might actually be like with a flip phone. I deliberated back and forth for about a week. Eventually, I figured the only way would be to experiment, so why not? And if I could get my daughter off smartphones in the process, all the better.
Flip phones are expensive (because they’re not mainstream devices). I had a few basic requirements, such as hotspot capability, texting, 4G capability, carrier compatibility, etc. I bought a used Kyocera DuraXV Extreme for about $200 (and got a similar one for my daughter). The phone was a learning and experimentation period for us both.
I had to re-learn how to use a flip phone. (For example, you turn it on by holding down the End button, remember?) The operational how-to came back to me within a few days. It’s a much more button-based experience, with a screen that you navigate using a D-pad controller rather than a mouse. (The D-pad controller is a circular ring that has a button press for each side—up, down, right, left—and center. There’s no touch screen.)
The Kyocera DuraXV Extreme actually runs on Android 9, which turns out to be useful. Because the phone runs on Android 9, you can interface with it (using something called Android Debug Bridge, adb) to install apps or make other updates. When I worked at Amazon, I frequently used adb to sideload Android APKs onto Fire TV and Echo devices, so I was already familiar with this process, as is anyone who develops on Android.
Flip phones don’t have an app store, but you can sideload any apps you want through adb and see if they work. (You just search for the app name + APK and download it.) Most apps these days don’t actually support D-pad controllers. However, one app from Apps4Flip even switches your phone into mouse mode so you can operate touch-screen apps (see youtube.com/watch?v=D3fqvtsI4E8).
It takes a bit of poking around to find the downloadable APK file; then once you do, it’s hit or miss whether it works after you install it. If it does work, you then have the challenge of manipulating the app on a screen the size of a triscuit.
The Kyocera also had Bluetooth, so I could pair my Bluetooth headphones to it or connect it to my car’s speakers. It also had an earphone jack. With the Audible app and my earphones, I could listen to books both in my car and while walking or cycling.
I recorded a video showing various features of the phone here: https://idbwrtng.com/kyocera.
The Kyocera had a camera but with such poor quality, I avoided using it for anything noteworthy. It also had an alarm function, but as per my rules, I wanted to avoid bringing my phone into my bedroom. Hence I started buying single-function devices: a camera and an alarm clock.
I bought the most compact point-and-shoot I could find. For the alarm clock, I bought a 1980s GE electric alarm clock, just like the one I had growing up. The alarm clock worked great, and I loved rotating the dial to change the FM radio station. The alarm clock was so old that if I unplugged it, there wasn’t even a backup battery.
I wasn’t sure what was happening to me, but suddenly I wanted to turn back time and live in the 80s again, or go back to the early days of the internet (90s), when everything was just coming online. I felt like I was going through a serious anti-tech phase. Would it last?
I also returned to carrying around a separate wallet (rather than using a smartphone case that includes a wallet case built-in). Using more single-function devices (phone, wallet, camera), I needed a sling bag to carry them. Admittedly, the sling bag was a mens’ purse (murse) but if slung diagonally (commando-like), it looked more masculine. Carrying my phone this way (in the bag, out of sight) deterred me from interacting with it.
Texting on a basic phone, with its 9-digit number pad, proved the greatest challenge. I couldn’t find a technical workaround that made texting easy. The only workaround was to mirror the entire device on my computer and text from my computer keyboard, but this required connecting my phone to my computer. I upgraded from scrcpy to Vysor for phone mirroring, but this didn’t solve texting when I wasn’t at a computer. I tried making phone calls more, and at times this resulted in a positive, more enriching conversation. But most of the time, it was just cumbersome.
By the way, I recorded a short video showing some of these features on the Kyocera.
Conclusions so far
Overall, the switch to a basic phone was both novel and fun. I enjoyed the reduced number of interruptions, and I felt my focus strengthening. Instead of distracting myself with my phone, I started reading more books. For example, I read Autonorama by Peter Norton. Was reading books better than consuming incoming information on a phone? Yes, it was. I also realized that I preferred reading paper-based books more than the e-ink screens of Kindles. I also started printing content at work (for example, long newsletters or engineering documents). It was easier to focus while reading on paper, and it allowed me to annotate with a pen.
I blocked Reddit through Freedom (freedom.to) to pre-commit myself to not relapse at 9pm at night when my brain was tired and I was ready to decompress. And shifted my focus away from reading the news, which was also a game-changer. I grew less aware of world events (such as the latest about the Ukraine war). The reduced information overload created more boredom and disconnection in my life, which I filled by reading more books. I started sleeping better, too, though not as deeply as I’d hoped.
The larger question I had was whether all the inconveniences of moving away from smartphones outweighed the benefits. So far, the answer seemed to be yes. But just like credit cards had become table stakes in modern society, smartphones too. I found that I could not go to live events (for example, a professional soccer game) without an e-ticket saved to my mobile wallet. Literally, it was not possible to print the ticket. But beyond a few random scenarios, which could be remedied by using an old tablet, I was able to get along just fine. And I felt more present and capable of listening when others talked to me.
I had another realization. Johann Hari’s alarmist writing about our fragmented attention span in Stolen Focus was probably over-inflated. I seemed to be mostly back to my old self (the college self I reminisced about in my awakening post) after a month. The Internet didn’t permanently rewire my brain. My brain was much more neuroplastic than I had assumed. In my experience, “rewriting” my brain didn’t take much.
I thought about some other experiences where I had rewired my brain. For example, when I first started posting regularly on Twitter, I inadvertently taught my brain to think in tweets. Ideas for cleverly worded tweets just started popping into my mind. But once I stopped posting on Twitter, the tweet-thoughts disappeared.
Same with dreams. Have you ever kept a dream journal? One time, as a teen, I started writing down my dreams. Doing so made me remember more of my dreams. Before long, I was remembering my dreams practically every morning. But after I abandoned the effort (because my dreams were nonsense), I stopped remembering my dreams.
If you read feeds all day, constantly scanning and skimming, you teach your brain to operate in this mode—short attention, process, assess, file, act, next, etc. Your brain then adopts the same pattern in other contexts, such as reading books, even though books require more slow-form, sequential reading patterns. At any rate, in reflecting on alarmist writing about how the Internet might be rewiring our brains, I started to dismiss the alarmist concerns. Have smartphones and the internet, with its profit-driven attention economy, wrecked our ability to focus and permanently changed who we are? Not really. At least, for me personally, I’ve found that my brain could be retrained without too much effort.
What I want to achieve long-term, however, was optimal Tom. I was convinced that I could think and work better without my smartphone, and I wanted to take this to the next level, getting into states of productive focus and flow. I still found myself, even without any external interrupters, looking for a distraction. For example, while working on documentation, I would frequently stop because it was mentally taxing. During the break, I would respond to about half a dozen blog comments, then return 20 minutes later to the documentation task. Ideally, I wanted to get to a state where I didn’t have any internal compulsion for distraction.
About Tom Johnson
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