1.5. One month in without a smartphone -- growing doubts about the value of technology in general
- Books, printing things out
- Driving without a screen
- ebikes … nope
- Shutting off incoming email from lists, groups, newsletters
- Music on CDs
- Flip phones and Voxer, texting
- Deeper doubts about technology
Books, printing things out
I abandoned my smartphone about a month ago. Not only had I continued to read and enjoy reading, but I had also begun to wonder if perhaps I needed to review each book I read. Earlier, when I finished 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 started thinking maybe a few short paragraphs, or maybe not at all? I wanted to retain the information, to remember the arguments and reasons, and so on. But did I need to write a review for that?
In reading more, I had initially thought Kindle would be the way to go, but early on, when I couldn’t get one of the books I wanted on Kindle and so ordered the print version, I realized that consuming print material was 10x more enjoyable for me. In fact, I had grown to hate reading from screens altogether—not just smartphone screens. If someone sent me a long email (e.g., a work-related newsletter), I printed it out. I could focus better, annotate it, and save it when reading in print. I enjoyed reading from paper. It turned out that used books, especially popular books with lots of surplus, were much cheaper than Kindle versions anyway.
When did we all start reading exclusively on screens in the first place? Screens were too distracting. Not only were there dozens of links to click on each page, but there was no commitment in staying on the screen for any prolonged period of time. As a result, it was too easy to jump from page to page, task to task, until I was scatter-brained and unfocused. By printing something out, I could take my focus off the screen and read linearly for longer periods. It was a much more enjoyable experience to read offline.
While initially I developed a distaste for smartphone screens (due to 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 and stare at our smartphones, then we sit at our desks and stare at computer screens all day at work, then in the evenings we look at TV screens for entertainment. Those driving the latest 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 satisfying, 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. There are no more screens in my car beyond the blue built-in infotainment displays.
I needed to drive 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. 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 vendor 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.
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 finding a 7-11 to use a kiosk. 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 view the group messages online on my own schedule.
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’m trying to reduce the whole cycle of variable rewards that powers the drive to constantly check email.
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.
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 handful for a dollar each (one included Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which brought memories of watching Fantasia back to my kids). I realized that I could get classical music from the radio, from Spotify, or elsewhere, but I liked being offline. I liked having more control and awareness of what I’m listening to. I liked being unplugged. There was something deeply calming about it, not to be interrupted by someone speaking between each track.
The point-and-shoot camera I bought (a Canon Powershot Elph 180) was 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 wanted to spend.
Then I remembered that I actually had 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 took 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 was bulky and not something I could stuff in my pocket. But you know what? I’ve noticed that I mostly just took 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 was okay to bring a bulky camera. I didn’t actually need to have a camera always in my pocket (and if I did, my flip phone had a crappy camera that I could resort to, for example, to take a picture of where I parked).
I printed out the Nikon D60 manual (200 pages long) and started to read it, re-learning how to actually use the camera. I had 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 easy to use 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 indispensable—the camera, the mapping application, etc.—might not be so helpful after all. Could life actually be better without them? So far, yes! Taking pictures was fun again. I felt like I was rediscovering photography. Here are some pictures I took with the DSLR.
I thought back to the photography classes I took in high school (especially developing photos in the darkroom). I loved those classes! In using a smartphone, I grew to forget how enjoyable it actually was 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 for 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 for each other during the day. So basically, Voxer and Audible are the only APKs I’ve sideloaded onto my flip phone.
I was still glad that I had gotten a phone with an Android operating system (Android 9) so that I could sideload APKs onto it. As I had said previously, the screen was so small and the interaction so tedious that even if I were to sideload a social media app onto it, the app would be too cumbersome to use. To use Voxer, I had to triple-click my asterisk key to switch my cursor into mouse mode, slowly move the mouse over the buttons I wanted to use, etc. When finished, I triple-clicked 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 preferred those real-time conversations to Voxer. But real-time conversations weren’t always convenient, for example, if I was focused on some task or a meeting and my wife wanted to chat, or when I wanted to chat but she had a meeting right then. In those situations, Voxer worked better. This was a scenario that I was sort of mixed about. Presumably, having a basic phone helped reduce disruptions. However, if I always took calls in real-time, I opened myself to more disruptions. But disruptions from my family were usually good ones that I welcomed. And ultimately, I liked to have talked on the phone more with my family. So I wasn’t really looking to find a better way to text because, as Jonathan Foer wrote, texting diminished us. Foer explained:
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. . . . 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 needed 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 was astonishing.) I wasn’t great at phone conversations, I admit, but I shouldn’t have been looking for ways to text instead of talking on the phone. I imagined that, like all the other activities I had learned to enjoy (driving within an app, taking pictures with a real camera, etc.), speaking with other humans on the phone was something that would enrich my life more, if I put in the effort to do it.
Deeper doubts about technology
I kept looking for opportunities to get less techy in my life. I started to have deeper doubts about the value of technology that had transformed our lives. I began to wonder whether technology made our lives worse. For sure, all of these single-function devices I had resorted to were forms of technology, so I wasn’t so sure why I had turned against the latest forms of tech. The DSLR camera was a much more sophisticated piece of technology than a pinhole camera, for example, and probably more sophisticated than a smartphone camera. My flip phone was a remarkable piece of technology too, no doubt. And so was the music CD. Perhaps it was simply novel and different for me to revert to retro technology, a phase I would soon outgrow.
But it seemed like the technology that I was reacting against at that time was the always online, always connected tech that entailed apps and screens with incoming messages and other information to continually distract and pull away or fragment my attention, or which pulled 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: “How Social Media is Destroying Society,” by Common Knowledge (youtube.com/watch?v=yJ9oEi3Yyg0).
The video was great but didn’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 those comments was sad. They reinforced my sense that I wasn’t alone in my experience with smartphones and social media. I hadn’t quite pinpointed exactly what it was about smartphones, and at what point technology started to degrade my quality of life instead of improving it, but there was definitely some time period, maybe 2008 as one commenter said.
Maybe it was just social media that had poisoned technology (a sentence that seemed ironic coming from a blog), though my sense was that it was more than that. It was likely the deluge of never-ending information that came 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 made the device constantly buzz and signal you with more incoming information to process, pulling you away from life and into a digital realm.
Were we trapped in a world of smartphones and apps, in which not having one made it impossible to function in society? Would there be a massive backlash against smartphones? Was 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 were great times to be a kid. I loved playing baseball outdoors in 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 take walks outdoors, before the air became too hazardous to breathe.
I 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 exciting to work in the digital frontier, as it seemed like so much potential was ahead. And blogging, too, was such a compelling, interactive hobby.
But it did seem like technology had caught up and revealed its true face. It had 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 wanted to turn the dial back to 2000 and rewind back to that time. Was it even possible? That experiment was all about finding answers to that question.
About Tom Johnson
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