I remember the first mobile phone I ever saw. A “car phone.” It looked a bit like an old corded telephone hooked up to a car battery in a bag that weighed 30 pounds. I thought it was awesome; my father was on the bleeding edge of a technological revolution, and he was pretty much a super hero. Was it pretty? No. Actually mobile? It couldn’t leave the car, but the car could move, so sure. Did it give us all cancer? Maybe.
In the beginning
I received my first personal cell phone when I was 16. A Nokia something-or-other. It wasn’t small enough to fit in my pocket, but it came with a case and a belt clip, so I looked like a boss. Texting was just starting to become a thing. I couldn’t understand it– why on earth would I punish myself trying to produce something legible by randomly mashing buttons (a.k.a. the super mario method, a.k.a. T9)? I’d rather call people instead. And you know what? Back then, people answered instead of ignoring you and texting you back, probably because they agreed texting was annoying, too. If they didn’t answer, you left a voicemail, which was a perfectly normal thing to do.
By the time I left for university, my cell phone was a Sony Ericsson Walkman flip phone. It was small enough to fit in my pocket, but I still wore it on a belt clip, because I was cool. That phone could actually play music, so I was also regularly wearing headphones, which really just elevated my cool factor.
During this journey, I wasn’t paying for my phone or the plan, my parents (bless their hearts) were. I never wanted to rock that boat: when it was time to get a new phone, they gave me my options, and I happily selected one. I knew that smartphones were a thing. Heck, I was a Computer Engineering major– I knew all about them. But they were expensive, and I never dared ask my parents. Then came graduation day, and First Real Job day, when I no longer mooched from my parents.
I moved across the country for work, and purchased my own phone and my own phone plan. A smartphone, obviously: the HTC One. It was perfect. The perfect size, the perfect speed. Battery life was a little annoying but that was okay, and I could actually text on the thing!
It changed my life. I didn’t need maps anymore to get around. I started texting far more than I called. I received my email on my phone, allowing me to be more responsive and use my computer less. More than anything: it put the internet at my fingertips at all times. I could learn anything at the drop of a hat. I was hooked. I purchased a new smartphone every two years, upgrading to the best thing on the market at the time, unlimited data plan, the works.
To people who know me, I’m sure this is unsurprising. I’m a pretty nerdy dude. Come on, I wore cell phones on my hip. Why wouldn’t I stay on the forefront of innovation?
So it might surprise you to know that I’m approaching the third anniversary of owning my latest phone, an Alcatel GO FLIP. Yes, a flip phone. It doesn’t even play music. That surprises people, and I’ve gotten a lot of questions about it. What happened to me? That’s what I want to tell you about today.
All was not right with the world
It really comes down to something I’m loathe to admit: I have no self-discipline. For example, the only reason I don’t weigh 300 pounds is because my lovely wife knows that if she buys chips/cookies/what-have-you, I will eat them all without prejudice. So such things stay out of the house. I don’t seem to have a problem with binge eating broccoli.
This lack of self-discipline shows itself in various ways. One was addiction. No, thankfully I’ve never struggled with alcohol or drug addiction. For me, it was information. I love learning new things so much that it can easily become “the end” instead of “the means”. This happens to everyone in some form or another: you want to make sure you can explain gimbal lock properly, so you go to the wikipedia page, where you see Apollo 11 discussed, so you check that out, where you see talk of the ATOLL programming language, so you start reading about that before you realize that you should really finish the gimbal lock thing. It got to the point where having a smartphone with me all the time was virtually that, constantly. I wasn’t continually playing games or using snapchat like the kids of today, but I was no better. In fact, I was worse. I was always sucked into learning the ins and outs of whatever tickled my fancy at that moment, which required far more focus and withdrawal from the real world than snapchat ever could.
That’s not to say I couldn’t focus. I could, and I did. In fact, I believe that this propensity is properly harnessed when writing software, and thus is a significant part of why I like to think I’m good at my job. I am obsessed with writing the best code I can, which involves constant research and learning new ways to do things. As a result, I don’t really have the same struggles when on a computer working than I do with a smartphone. No, it was my free time that slowly disintegrated.
When I got off work, I’d go into the living room where the kids were playing. I adore my sweet kids; I’d give them all hugs and enjoy the excited “daddy’s home!” reactions, then I’d plop down into the recliner and pull out my phone. The kids eventually gave up on trying to get my attention, and I only had reason to look away from my screen when they were misbehaving and needed correcting. Which meant two things: 1) they misbehaved more to get my attention, and 2) our interactions were primarily limited to my disciplining them. Neither of those were great.
I hadn’t read a book for years. My free time was spent on my phone learning something or other, but learning it in a very specific, very shallow way.
My work at Canonical over the last few years had gotten more stressful. I had to keep a lot more in my head. At the same time, it seemed like my attention span was getting shorter and shorter. My brain felt like it was fracturing, and I started getting irritable. And I still plopped in that recliner at the end of every day and pumped more useless information into my overworked head.
Suddenly, my wife made an interesting admission: “I think I’m addicted to Facebook. I feel like I’m on my phone too much when I’m around the kids, and I don’t see the quiet positive things that happen as much as the loud misbehaving. And I think that is negatively impacting our relationship.” Suddenly everything clicked into place.
I know! Let’s rely on our self-discipline!
We started a policy of leaving our phones on the shelf after work. That was nice– the kids behaved better, our relationship improved, and my brain started to heal. As you might expect, though, the lack of self-discipline bit us over and over again. We would find after a few days that we fell back into old habits, and would need to re-institute the policy, only to fall back into old habits again.
The return of T9
Finally, took the broccoli approach. We ordered flip phones. Used from ebay, because, you know, they don’t really exist anymore. We were thinking that maybe we just needed a detox. Maybe if we could actually be without smartphones for a while, we’d be able to go back and have more discipline with them.
The transition wasn’t easy, though. There have been a number of issues that we had to deal with that really ended up making this a complete life change.
No more camera in your pocket
My wife’s main gripe was the lack of a decent camera. Flip phones generally have cameras, but she liked the ability to snap the kids doing something memorable and save it forever, and no one wants to save the kind of picture that is taken by a flip phone camera. Also, she’s a photographer, so her standards are even higher than most. I actually ended up purchasing her a high-quality compact camera for her birthday. That fits in her purse, and shoots in RAW just like her real-deal cameras. She likes that, and has mostly stopped whining about this aspect of flip phones.
No more instant calendar
Something that has effected us both is the lack of a calendar system. I’ve had a Nextcloud instance for years that we used to sync our contacts and calendars on our phones. It was really nice to be able to organize things that way. My wife now maintains an actual calendar, a spiral bound book on our counter. I know that sounds annoying, but it has actually worked great. The only real downside is that you can only “check your calendar” when you’re home.
Group messaging is hit or miss
This one was a big deal. I didn’t realize 1) how often I texted all of my siblings as a group, and 2) that group messaging support in flip phones is hit or miss. It’s impossible to determine if a given flip phone supports them without trying it. My first two flip phones were misses: a Nokia and a Kyocera. I thus went years without being able to be included in a group text thread at all. I was seriously considering creating my own, to be honest. Thankfully, I think I figured it out: if the phone is based on AOSP or KaiOS, group messaging seems to be supported. The Alcatel GO FLIP uses the latter, and group messaging works great.
Thankfully, not completely T9. Even dumbphone users aren’t that masochistic. The OS is smart enough to have a dictionary and predictive text, so it can mostly figure out what you’re trying to do. It’s still tremendously annoying though, I won’t lie. And we live in a smartphone world: people expect you to text back. You should see my wife, she could probably break some records with how fast she can crank out a text on that teeny keyboard. Me… not so much. My texts are very plain and to-the-point. And you know what… maybe that’s just the kind of person I should be.
Maps and GPS
I grew up in a small town, and to this day I still don’t know any street names; I drive by landmark. I have an extraordinary inability to navigate anywhere. It’s just not one of my skills, and that’s an endless source of mirth for my wife. Thankfully, it’s one of her skills.
When I moved to the big city, though, I wasn’t married yet. Virtually the only way I could get anywhere was to either buy a map, or use the GPS on the shiny new smartphone I had. You can probably guess the direction I went with that. I became entirely dependent on that thing.
Flip phones, barring a few outliers, don’t have maps. This has been a difficult adjustment for me. When I’m going somewhere I’ve never been, I generally will just print out Google Maps directions. If it’s somewhere a long ways away, though, where I might need to take numerous detours, I actually just bring my old smartphone with an offline map. That’s what I do whenever I travel internationally as well (where I don’t have signal), and it works perfectly.
Alternative sources of music
My family is one of those that listens to music virtually constantly. At home, in the car, on an airplane, everywhere. I always purchased smartphones with a micro SD card slot so I could fit my 40GB or so of music on there. My father got us a Spotify subscription for Christmas one year, and we started using that as well. Flip phones generally do neither of these things.
When we’re in the car, we’re now listening to CDs or the radio (how retro!). For longer trips, where I generally have the old smartphone for maps anyway, we use it for music just like the old (new?) days.
Severe lack of knowing
One of the beauties of having a computer in your pocket at all times is having instant access to all of mankind’s knowledge whenever you need it. Need a recipe for garlic knots? Done. Can’t remember that joke you read? Look it up real quick so you can tell it properly. Need to explain gimbal lock? As I said earlier, I took full advantage of this with a smartphone, but ultimately it’s what drove me to a dumbphone. I’m just not made to have constant access to information like that. I’ve developed a new skill: the ability to say “I don’t know” and be okay with it.
That’s not to say I’ve stopped learning and researching things. It’s just far more… natural. Instead of isolating myself in the moment, switching contexts, and instantly satisfying my curiosity, I make a mental note. If I remember later, I’ll research it on the computer when I have some free time. If I fail to remember, well, then it wasn’t really worth knowing, was it? I think that’s really how I’m made to live. The ability to forget is a gift, and I have it for a reason. Shoving useless information into my face was how I got here in the first place. Ultimately, I’ve found the lack of knowing to be freedom.
Not just a detox
Like I said earlier, we went into this thinking that we just needed a detox. It’s been three years though, I’m not really sure we can call it that anymore. Our lives have completely changed. It’s been a long road to my brain healing, but I’m stoked with the progress I’ve made. My attention span is fantastic now. I’ve generally found that I have a lot more free time, and I spend it on a few specific things instead of dabbling lightly in several without actually doing anything. I have some open-source software that I maintain, and I’ve gotten into woodworking and reading. I can’t even tell you how many books I’ve read.
This caters to other desires I’ve always had, too. I don’t like being sold, and I don’t like being tracked, and smartphone companies make money by doing both. “If you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to fear” says the naive person who has never really considered all the ramifications.
Our relationships with our phones have changed completely. Half of the time I forget to bring mine when I leave the house. I’ll go an entire day without it before I realize it. I no longer fill silence with endless research: I have some empty space in my life. We have more meaningful discussions without any Facebook or Twitter notification sounds going off.
It definitely impacted our relationship with our kids, too. When they look up while playing, we’re actually there, we notice and give them a smile. We notice how well they’re playing together and are able to give them some positive affirmation instead of over-emphasizing the negative. We see and appreciate the sweet moments instead of only really getting jerked out of our bubble by misbehavior.
We’ve even noticed a social impact. For example, it can be awkward to sit in a doctor’s office where everyone has their nose in their phones except for you. However, we’ve noticed that people tend to randomly strike up conversations with us, and not with other people in the room. We contribute this to the fact that we’re the only people that don’t appear preoccupied. We’re suddenly more approachable, and this has made it easier to connect with people.
Ultimately, we’ve found that the upsides of this lifestyle outweigh the downsides. I suspect we’ll be “detoxing” for the forseeable future.