My Life Without A Smartphone

I've worked in online media for years but I've never owned a smartphone. Here's why I don’t feel like I'm missing out.

Maybe I should be embarrassed when I pull out my nearly 10-year-old flip phone, but I’m not--not even a little bit.

There might have been a time when I felt self-conscious, and I’m sure that I’ve been judged as out of touch, but I’m actually kind of proud that I’ve held out this long.

How it Started

Let’s get one thing clear right away: I’m not a Luddite. I’m on social media, I’m up to date on new apps and tech startups, I get most of my news online, and I spend far too many hours on email.

I haven’t forgone getting a smartphone as some sort of anti-establishment statement; I just never got one.

I was in good company for a long time, until a few years ago, when my world reached a near saturation point. Suddenly it seemed like everyone I worked with, all of my friends, every person walking toward me on the sidewalk, and even my less-connected Midwest family were entranced by thumbing tiny screens.

And it’s not just my anecdotal observation: Widely cited found that over a billion people worldwide now have smartphones. In fact, according to research from the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, as of January, 58% of Americans own a smartphone. And when you break it out by my demographic--urban-dwelling college graduates between the ages 30 and 49--I’m in an even smaller minority of about 20%.

The Connectivity Question

One of the most common reactions I get when people hear I don’t have a smartphone is, “Oh, I wish I could do that, but I need it for work.”

I understand why you feel that way: There are numerous studies about how much we check in with work on our phones at meals, in bed, when sick, and even on vacation, and worse how much our bosses expect us to.

But I can almost guarantee that this isn’t necessary.

I have a cell phone: I can be reached in an emergency when I’m not at work. I have a laptop: I can check email, social media, etc. remotely (I’ve even live-tweeted events).

But there has never been an email that needed to be read or answered in the time I’m walking between the subway and my apartment, or standing in line at the grocery store, or having dinner with friends.

The Trap of Convenience

Sure, there are some situations where having a smartphone makes life more convenient, but I would argue that they could be part of the downfalls of owning such a device--inconvenience breeds resourcefulness and curiosity.

I’m often more prepared with directions and addresses because I can’t look it up on the fly, or I’m more apt to try (and sometimes fail) to find my way on my own or interact with strangers to ask for directions.

I write things down, which has been proven to spark creativity and build a better memory.

When in conversation with friends, I’ll try to remember what actor was in a certain film or when an event took place, rather than halting the conversation to look it up. And if I can’t remember, I’m okay not knowing.

In a time when every mystery your brain creates can be instantly solved by a search query, there is a refreshing joy in not knowing something.

The Painfully Difficult Task of Paying Attention

Most of life can be so excruciatingly dull: We spend hours standing in line, commuting, and waiting. It’s forgivable that we distract our minds with email, tweets, texts, and 35 tabs open on our browsers.

The problem is, divided out like that, we are left as partially everywhere and fully nowhere. We live with a constant Fear of Missing Out; but in need to fill the moments documenting life and making sure we don’t miss an email or update, we miss out being present in life, a sentiment beautifully illustrated in the viral “I forgot my phone” short film from last year.

A recent study from Tel Aviv University of smartphone users relative to their old-school, flip-phone counterparts, came to the unsurprising conclusion that smartphone users were more detached from their physical surroundings, and, when asked about a place that they had just visited, they were far less likely to remember anything about it.

The problem is smartphones combine the main spheres of your life: your social network, your work, your news source, and your personal conversations. As the researchers found, for smartphone users, the social norms of the physical world are often trumped in favor of this device that holds it all.

The Case for Boredom

A bigger problem perhaps even than the social etiquette breaches and distracted lives that smartphones are leading us to live is the way the devices affect our brains.

Smartphones have been linked to both sleep and concentration problems, as well as a lack of empathy.

Perhaps the most detrimental effect is that we longer know how to be bored. Boredom is a gift to creative ideas; it’s time when your mind can wander and make new connections. But the easy distraction that smartphones offer kills the empty moments that make life what it is.

Of course ownership of a smartphone doesn’t make you a better or worse person; it doesn’t automatically make you less mindful or empathetic. The act of checking out of life because it’s boring or painful is an easy reflex regardless of technology that makes it easier, and like anything else in life, owning a smartphone is what you make of it.

To live and work in the world today is to be tethered by technology for better and worse. No matter how I resist it I know that someday (probably soon) my “dumbphone” will bite the dust. Then I’ll be just like you, and I’ll likely wonder how I ever lived without Instagram at my immediate disposal.

My hope is that in those moments of boredom, I’ll remember what it’s like to let my mind wander and I’ll leave my phone in my purse.

[Image via Shutterstock]

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36 Comments

  • hashton

    Personally, I'm sick & tired of being connected to everything all the time. I think things will circle around eventually, and being more off the grid will be the new goal. I value my privacy more as I see most folks around me so eager to share all aspects of their lives on social media. And how boring are we, that we can't handle a few idle moments with ourselves, without checking in on our smart phones. We have the attention span of two years olds.

  • dumbphone214

    Well said! I do NOT want to make myself THAT connected and available. Not to mention the money I saved by NOT purchasing any phones, plans or apps!

  • jessie137

    Smartphones have given me a vague feeling of discomfort for a long time now. It just feels like societies pinnacle point in waste, self-obsession and ease, but at the same time, it's very difficult to give a reason why people shouldn't have something that can be useful in so many day-to-day situations, so it was nice to read this article. Here's hoping your brick survives many more years.

  • jessie137

    Smartphones have given me a vague feeling of discomfort for a long time now. It just feels like societies pinnacle point in waste, self-obsession and ease, but at the same time, it's very difficult to give a reason why people shouldn't have something that can be useful in so many day-to-day situations, so it was nice to read this article. Here's hoping your brick survives many more years.

  • I'm right there with you! I don't have a smart phone either. I do have a cell phone and within the year I finally started texting. My husband doesn't have a cell but the simple fact is that no one used to have one and we all did just fine. It's a convenience not a necessity for most of us. Unfortunately what I'm seeing is that people are losing their social etiquette as they are constantly head down looking at their phone. I love the idea of all the information and communication at your fingertips all the time but I reality is that it comes with a lot of consequences and not all of them are good.

  • I love this article!

    I definitely agree to this because I've been experiencing the thing (especially, when main actress tries to talk to her friends and was forced not to continue her story in the video). I really enjoy talking to my friends when I see them, because this is the time where I can see their true expressions rather than seeing bunch of emojis. Thanks to this article, I'm proud to say that I'm not alone!

  • 3rd Page

    I don't believe smart phones are just a mere device for convenience. Your mention of checking emails, and news in an instance isn’t a way to shed boredom. Of course this all could depend on which generation you grew up in.

    You can remember the times when this world lived without smart phones, I can too growing up in the early 90’s, but again, that was when mobile phones, internet and ipads were not around yet, or became the trend.
    My generation saw the invention of the Nokias, played the snake snare, but now have moved onto the smart phones. This is not conforming to society. This I believe is the culture of today.

  • 2nd Page

    Whatsapp lets us chat in group messages, normal SMS cannot. Referring to the latest incident of the Korean ferry that sank, the students whatsapped each other before their last moments.

    Apps also fuels creativity. It inspires designers, and inventors to continue the work, and to improve. It is pushing the boundaries of what we can invent and achieve.

    Think about the Tudor and Victorian times, it is the same thing, we look back and think to ourselves, how did they live like that? It is just the time and culture of today changing. The generation now is the generation growing up with smart phones, 20 years later, it will be another thing, and people will make the same points you are making.

  • Warning- long reply!

    I understand your point, but I don't fully agree with it. I believe smart phones and apps have also improved in the way we live. In a world and society where brands, people and technology is constantly on the move and updating itself, it is important for people to know what is going on.

    If you own a business, and you do not have a smart phone, you are already behind on the apps, or the target market you are aiming for are already in front. I believe you need to be constantly up-to date with the going on’s behind people, brands etc. For example, instagram enables us to follow people, bands and brands on what they are doing. Knowing what they are doing gives us an idea of what to expect, and from a business perspective, it is vital to be in the know of competitors. This not only gives us time to quickly absorb market information, based on a number of likes, but also if there was no competition in this world, there would be no improvement in the way we live.

  • Yet again, people are mistaking the concept of 'free time' for 'boredom'. Boredom has a much higher correlation with depression than with freedom or creativity. Boredom IS the enemy, and will always be an enemy. Time to think is not an enemy. Until you can distinguish between free time and boredom, you will never reach the heightened state of awareness you seek.

  • Darryl Willis

    I have a smart phone because it is provided by my company. And I have caught myself mindlessly checking email (even though I had just checked it a minute before). However, I am at least able to turn the thing off and leave it behind many times during the day.

    Your point is very well taken. We are becoming less present in the moment and space than we have been in the past.

    And yes, boredom is not the great enemy! I think mindlessness is!

  • Will Forster

    I really appreciated reading this article! It summarises all the drawbacks of being conjoined to a smartphone that I've experienced very astutely (and non-prejudiciously) - the paragraph about halting the conversation to look up a detail as if without it the conversation would fall apart is especially poignant. What would we do without knowing that one fact? Well, engage in the moment and think around it. Theres something nice too about people bejng honest and saying they don't know sone thing precisely and being able to move the conversation on to other places - that's a bit more interesting that way, isn't it? Also, the phase being ' left partially everywhere and fully nowhere' is very poetic. As a smartphone user I've recently come to realise that a large part of my deteriorated work ethic these days is down to my not actually wanting, nor seeing clearly the reasons, to commit to one important thing (currently getting my degree), partly due to the points you've mentioned above.

  • People are also perfectly capable of tuning out the present using old school cell phones. On the other hand, I have a smart phone that I almost never use in social situations because I consider that rude. So, there.

    I agree with your mindset, though. Use the tech that works for you and don't worry about mainstream trends.

  • ME: Don't have Don't need Don't give a shit DO see the world around me

    I have a cellphone. It is an elementary cellphone. I only turn it on when I want to make a call.

    So, why haven't I croaked from old fashioneditis?

  • I never have a Smart phone too.. and even more I don't have a cell phone just have a landline, internet at home that's it, I just don't need it.

    I work in the computer field, programming, debugging & pass over 5 hour a day on a computer for my job, I even help users with their smartphone...

    I don't want to have one cause I know I could lost lot of time "cheking" and for me TIME & especially QUALITY time is very precious.

    I was one of the first in my city to have a pager and after I upgraded to a cell phone caus I worked on the road and now I work mostly from my home so I have no need for a cell phone of smartphone.

    If somebody want to reach me they can leave a message on the answering machine & the message is forwarded to my email that I look at least once a day.

    If I'M on the road and need to talk to somebody right now I just ask to somebody to borrow his cell that's it ! :)

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  • Troy Kennedy

    I'm sure there were plenty articles similar to this when televisions reached peak adoption (they said "what happened to playing in the park with friends?"). Then the same thing when cellular phones (dumb phones) became ubiquitous (they said "why, I already have a phone at home").

    It seems as soon as some technologies reach a peak adoption there always an argument that says I prefer things the way they were. It's as assured as night following day. Personally, I just find it boring and unhelpful.

    There are always pros and cons with all things. However, the world will always go forward, technologies that reach mass adoption will never go away they will just evolve into something different as times progress.

    So instead of the inevitable and boring "why does anyone need this new thing" articles how about writing about ways that will help people lessen the bad elements of said new thing and add to the good?