Dumb Phones and Internet Rooms
a month ago
Over the past year or so I've been finding my phone and internet use increasingly problematic. It's an addiction to information and a dependency on my mobile that's eating up time and more importantly, my happiness. Both are all-consuming and exhausting to maintain, providing me with increasingly less value for increasingly more work.
The more I talk about it, the more people express the same concern. In fact, 50% of 12 to 19 year olds said they were 'addicted' to their phone. Two-thirds of their parents agreed. Between 47 and 58% of people suffer from so-called 'Nomophobia' - an invented fear of being without a smartphone - with one in ten feeling anxious if our phone is simply turned off.
In a 2017 study, over one-third of people said they couldn't go a day without checking email or updating social media and over half couldn't last a day without sending an instant message. In another survey it was revealed 16% of people sleep with their phone and one third of Americans would rather give up sex than their mobile. On actual phone use, the typical smartphone-user touches their phone a shocking 2,617 times per day, spending five hours a day on it.
This is a problem.
In his TED Talk, 'Why our screens make us less happy', psychologist Adam Alter shows a graph (below). The red chunk, he explains, is how much of our free time we are spending in front of screens. The remaining, diminishing white slither is where 'humanity happens', those moments of joy and happiness that we end up remembering and sharing. In the words of Fumio Sasaki, humans are like 'fifty-thousand-year-old pieces of hardware' - we haven't had the iHuman 2.0 yet, we can't stall install more RAM. Instead, we're stuck filling up our hardware with too much information, using most of our time for chasing things and managing them.
All of this got me thinking about my own smartphone use. Using an app called Moment, I began tracking it. Over the past three months, I've spent 170 hours on my phone which over the course of a year equates to one month of waking time. Moments snatched on the tube, train, in bed, and on the toilet. Don't say that's disgusting when you do it too - 9 out of 10 of us use our phones in the bathroom.
My very first phone was dubbed 'the first social media phone', kitted out with Twitter, Foursquare, Windows Live Messenger, and Facebook built-in as standard. The slogan for the handset was actually 'Social media baked in' and was endorsed at launch by Mark Zuckerberg. Ever since then I've had iPhones: 3GS, 4S, 5S, and a couple of 6's.
It's clear these powerful devices dominate our lives as never before and I'm finding the more our tech does, the more it demands of us. This is the challenge of our generation. We are all citizens of a global community, conscious consumers connected by the experiences we share and the digital tech we build - but how can we ensure the technology we consume helps us, and doesn't consume us?
My problem, it transpires, is the amount of stuff we have access to. If information is crack, your phone is the dealer. The best way to stop getting high is to stop visiting your dealer.
Smartphones chemically alter the brain with carefully released hits of dopamine and rushes of cortisol. It's what 'Irresistible: Why We Can’t Stop Checking, Scrolling, Clicking and Watching' is all about. But it's not just controlled highs our smartphones deliver. A study of more than 2,000 workers in the UK found push notifications cause toxic levels of stress, especially when notifications were left unread.
I tried simply turning off notifications but that was never enough. I tried deleting apps but I would just visit their web equivalent. I spent most of my time on the social internet and somehow I would inevitably stumble upon something I wish I didn't see - a terrorist attack at a concert in Manchester, the most horrific tower block fire in modern UK history, a car mowing down a bunch of people in America - and get sucked back in to a world of graphic videos, angry and futile tweeting, and late nights spent scrolling through news articles. I would read about events at 2 a.m. that, however tragic and regretful they may be, have zero impact on me - and even if they did impact me, there would be little I could do about them at 2 o'clock in the morning.
All of this said, you would be forgiven for thinking I'm a luddite. You'd be wrong, though. I work on the online face of a digital radio station, I'm very frequently an early adopter of new tech, and I pioneer different and interesting ways to manage the tech we already use. I don't want to avoid information and I don't want to shut out my smartphone, I just want to control when and where I get access to it.
In an attempt to fix my addiction, I did what all good consumers do.
I swapped phones.
This is the MP01, a designer 'dumb phone' from Swedish electronics company Punkt.
The phone runs on 2G, calls people, and sends texts messages. That's it. No 'social media baked in' and certainly no endorsement from the CEO of a company whose app I can't download. In fact, its most advanced non-phone function is a rudimentary calendar that is just a calendar - I can't save appointments there.
In the words of the company itself:
As people’s lives become ever more cluttered with complicated technology, the demand for simplicity grows. (...) [The MP01] is a well designed mobile phone with great audio, long battery life and intuitive text messaging, that delivers the essential mobile handset experience without encroaching on the user's day to day life.
I've ditched Twitter, a camera, Apple Music, podcasts, the Starbucks app, Mailchimp (subscribe to my newsletter), Instapaper, Barclays, BBC iPlayer, and iMessage. I've said goodbye to Instagram, WhatsApp, Fitbit, Calm, and all the real-world gear that depends on my smartphone: lights, plugs, a thermostat. I cringe at the thought of calling this a 'digital detox', not least because the word 'detox' is filled with such pseudo-science, health-conscious symbolism now, but I suppose, in some ways, it is.
In essence, my need is a really simple one: I want the internet to be a destination that I visit - not live on (or sleep with).
I've been trialling this 'dumb phone' for a month now and despite only having just bought a brand new iPhone, I'm making the switch. An hour ago I cancelled my contract with 3 after 11 years on the network and am moving to The Phone Co-op. My iPhone is now a lean, mean, podcast-listening machine, used only to access the smart-tech I own. The world wide web is now confined to work, and a 100cm by 50cm desk at the end of my bedroom, which is exactly where I need it to be.
Eventually the bods-that-be will announce they're switching off 2G (although I'm betting 3G will go first), and with that I'll have to turn off this dumb phone.
Until then, don't FaceTime me.
Let's just go for coffee instead.