The Year We Gave Up Our Smart Phones

Image: Glavo.

In the year 2023 we, the humans of this beautiful earth, gave up our smart phones. Too many gardens went untended, too much important work got interrupted and too many accidents happened. In the years leading up to 2023 we came to understand our smart phones the way 20th century folks came to understand cigarettes, as addictive, unhealthy and destructive.

Just like the cigarette executives the tech billionaires got our kids hooked to their unhealthy products. They ruthlessly mined our attention for dollars. Consider it lucky when those same tech billionaires got stranded on the Bezos-Musk Martian colony. When the second great recession and fourth dot com bust of 2030 rolled around Space-X stock tanked and the tech bros couldn’t afford to pay for their return trip to Earth. Now all they have to eat is freeze dried Beef Stroganoff in a Martian prison of their own making. We used their stranding as an opportune moment to rid our culture of the things that were holding us back.

My own personal smart phone addiction recovery path began back in 2018. I was building the most complex project I’ve ever attempted, a chest of drawers. It required intense concentration and I kept getting interrupted by the ping of text messages, junk phone calls and those moments where I just had to check Twitter (a now defunct “unsocial” media company). Let’s not even get into all those moments times I caught myself watching viral cat videos when a real cat was sitting in front of me. Or the fact that I lacked the patience to read books. I came to see my smart phone addiction as not just a personal vice but also as the invisible hand of the tech billionaires who were personally interrupting my work for their own commercial gain. They had made our lives their marketplace and it was well past time to drive them out.

The tech bros had used smart phones to change our relationship to the world. Even activities like taking a vacation were no longer about gathering experiences but instead about using, “photography and social media to build a personal brand.”(1) I came to see that my smart phone got in the way of the direct experience of life. What if I just did nice things for the sake of doing those things rather than “building my personal brand?” What if a measure of success became making something that was so well put together and so appropriate for its setting that nobody noticed it?

The revolution came sooner than expected. With the tech bros locked up on Mars we freed ourselves from the shackles of “surveillance capitalism.” For a time some of us went back to flip phones but that interim period didn’t last long. In the end we all realized that we just didn’t want our work and leisure interrupted and monetized. And no longer would there be suicidal smart phone factory workers or wars over rare earth metals. We now have much more time to create, to garden, to make beautiful things, to take care of our loved ones and neighbors. We devote our time to the things that matter.

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  1. Bad decisions – letting the media decide what you consume; blaming others (phone, eternal factors) for that and not accepting personal responsibility; making 50 cents an hour by building things you can buy for $5 on Craigslist; thinking that it’s personally fulfilling to do so. All these seem to go against the ethos of early new England Americans who continue to be my model of how to live life: good decisions – personal and economic.

    • It’s a little too easy to blast someone for ‘not accepting personal responsibility’ while ignoring those forces far beyond the control of the individual which have been insinuating these devices and ‘services’ into society until they have become so embedded that it is difficult to perform ordinary tasks without them, regardless of the wishes of the individual. I don’t have a usable cell phone, because there is no cell service anywhere near my home; an awful lot of Vermont has limited or no cell service so it isn’t hard for me to avoid using one – that choice has been made for me and, to be honest, I really don’t mind not having this service available.

      You also give the impression in your comment that you place little value on the personal satisfaction of a job well done because it’s economically cheaper to have someone else, often somewhere else, do it for you. Even worse, you appear to be ridiculing the idea of personal fulfillment through honest work; I hope I am misreading you. I’m not sure that attitude would square with those of early New England Americans. We can’t ask them, of course, since they’re long gone, but there are a whole lot of their sometimes-cranky descendants still around (some of them are even my neighbors) and I don’t think that your argument would get much traction with them either.

  2. I resisted cell phones way past the time everyone else had one. I just didn’t see the point. Then I began to lose friends and business opportunities since I was “unavailable.” I was content with a flip phone for years until the outside world changed so much that I found it increasingly difficult to function, particularly when I was away from home. The moment came when I was at a hotel in Dallas and needed a cab. Cabs at this particular location had simply stopped being a thing. I couldn’t call an Uber or Lyft with a flip phone. At a certain point I had no choice but to get a smart phone. See also: credit cards. Ever try buying an airline ticket or renting a car with cash?

    A century ago cars were a liberating technology that freed people from physical isolation and unleashed a huge swath of the hinterland to new economic and cultural opportunities. Remember that the next time you’re on the 405 inching along at 3 miles an hour trapped between exits.

    The “this is all about personal responsibility and individual life choices” meme is a yes and no thing. Once we built out the physical landscape to be auto-dependent and the culture to be cell phone dependent we really lost the ability to simply opt out. Funny how all these technologies have merged so we now use our cells to hail Uber which we pay for electronically with a credit card account…

    • We’re in the same position. I too was a flip phone holdout until it became impossible to live without a smart phone. And the car is a good analogy. Ditto for flying. And yet, these two latter problematic technologies are things we’ll have to face if we want to do anything about climate change. We have to make both personal and commons-based changes. As the Rev. Bill Wylie-Kellerman, who serves in an Episcopal church in Detroit says, “If you give someone a fish, they’ll eat for a day. If you teach them to fish, they’ll eat for a while longer. If you organize against the privatized water system and get fishing rights for all, maybe everyone will have food.”

  3. I was watching a re-enactment of a horrible accident, a crime and medical emergency–three separate stories. In each of these scenarios, someone had to get into a car and go to look for a pay phone, find a house with a phone. I marveled each time at how we never had the immediacy of a cell phone in the past.

    I did not want a cell phone, ever. Then, I had to use substituting after a job loss. I would come home to six messages with teachers wanting me to sub the next day. All the teachers found someone by the time I got home. Several times, the teacher was in the room next door. I got a cell phone so I would never miss a call for work. I never did.

    Then, I became disabled and now am afraid to leave home without a phone. Yes, I am frightened.

    I still do practically nothing with the smart phone! It does not in any way limit me or expand my abilities. But, I figure that given time, it will happen.

  4. Beautifully written. The part about the tech billionaires getting stranded really made me laugh. I belong to the shrinking minority of people with dumb phones but am lucky enough to still manage to earn a modest living as a freelancer AND have a satisfying social life – it IS possible!

  5. I love this post! It’s a refreshing change from the doom and gloom we read everywhere. And it offers much needed hope, which I always appreciate. Thanks!

  6. Let me ask you, when you had a house phone, did you answer it all the time, no matter what, even if you were working on a project or having a conversation with a loved one? When you had a dial-up modem, did you check email once an hour, or once a day? Part of this comes down to having the willingness to NOT be available to the world (including the advertisers who haunt the social media sites we use) on a 24/7 basis. The problem is not the phones. It’s us feeling we are somehow indispensable to the world out there for any length of time. But like any problem, the solution is not to get rid of the tool, it’s to have the discipline to use it responsibly.

  7. You can’t write about giving up your smart phone, or cell phone, without a resounding chorus of “don’t blame the phone”, or “emergencies!!!”, or, my favorite, “I’d love to use my phone less if only I didn’t have kids/ a job/ etc.” It’s not surprising, but it is interesting, how vocal the bandwagon becomes when confronted with someone making a choice to step away from mainstream culture. I’m completely cell-phoneless, and I’ve never had a smart phone, and I don’t know a single other person my age (30) who can say the same. It’s an intesting experience; not living without a phone, but other people’s reactions to me living without a phone. It’s most definitely not considered optional.

    • When you get a call — on your cell — in the supermarket and it’s your child’s school, telling you your kid is on the way to the hospital with a head injury and you should join him there, you really don’t think much about how cool it it would be to “step away from mainstream culture” and do without that cell phone. Some people need to be lifelines to others, and for them, a cell phone is pretty mandatory. But if you have no one relying on you, then I guess going without is a fair option.

  8. I found a good combination in a dumb phone (Nokia) and a secondhand iPad that I use for smartphone-type stuff (paying bills, etc). This setup tends to concentrate my working time to a reasonably small portion of my day.

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