This is chapter 2 of my upcoming book Low Tech Lifestyle. As a free subscriber, you get a free preview :). Premium subscribers get access to the whole book. Thanks for your support!
The winter of 2019 was frigid and dreary, yet I resolved to take charge of my digital life. Overwhelmed by my smartphone, I decided it was time to switch things up. Embracing this newfound determination, I replaced my smartphone with the Light Phone 2, a minimalist device offering only essential features. This refreshing transition aimed to liberate me from my reliance on digital devices. Initially, adapting to the basic phone's constraints proved challenging. The absence of social media and other familiar apps left me feeling disconnected from my social circle. I longed for the convenience of browsing my newsfeed or accessing my email on the move. Nonetheless, I reminded myself that this transformation was for the better and resolved to persevere.
In the beginning, I naively assumed that a simpler phone would cure my digital addiction. However, as the weeks passed and external conditions remained uncertain, I experienced a startling revelation: the issue was not the device itself but my insatiable desire for constant information. After a decade of smartphone use, my brain had become wired for convenience. The iPhone had merely facilitated my unhealthy habits. The device, itself, was not the root cause. Clicking through the browser, finding directions to restaurants, and refreshing email were second nature to me. At the core was my innate desire to stay perpetually connected to the online world, a need intensified by the pandemic's unprecedented circumstances. With the iPhone gone, I merely found another outlet for this obsession, my laptop. My choice of device had shifted, but the underlying habit tenaciously persisted. I recognized that escaping my digital dependence necessitated more than a mere hardware change; it demanded a mindset transformation and a deeper comprehension of my motivations. Only then could I genuinely embark on the journey towards a more balanced and mindful relationship with technology.
Unexpectedly, a global pandemic soon struck, bringing life as we knew it to a standstill. While my new phone's limitations curbed my screen time outdoors, I found myself retreating indoors more frequently. Craving connection to the outside world, I turned to my laptop for solace. Consequently, I spent hours surfing the web, watching shows, and immersing myself in video games. As the weeks went by, FIFA 20 became my go-to source of entertainment. Offering a much-needed reprieve from the unsettling reality outside, I lost myself in its virtual world for hours. Regrettably, my overall screen time increased rather than diminished after changing to a simpler phone. This realization served as a humbling reminder that I needed to monitor my digital habits, even during the most difficult periods.
In hindsight, my experience with the Light Phone 2 and the pandemic imparted a crucial lesson. It is easy to succumb to the convenience and appeal of digital devices, but being aware of their impact on our lives is vital. While we cannot always control external circumstances, we can manage our interactions with technology. By practicing mindfulness and intentionality in our digital habits, we can foster a healthier and more balanced relationship with technology.
In 2021, a study by Cristina Ghita and Claes Thorén highlighted the challenges individuals face when attempting to quit smartphones "cold turkey" by switching to dumbphones. In their autoethnographic research, they observed, "Our experiences indeed indicate that replacing the smartphone with a dumbphone increases productivity... However, the dumbphone's simplicity introduces struggles, which we both perceived as significant enough to negatively affect us, leading to feelings of anxiety, frustration, and workarounds."1 Their findings resonate with my 2020 experiment and the experiences shared within the dumbphone subreddit, a flourishing community of individuals who have deliberately chosen to defy the trend of smartphone usage. For those unfamiliar with Reddit, it is a social media platform that encourages discussions, questions, and the sharing of personal experiences among its users, who can opt to remain anonymous or use a pseudonym. A prevalent topic of conversation in the dumbphones subreddit centers on whether to transition to a basic cell phone to curb internet addiction. While the notion of adopting a dumbphone might appear to be an uncomplicated solution to reduce screen time, it may not prove to be a sustainable option for everyone within the subreddit community.
Similar to how transferring debt between credit cards may not address underlying financial issues, switching from a smartphone to a basic phone might not effectively tackle the root cause of excessive screen time. In fact, individuals often compensate for the absence of a smartphone by increasing their use of other devices, such as laptops, tablets, or smart TVs. A study published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication revealed that participants experienced activation of the aversive motivational system, diminished cognitive performance, and heightened physiological anxiety levels when unable to answer their ringing iPhone.2 Furthermore, the study sheds light on the theory that smart devices serve as an extension of ourselves due to the information we entrust to them. As we increasingly rely on our phones for storing and organizing various aspects of our lives, we form a deep connection with these devices. By assigning tasks like remembering phone numbers, storing notes, setting reminders, and managing other personal information to our phones, we inadvertently create a digital representation of our lives.
When our smartphones are taken away or replaced with more basic devices, we may feel disconnected and disoriented, as if a part of ourselves has been removed. This sense of disconnection stems from the loss of easy access to the wealth of sensitive information, personalized settings, and customized features that we've become accustomed to having at our fingertips. Consequently, our reliance on smartphones can lead to increased anxiety and decreased cognitive performance, as noted in the study above.
While the glowing screen in our pockets may indeed be problematic, as we will discuss in Chapter 4, addressing excessive screen time requires more comprehensive strategies that focus not only on reducing smartphone usage but also on understanding and mitigating the factors that drive our dependence on these devices. Developing healthier habits, setting boundaries for screen time, and fostering greater self-awareness and self-regulation in our interactions with technology are essential. Merely changing the medium of consumption by streaming on a computer instead of a phone does not rewire the brain to adopt healthier digital habits. Additionally, individuals with addictive personalities may rationalize their usage of their preferred devices and postpone making meaningful changes. As I sustained continuous screen usage during the pandemic, I kept telling myself that it was a needed break for the stress coming from unprecedented circumstances. This behavior is comparable to delaying household chores and subsequently apologizing for not completing them on time. Many of us have experienced this common pattern with both chores and digital habits. We tend to justify our use of phones, laptops, or other devices by convincing ourselves that they are necessary for work. We may create the illusion of quickly checking something, when in reality, we are mindlessly scrolling through social media or getting lost in the internet's depths. For habits to stick, we must make deliberate decisions and allocate time for them, a routine request the soap in your counter makes for the unwashed plates inside the sink.
Living without convenience
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