A few years ago, pre-pandemy, I discovered the writer and “ideas man” Cal Newport, and his book, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. I can’t recall where I first heard of Newport (if it was from someone reading this, thanks and sorry my brain no remember things), but his themes instantly struck a chord.
In some ways, I thought I was doing my best with the role technology and what Newport calls “digital clutter” played in my life. I was the mother of a three-year-old and an almost one-year-old, I was working part-time from home, taking care of my kids a lot, I was very attached to my friends and my mom-friends, some of which overlapped, and all of which I needed to text frequently. I had always intentionally purchased somewhat janky phones: androids, not the latest model, held onto until they pleaded with me to to let them die. I didn’t lose myself on the internet watching Youtube videos or falling down rabbit holes. I didn’t, to the rightful annoyance of husband, take my phone everywhere with me. I lost it on purpose all of the time, and tried to be thoughtful about zoning out on my little screen around my precious angels, whose brains were clearly as pure as the driven snow.
But still, I did like my phone. Hated it even. I hated all the checking, my hand reaching out sometimes every few seconds towards this phantom limb, searching for a hit of dopamine. Maybe, as opposed to 90 seconds ago, someone has now written me an email offering praise or money. Maybe someone is doing something fun that will be over very soon. Maybe I missed a call from my old boss apologizing for not recognizing my genius. Maybe someone I had a crush on years ago is just texting out of the blue to say they still masturbate thinking about me, and it interferes with their romantic relationships, but it’s totally worth it, and I should hit them up if I ever come through the greater Phoenix area.
I hated how hard it was for me to go to the bathroom without my phone. I hated that it was the first thing I thought of when I woke up and the last thing I attended to before crawling into bed. And, especially, I hated how, even though my husband and I had so very little time and energy for any kind of connection, it was often interrupted by a ping or a buzz or a “I’m just checking on A’s tickets for next summer, what were you saying??”
Newport, despite presenting as the kind of business-school mansplainer I try my best to avoid, had some great points and was pretty relatable, even though I got the sense he’d never nursed a baby for 45-minutes, during which holding a book or having a coherent thought would have been insane. I didn’t really use social media, so taking those apps of my phone did little to help me. But Cal talked about how texting can be just as bad. What is the purpose of texting? He asked. To get quick, brief, information. To communicate a simple message. To see if someone is available for a phone call. It was never meant to be a place to have these long, drawn out conversations, and what was happening to our brains when we had 20 of these going at once? To me, it felt like I was holding all of those conversations in my head all day, crafting responses to them, trying out jokes, imagining what they would say back, instead of actually connecting with those people. Rehearsing social interactions had always been a crutch for me, since without rehearsal I often felt I was prone to say something offensive or forget to ask others how they were doing. But it also added to my social anxiety, and ate up so much of my already-picked-over personal time.
The other thing I loved about Cal was how he didn’t think that just reducing our phone use would help us, he also wanted us to think about what we would replace this time with. He extolled the virtues of “uninterrupted thinking time,” and gave examples of actual, in-person activities we could do by ourselves or with others that were more satisfying that these little, frequent but often empty back-and-forths, or “passive entertainment.” Turn off your phone and do a fucking puzzle, people. Don’t just zone out. Though I have to say, Cal has never seen me watch British Baking Show — it is very active.
According to the interwebs, Newport’s book was released on February 5th, 2019. I must have read it fast (in truth I probably skimmed it, it is very skimmable, in a good way), because on February 16, I wrote an email to about 50 friends and family members that read:
I am attempting to shift my relationship with my phone, and will only be checking texts a few times a day. If you want to chat (how is your stupid phone experiment going? how many teaspoons are in a tablespoon?), or have something time-sensitive (extra Warriors ticket for tonight) please feel free to call me and I will be thrilled to talk to you. You can also email for longer convos, or text me if you don't need me to get back to you soon.
Thanks for your understanding!
Some people responded with jokes about kitchen measurements, others with encouragement and their own stories of attempted, and at times successful, digital minimalism. One friend threatened to stop by unannounced more, since I was no longer instantly reachable, which sounded great to me. My sister and my friend/neighbor, both of whom I was texting with many, many times a day (and still am), expressed some concern. I decided I would check my texts 3 times a day, and that was it. Otherwise I mostly turned my phone off and left it in a drawer.
And the experiment worked. It was wonderful. Like any detox, it was incredibly hard at first. And it was awkward as fuck. I had to rewire my brain to reach for things other than my phone, to stop scripting out conversations and just call someone. I knocked on my neighbor’s door a lot. I had some good talks with old friends. I read a lot.
And I missed things. I missed offers and meet ups and cancellations. I missed taking pictures of my kids putting underwear on their heads, and seeing other people’s kids put underwear on their heads. People stopped texting me, which was nice when it was replaced by other forms of connection, and sad when it was not.
I rode the high of my detox for months, having more satisfying experiences with everyday moments, and with leisure time, even after I slowly re-introduced my technology. I was motherfucking INTENTIONAL about it all. Then, about a year after that first encounter with digital minimalism, we were all relegated to our little hovels, and my phone became my only window to the world (my actual window was filled with a rotation of signs we put up for the rare adventurers who happened to be outside, like one that read “Dance Party!”). We video called (that’s the awkward phrase people who don’t have iphones use) our loved ones. We Marco-Polo’d with the cousins. We refreshed the news. And I lost myself in a million never-ending, absolutely wonderful text chains. I texted with my friends from college about our deteriorating mental states, I texted with my brothers about the halted NBA season. I texted so often, and so intensely with one friend that, “after” the pandemic, I made her a bound book of our messages. I was introduced to a stranger over text, and he became one of my most beloved and essential friends over a very difficult period. The texts were raw and funny and urgent. They couldn’t have been phone calls, because I we were all either in the middle of caring for our children, staring at a blank wall, or in my case, writing like my life depended on it. Emails didn’t feel personal or flexible enough to handle all that.
When things “opened up,” and over time, the intensity of these messages and my captivity thawed, my relationship with my phone did not. It still felt like a life line to me. And it didn’t feel good. I took all the apps and the email off. I downloaded other apps that promised to keep me from using it. I put on do not disturb. I slid it back in the drawer. None of it worked.
I tend to make decisions at one of two speeds. Fucking forever, or RIGHT. NOW. I hemmed and hawed for months about getting a phone that simply wouldn’t tolerate my using it much. And then, a few weeks ago, tired of my own whining about something I was perfectly in control of, with little research and without perusing the return policy, I bought a dumb phone. And I immediately realized I had made a huge mistake.
The dumb phone, which would want me to refer to it as a “Light Phone,” is really, super, just as promised, dumb. It is has the look of a very old Kindle Paperweight that was accidentally put in the dryer on high heat despite a label warning. It has the ability to call (though it takes forever to find a contact), text (though if you google “light phone” you will find a WSJ article about a school that only allows these phones ,where the students found texting so annoying they all just stopped using their phones), navigate places using step by step directions, play MP3s and podcasts (supposedly, though I am overwhelmed by the idea of figuring out how), and calculate numbers (thank goodness).
When someone leaves you a voicemail, you can travel back 20 years in technology and embark on a long, password-protected journey to retrieve it. When other people see it, they usually say something like “is THAT your phone??” or “what is that???” but not in an admiring way, like they would to someone with a pair of classic Jordans. More in a “seriously I dont understand what is happening, and, more importantly, why??” kind of way.
In order to share these picture with you, I had to take them on my OLD phone, connected to wireless, download them to my computer from Google Photos, copy and paste them here, and then take a well-deserved nap.
I am, at this point, convinced that this was a very, very bad idea. There are so many things I didn’t realize I needed a smart phone for. It is so annoying, not just to me, but to other people to have to compensate for this (shout out to the human waiter at the robot-run pho restaurant we went to last week who had to come and VERBALLY take my order. for shame.)
Imagined pros of having a dumb phone:
Spend more time reading and maybe take up cross stitching if still a thing.
Have long, luxurious phone conversations with people I love, or at least like.
Tune in more to my surroundings for safety and serenity.
Engage more in my thoughts without interruption.
Have fewer embarrassing phone-use incidents, such as crossing street while looking at phone and almost dying (see tuning in thing above).
Stop thinking of my experiences as only really happening if I’ve documented them for or conveyed them to others.
Give undivided attention to my family.
Imagined cons of having a dumb phone:
Um, how do I call a car, ever?
No one will ever see a picture of my kids ever again. We will have to wait for school pictures and cut them out and deliver them by mail once a year to everyone we’ve ever met, if the postal service keeps running.
All of my fun text chains will die, or worse, continue without me.
It’s not clear if or how I can turn by R&B playlist into mP3s, download them to my computer, upload them to the phone’s web-based dashboard, and download them to my phone. I don’t know if I feel safe in the world without my R&B playlist.
I will miss timely and essential information, such as an email from a friend that says “I know we’re supposed to meet in the lion enclosure at the zoo in twenty minutes, but something came up and I wont be there. Of course, that means you should not enter the lion enclosure, as planned, because I, a trained lion tamer, will not have had time to give the lions a sedative and, without my familiar scent, they will likely assume you are a predator and rip you to shreds. Thank god for smart phones and raincheck for next tues?? xoxo”
Give undivided attention to my family.
What will become of me? Will I be reborn like a phoenix from my post-baby-covid-almost-40-brain-haze into a world of clarity and motherfucking INTENTION???? Will I slowly drift away from all of the people who, if I cannot send them a picture of the absolutely slammin’ truffle toad-in-a-hole I had at brunch the other day that made me think of them, I will never connect with? Will I write another several thousand words about this?? Who knows. Except that last one is a definite, absolute yes. You betcha.
-My 4yo daughter and I have a new-to-us jam, Emotion by Carly Rae Jepson. I had never really taken CRJ seriously after the whole Call Me Maybe thing, maybe cause of internalize patriarchy or whatevs, but Hanif Abdurraqib, who is one of my favorite writers of all GD time, loves her so much and writes about her so beautifully that I finally peeped this 2015 album and it is, as a teenager once said about a very impressive ice cream sundae I ordered, fire.
Put this on real loud in your living room and I dare you not to dance. When it comes on in our house, my girl looks up at me slyly and starts rotating her booty in small circles and says “UH OH” as in “oops i started dancing and now i have to make my way to the small space in front of our couch and give my body over as a vessel to this music for the next 3 1/2 minutes will you plz join me.” Every once in a while, your kids holding up a mirror to your own insane personality is a fun thing.
I just adore your work.. .adore you, your family and your writing. I laughed so hard this morning, on a day when I was taking a mental health day from work and needed something so spot on and ridiculous all at the same time.. Hoping these end up in a collection of short essays at some point.. You are really good at what you do. Thank you!
I love and relate to this so much--the whole arc of it really. Please share whether you're still on the dumb phone kick or whether you've succumb to the siren call of your smartphone once again.