I’m pretty sure I’m addicted to my phone.
OK, if you can plot all addictions on an axis of intensity and harmfulness that runs from freebase cocaine (very addictive, extremely harmful) to HBO dramas (very addictive, not very harmful), my smartphone problem seems pretty trivial. Sure, it’s not going to require detox, rehab, ongoing group therapy. But that doesn’t mean that the addiction is not real. For instance, do I feel a vague sense of loss and panic without my iPhone? Absolutely. Do I occasionally neglect important things, like conference calls and conversations with my partner, because I’m playing online Scrabble? ‘Fraid so. But most of all, am I troubled by the thought that I am actually at my most comfortable in front of my iPhone, that my real life is now confined to the interstices between screens, and that this is affecting my brain, my relationships and maybe even my self-esteem? Erm, yes. And this is all the more disturbing since, as a regular meditator, I’m trying to be more present in my life. It seems like if you’re looking for a good working definition of ‘mindfulness’, it might be to be completely absorbed in what you’re doing or feeling. Responding to boredom or awkwardness by hunching over my phone is the exact opposite. It’s a form of escape from the moment, a kind of willful mindlessness. I really believe that the richest kinds of experience don’t happen on screens, that my iPhone, for all its magical qualities, doesn’t generate memories and ideas in the way that travel or friendship or conversation do. If my time is limited, shouldn’t I be apportioning it more carefully?
Maybe you’re with me so far. But you still need a phone, right? If you can get over the irony of using technology to solve your technology problem, the Swiss design company Punkt may have the answer. They’ve created a range of products which have been designed to help us use technology without being ruled by it. Things like a bedside alarm clock (so you can leave your smartphone downstairs when you go to bed), a landline phone, and a stripped down mobile phone, the MP01. Petter Neby, the founder of Punkt (the word means point as in period, in German) explains that the inspiration for the phone came from his stepdaughter. “She was claiming to have insomnia,” he says, “so we had to have a conversation about having this device on her bedside table. But in these situations, one has to look at oneself, and while I wasn’t bringing it to the table or to bed, I was quite taken by my emails.” Being that kind of entrepreneur, Neby’s solution wasn’t to confiscate his stepdaughter’s phone, but to create a new product. I try the MP01 for a weekend. It’s small and light, with a bright LED screen and round plastic buttons. It does most of the things you could do with a Nokia 6210, minus Snake. That is: calls and texts, a phonebook, a clock, a calendar and a memo function. There’s no camera and it won’t connect to the internet. That means no apps, no browsing, no video. Gulp. Even though it’s only a few days, I approach the switchover with some trepidation. I charge it up (this is the only time I will charge it during the trial, the battery lasts for three weeks) and swap my SIM over. The MP01 turns on with the sound of birdsong. The first thing that occurs to me was a sense of grief. What about my Scrabble game? What about Instagram? I’m just going to have to tough it out.
As well as phone calls and texts I use three social apps (Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter) on my iPhone, as well as email and Headspace. I also learned to drive after the advent of Google Maps, and I am instantly lost without it. I express this fear to Neby who laughs, “Getting lost is good, man.” The phone itself is light, it fits neatly in your palm with a series of engaging indentations on the back (it was designed by British designer Jasper Morrison). The packaging, too, has been carefully thought out—the instruction booklet looks like a special edition of Monocle magazine. All this, the design, the careful typography, seems to be meant to reassure you that you’re not buying a less feature-rich phone because you can’t afford it, but as a kind of lifestyle choice. It strikes me as the kind of thing, like eating paleo, or starting CrossFit, that you could probably get quite opinionated about. I transfer the most important numbers over to the MP01 and begin my weekend. I experience the normal withdrawals, the phantom limb sensation, patting my pocket for my phone and finding nothing. I’m pleased to report that it subsides fairly quickly. In fact, the one loss I feel most of all is messaging. I maintain contact with friends, my partner, my family almost constantly via text. I’m a virtuosic messager, like all of us now, and I use the full panoply of gifs, emojis and pictures. With the MP01 I can’t do any of this. Not only can I not send or receive graphics, I have to text via predictive spelling through the keypad. The muscle memory is still there (I’ve been texting since 1998 so ...), but it’s so much slower. You can’t do repartee at this speed. Each message appears separately in an inbox, rather than inline as in iMessage, so you have to check in and out to read them and reply. It feels like trying to hold a conversation while wearing a gumshield.
But despite this, maybe the most surprising thing is how much I don’t miss my iPhone. Sure, I’m still checking emails at home on my laptop, which makes me something like the kind of vegan who still eats bacon from time-to-time, but nevertheless I still experience a powerful sense of space. While waiting for a ride, I find that I have nothing to look at, so I look up. I notice the evening, the sky behind the telegraph poles. So many of these things that aren’t as riveting as the delights of Instagram, but are real and kind of wholesome. There’s a bracing feeling of virtuousness, like the first few days of stopping smoking, that comes from quitting something that you find comforting, but know isn’t really that good for you. It’s nice, too, to know that I’m sort of off grid. That although the phone will be pinging cell phone towers nearby, it doesn’t have the GPS chip that will map my exact location. I can turn it off and it’s just not there. But what about connectivity? Won’t I be missing out? Perhaps this is really the heart of the matter. By supplying us with an unlimited stream of distraction, our smartphones seem to offer technological solutions to problems that are really existential. Why do I feel bad if I don’t have something to do? What is the itch I’m trying to scratch when I reach for my phone? Our smartphones obscure these questions, without really answering them. If we really want to be ‘in the moment’, it seems like we’ll probably have to get used to sitting with whatever it contains. Even if, or particularly when, those sensations or thoughts are uncomfortable. Using the MP01 I certainly feel a little closer to all this. I’m considering a permanent switch. Just one more game of online Scrabble.
What about my Scrabble game? What about Instagram? I’m just going to have to tough it out.
Maybe the most surprising thing is how much I don’t miss my iPhone.