digital culture
5:01 am
Thu May 16, 2013

Why I ditched my smartphone

By the end of this year, about one and a half billion people will have a smartphone. That’s one for every five people on the planet—and remember, that number includes babies.

But I'm one of the ones who longs for the good old days—you know, when phones were just used to call people. It's not that I'm a complete Luddite; I just have a hard time restraining myself with such a cool gadget and not letting it take over my life. That's why I decided to ditch my smartphone. 

I’ve been calling this Operation Reclaim my Brain. My Android smartphone died in January. I was happy. I was tired of the thing. Tired of checking my email or Facebook, without exaggeration, every five minutes.

So I bought the cheapest phone I could find, one that just makes phone calls and sends texts. This thing is Stone Age, and by that, I mean circa 2007. It's a $15 dumb phone— so dumb I've had to relearn how to text with numbers. 

Late adopter

I was kind of a late adopter to the smartphone craze. But then I got my Droid. I loved it. I could take pictures and post them to Facebook. I didn’t have to look up directions before leaving the house.

But soon my thumb started to hurt because I was using it all the time. I hated staring at my phone while I was at the playground with my kids and seeing all the other parents staring at their phones.

I wondered if other people were feeling as conflicted. So I strolled over to Seattle Center the other day. Almost everywhere I looked, people walked around, device in hand. Turns out a lot of them are ambivalent, too.

John Ewart has an iPhone. He says it's handy for looking up restaurants and directions, but he says it makes him feel like he never leaves work. 

"It's kind of a love-hate relationship," he said. "Kind of married to it, I guess, right?" 

Molly Murphy has had a Samsung Galaxy for about a year. She loves having maps with her all the time and being able to look up buses on the go. But she admits she gets too sucked into it. 

"I feel like my life can be lost to my smart phone from time to time," Murphy said.

Space to think

Of course, way more people want smartphones than want to get rid of them. But there’s a bit of a counter-trend. You can now take a digital detox vacation in Dublin or go to a digital detox summer camp for adults in California.

And lots of people lately have chronicled their experiments in unplugging. Paul Miller wrote about going offline for an entire year, and how he didn't feel like it improved his life at all. John Cook of Geekwire wrote about what it was like to go for 24 hours without a phone, the Internet or TV

For me, switching to the dumb phone was weird at first. I’d pull it out all the time, expecting it to entertain me, but this thing doesn’t do anything.

Soon I felt myself start to relax. My mind had more space to think. I started getting story ideas when I was walking around instead of staring at a screen compulsively.

But I've been wondering: what makes smartphones so addictive? 

For answers, I went to someone who has thought about this a lot. Matt Richtel is a reporter for the New York Times. He won a Pulitzer for his series on the dangers of multitasking while driving. His new novel The Cloud explores the hazards of technology on kids’ brains.

He says it's like your brain is caught in a civil war being waged between your brain’s frontal cortex that’s trying to plan and the lower reptilian part of your brain that responds to impulses. That’s the part of the brain that's supposed to save us from a lion attacking.

"You’re sitting in front of your computer trying to do a project or you’re in your car trying to drive, and you’re getting bombarded with signals that say, 'Look, what should I do with this? Is this an opportunity? Is this a threat?"' Richtel said. "On a very basic level, it’s hard to ignore that."

And then there’s the lottery syndrome. We keep thinking the next email is going to be the really good one, when most of it is just junk.

I had to ask Richtel: does he ever feel addicted to his smartphone? He says yes. In fact, the other day he went to see his massage therapist, and complained about it. She told him to hand it over.

"She’s got this little table of kind of new-age gear—candles and stuff—and she takes it and puts it under an owl’s wing. And I say, `Marin, what are you doing?' And she says, `Look, I’m just trying to change the energy patterns so you can untether yourself from this device," Richtel said. 

Zen Buddhist approach to iPhones?

Genjo Marinello, abbot of Dai Bai Zan Cho Bo Zen temple in Seattle, loves his iPhone. He uses it to stream Pandora and track his workouts while he bikes.

I went in search of people with insight into how to own a smartphone and find balance. Who better to ask than Zen Buddhists?

So I paid a visit to Genjo Marinello, the abbot of Dai Bai Zan Cho Bo Zen temple in Seattle. I was a little surprised to learn he loves his iPhone. Here’s an image for you – picture a Buddhist priest riding a bike using his iPhone to stream music on Pandora and track his workout.

"I find that delightful, that there I am, on my bike, and the little GPS on the phone is tracking me and seeing what my elevation gain is, and how much calories I’m burning, and what my pace is," he said. 

Reverend Marinello says he’s wrestled with smartphone addiction. Now he keeps it on vibrate and  looks at it just once an hour. He says meditation also helps.

"Meditation is a way to ground yourself and feel connected to something larger than yourself. It’s your small self that gets addicted, so if you’re feeling grounded and rested and restored and connected to something bigger than yourself, then you’re much less likely to be consumed by potential addictions," he said.

KPLU listener Glenn Briskin snapped this picture of a Buddhist monk in Guangzhou, China, checking his smart phone next to a store selling incense and other meditation items
Credit Glenn Briskin

Try again?

I want to be like that. Find the middle way. And I’m probably going to have to try a smartphone again. My boss wants me to be able to send pictures and tweet when I’m out covering a story. And then there’s a vocal contingent at home that does not like my current dumb phone, namely, my 4-year-old son, Ezra. 

"Because it doesn’t have very many buttons, and it’s pretty little," he told me. Also, it can't take pictures. Also, it doesn't stream Pandora. He has quite a few complaints.

Of course, I’m not going to bow to the wishes of a preschooler. But I do kind of want one. The maps, the music, a camera…

This time, though, I want to do things differently. Make time for my brain to be at rest. Acquaint myself with the off button. And if all else fails, maybe I’ll go find a mystical massage therapist. 

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