Entries from April 2020

Switching to a dumb phone

Smartphones are fantastic pieces of technology. Initially, the idea was to combine a music player with a mobile phone ("It's the best iPod we've ever made!"; Steve Jobs at the presentation of the iPhone, 2007). 

Now, smartphones are portable multimedia computers, and we use them for messaging, emails, banking, navigation, social media, sports, web browsing, and shopping.

On the downside, smartphones intruded all aspects of our professional and personal lives. In fact, job and own time cannot be clearly separated anymore, because one is expected to be available 24/7 for 'emergencies.' There is a great temptation to quickly check incoming notifications, news, or emails when waiting for the bus or feeling alone. Most of this information is junk, but anyway, there is a high motivation to frequently look at the display of the phone because otherwise, we could miss something important.

Tristan Harris, a former 'product philosopher' at Google, compares smartphones with a slot machine. The users' attention is the modern currency, and smartphones and their apps are designed to keep us staring at their displays (Spiegel International, 2016). Important factors of phone addiction are also the social networks and their feedback mechanisms, which provide us with irregular kicks and stimulate our reaction (e.g., to press the 'Like' button; please find recommended literature below). 

I had canceled Facebook and WhatsApp about two years ago because the communication was too superficial and fragmented for me. Besides, the use of my personal data, interests, and contacts for marketing is troubling me. I became (even more) skeptical about current practices when I was asked by Google: "How was the bar xxx you visited [with your friends] two hours ago?". Sure, I can contradict the use of localization data. But the apparent custom to monitor our habits with the smartphone clearly demonstrates that the consumers are the product in this business.

I realized that the smartphone needs a lot of attention (charging, updating, checking stuff, searching apps) and that I had become an addict. And I wanted to do something about it. Ironically additional apps help you analyze and optimize your habits. However, I decided on a more straight-forward withdrawal therapy:

Day

  1. Remove the phone and the charger from your sleeping room.
  2. Erase all social network and news apps from your smartphone.
  3. Erase all email apps from your smartphone.
  4. Get a dumb phone (I got a Nokia 3310 3G now) and use it.

App replacements

Maybe, you need your smartphone because of a critical app xx. However, I am quite sure that there are alternatives for most programs. Here are my app replacements:

  • Calendar: I bought a paper calendar with a week overview. It also serves for task management and making short notes. I would bet that it outperforms electronic calendars.
  • Time: I got three different wristwatches. Two of them are solar-driven, and one is mechanical. None of them got external communication (Bluetooth, WiFi), of course. A watch is essential to avoid the regular looking at the mobile phone display.
  • Navigation: On the road, we got a car GPS and, for really rough expeditions in remote areas, a manual Garmin etrex Vista HCx GPS. BTW: you can create maps with my script: https://bitbucket.org/lababi/mexico-garmin-map/).
  • Alarm clock: We are using a radio clock with an SD card slot and a USB with thousands of Jazz MP3s.
  • Audio player: The Nokia 3310 3G got an audio player. However, in the evening and in the gym, I use an MP3 player.
  • Podcasts: Collect and download with Cloud Caster and listen to them with an MP3 player.
  • Camera: The Nokia 3310 3G got a simple camera. For high-quality action photos and videos, I got a GoPro.
  • Reading: Tolino ebook reader.
  • Uber: You can schedule rides from the Uber website. Or stop a taxi.
  • Fitness tracking: None. Just bike, walk and lift some weights.
  • Anything else: PC or Chromebook.

Experiences after two weeks

The functions of the phone and the layout are mostly predefined, and therefore I could start without any app installations. My only customizations were the uploading of a solid black wallpaper and some ringtones that I played with my trumpet. 

Contacts are stored on the SIM card or the phone (no cloud sync!). 

Since the phone has real keys, dialing numbers is fast, and you also can define speed-dial contacts. Maybe I am getting old, but I prefer keys over wiping around on a touchscreen. Making or answering phone calls is more straight-forward with physical buttons. 

I can use the phone for more than a week without charging. Considering the smaller battery, I reduced the energy consumption for the phone by about 90%. Using the Moto G5, I realize the heat it is producing compared to the Nokia.

Contrary to what I feared, I do not feel disconnected. The Nokia 3310 has an Opera mini browser, and accessing the internet is theoretically possible. But the display of 2.4" and the limited compatibility with modern websites makes surfing painfully inconvenient. You would use it when searching for an anti-poison of the animal that just attacked you. But in general, I would call the internet capabilities of this phone a placebo function.

I am still a massive computer and internet user, but I am not always connected anymore and feel more independent. Switching the phone off in the evening is simple, and I don't feel guilty and have some real free time. And I feel more satisfied crossing out tasks with the paper calendar than with my electronic calendar.

What happened to your smartphone?

The latest official upgrade for my smartphone, a Motorola Moto G5 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moto_G5), is Android 8.1. The hardware still works perfectly, but since the current Android version is 10, the operating system is becoming obsolete soon. Thus, I unlocked the bootloader and installed TWRP and the open Android version LineageOS. Finally, I rooted the device with Magisk. Now, the smartphone holds the most recent Android version, and I got superuser powers. But be warned: You only should do that if you are technically confident and if you take the risk of eventually bricking your phone.  

In its new life, the G5 serves for GPS-navigation (https://osmand.net), as a camera (upload to Google Photos), and as a phone for traveling (dual SIM, LTE). I only installed the essential apps, and most of the time, the smartphone is stored in the draw. 

Conclusion

The integration of excessive functions into a single phone could turn out as an aberration of technology. The increasing size of smartphone displays and their high computational power are contradictory to the original idea of portability and the necessity to reduce energy consumption. High-value, focussed work and quality communication are hindered by smartphones, because of constant distractions by notifications and information clutter. 

Fortunately, it is easy to escape the social and technological pressure caused by smartphones, as my positive experience demonstrates.

What comes next?

Since my phone needs much less attention now, I got some extra time to optimize emailing!

Book recommendation

Cal Newport (2019), Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World; Published by Portfolio (Penguin Random House),

https://www.calnewport.com/books/digital-minimalism/


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