Randy Boyagoda is a writer and professor of English at the University of Toronto, where he is also principal of St. Michael’s College. His most recent novel is Original Prin.
The first time I regretted giving up my iPhone was in Petersburg, Ky. I went there last month, as part of a road trip to Biblical theme parks. Early in my visit to the Creation Museum, brought to you by Answers in Genesis Apologetics Ministry, I came face to face with the model of a sinful human being. It was one of fallen Adam’s many descendants. He was perched by a stream, near a thirsty dinosaur. More surprising to me than his neighbour – dinosaur-human contemporaneity is a major theme at the museum – was that this postlapsarian bro was the spitting image of a good friend, a bearded young Albertan anthropologist of Pakistani origin. As we all do, I went for my phone, keen to snap and tap away and then send this image, lots of images and also snarky comments, to him and his wife. Then I remembered I couldn’t, not with my new dumbphone.
The second time I felt a moment of real iPhone longing was later that same month, in Vancouver Harbour. In fact, I was flying just above it, in the front seat of a roaring six-seat propeller plane, en route to a literary festival in Sechelt, B.C. I wanted to send my wife and daughters images of the land and seascape. I’d never seen such a symphonic play of variegated blues and dark green and cresting white. I also wanted to send pictures of the plane’s seemingly retro tech, its busy dashboard of black and silver switches and dials and punch-buttons. With the right filters, I could have fooled them into thinking it was a screen shot from the latest season of Stranger Things and then taken a selfie to reveal where I really was. That time, I stayed the universal reflex to reach for my phone. Instead, I kept looking and made mental notes to describe these places later, you know, with this stuff: words, words, words. Reader, it was worth it, it has been worth it, it is worth it, going dumb. I’m not going back.
My new phone, the Punkt MP02, has no camera and no apps. I can talk, text (with a five-row T-9 keyboard) and, when I actually need to, go online by tethering a laptop to its built-in modem. The phone is small and black and sturdy. It looks like James Bond’s calculator, circa 1985. When people see it, they respond with eye-rolling disgust (my kids), confusion, surprise and irony – “Now, that’s a great invention! It’s a phone!” said my father, who’s spent a lot of time sitting around the Boyagoda kitchen watching us look something up. The more telling and common response I’ve been getting, however, is one of sighs and knowing nods and highly selective envy. A lot of people wish they could give up their smartphones, or at least use them less, or use them better, and anyway really, really like to talk about wanting to change their relationships to their phones.
I was one of these people until earlier this year, when I realized I had to do something else. I was at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra with my oldest daughter, who’s 13. She’d bought us tickets to the TSO’s screening of Casablanca, accompanied by a live performance of the score. We’d dressed up and gone downtown and just before the show started, she said, “What are you doing?” I looked up from my phone, a little glazed and confused. “What? Oh. I’m just taking a note, um, for my novel.” I was telling the truth, technically – Scrivener’s a killer app for writers! – but really, as so often is the case, I was just trying to fill up a little blank space in the easiest possible way. The look on my daughter’s face was one of genuine surprise, offence and disappointment, and rightly so, on all counts. Not only was I failing to be present to and with her in an experience she had created for the two of us, but I was also letting her know what to expect on future dates.
In the latter years of my decade of ever-intensifying smartphone use, I’d tried everything: screen-time limits, turning off notifications, removing mail and news and web browsing apps, charging it downstairs instead of in our bedroom, giving it up for Lent (which doesn’t include Sundays), even shifting to the “greyscale” setting so that the phone would be less visually appealing. Of course, all of this had one commonality: an excuse to use my phone, to change a setting, just check it one more time, just check it, check it, check it. Meanwhile, I knew all the many reasons why I was doing this in spite of myself, and why I should stop, for my good and the good of family, friends and humanness itself, thanks to recurring reports of Silicon Valley elites limiting their children’s access to the devices they sell by the millions to others; and to documentaries such as Screenagers and dystopic television shows such as Black Mirror; and to tech-era doomsday books such as Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, Evgeny Morozov’s To Save Everything, Click Here and, most recently, Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. Works such as these, among so many others coming out at a steady clip these days, suggest that taken together, George Orwell and Aldous Huxley were right about the totalitarian futures they imagined in their novels 1984 and Brave New World. Not only would we be subject to impersonal, large-scale forms of command and control (Orwell’s Big Brother), but we would enjoy this condition and seek more and more of it because of the all-pervading sensory rapture it offers (Huxley’s “feelies”).
It was only a matter of time before someone saw a business opportunity in all of this handheld hand-wringing. The Swiss technology company behind my new dumbphone is seeking to capitalize on the collision of peak smartphone use with peak smartphone anxieties. It’s marketing its new phone as part of a minimalist lifestyle that acknowledges the importance of these devices – practically, socially, aesthetically – but also makes it possible, even necessary, to reorder our relationship to them. It turns out I’m far from alone in wanting to give this a try. Coming home from Casablanca, I did some research and ordered my new device. This was the middle of winter. Despite some bad reviews for software glitches and for its high pricing (balanced by admiring reviews for the phone’s concept and design), Punkt’s new phone sold out very fast, and back orders were pushed into spring, then summer and then into the fall. I eventually contacted the company and explained that I was planning a summer road trip without a smartphone and wanted to write about the experience, and I received a device the day before I left for the United States.
Well beyond the predictable goods of giving up my smartphone – eye contact, buying less stuff, reading more books and reading far less e-mail, no more slumped-over trawling through newsfeeds, no more measuring and checking the weather and air conditioning and my running pace and cycling routes in endless micro-particular terms, exiting elevators at the correct floor, an end to hostage-style negotiating with my kids about the terms for releasing it to someone else and finally, finally having an invincible defence for not replying to my mother’s WhatsApp War and Peace messages – I wanted to see what would happen, in practical terms, if I was in a situation, such as a solo summer trip to new and strange places, where having a smartphone is now a taken-for-granted necessity. Those necessities, primarily navigation and information-seeking and gathering, became something to test during two weeks on my own in the United States, flying and driving from charming small town to rusty small town, from 4D Bible movie to a life-sized Ark standing tall above an ocean of parking lots.
I relied on printed-out directions and boarding passes, a compass, an atlas, and also on paying attention to my surroundings, to road signs and local radio. I know that sounds absurdly obvious, but think about how little you notice such features of moving through time and space these days because there’s no need to, thanks to your phone. You could argue that my approach was less efficient than having everything right there in one place, but I am certain I spent less time checking and rechecking routes and arrival times and hotel names because paper can’t recalculate or tempt you to tap on something else, and radio almost everywhere gives you traffic and news every 15 or 20 minutes. In the end, visiting Biblical museums and parks, and also a superb collection of Dante manuscripts at the University of Notre Dame (my next novel is set at a Dante theme park in small town Indiana), I drove from Toronto to Washington with my family, and then on my own flew from Washington to Cincinnati, and then drove hundreds of miles through Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky, before returning to Cincinnati and flying back to Toronto. Throughout, I had a sense of time, space and also agency that was fundamentally different than this same trip would have been an iPhone X ago. I soon overcame phantom checking my screen and eventually went hours without thinking about, and with, and through my phone.
Meanwhile, listening to dozens of local radio stations while driving for hours through the middle of America, instead of, for instance, streaming a podcast about life in the middle of America, gave me a sense of place and people – angry, fearful, seeking, God-loving and universally fans of each and every possible version of Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road. This made it feel alive and of-the-moment because it was imperfect and not of my own, self-contained, algorithm-addled choosing. Stations would fade in and out going down the highway, and I’d only catch snippets of shows and have to figure out if the caller was upset about something President Donald Trump had done, or not done. I never became lost, and even if there were times when I was stuck in traffic that the navigation app Waze might have rescued me from, I didn’t mind. Instead, I banged my steering wheel in solidarity with the news jockeys on Indianapolis talk radio, who were channelling the outrage of thousands about the roadwork starting on the I-465 on a Friday night in the middle of the Indiana State Fair. Likewise, while having dinner at a table near a Wounded Warriors reception in Lawrenceburg, Ind., and while passing by teenaged Korean Presbyterians taking selfies with a smiling greeter dressed up as a first-century Jerusalemite at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, and while lip-synching my way through a Creationism sing-a-long led by a country-western musician and professional dinosaur sculptor at Ark Encounter, I noticed and remembered things about the people around me – about them, not about me noticing them and communicating to others elsewhere about me noticing them and then waiting, staring down in my lap, to see what others thought of me and my noticing.
Of course, there’s another way to look at my decision to give up my smartphone – that it’s a luxury and privilege to be unconnected like this, one that’s made possible by a secure and stable life in which I still benefit from all the many kinds of connection and efficiency made possible by the smartphones that the people around me continue to use. Moreover, perhaps I have broken my smartphone dependency because I’ve never really had to depend on it, like workers in the gig economy, or people seeking connection, help, information and basic dignities and material improvements while living under repressive regimes or with failing infrastructures, never mind both. Smartphones are vital for many in such circumstances, and that poses the right and hard limit to my dumbphone evangelism.
That said, I think for a lot of people, those who habitually, even self-defensively, talk about using their phones way too much but only like talking about it, phones are costing more and more, in time and money and relationships. If you can do it, choosing to be dumb might actually not be that stupid.