Are My Days as a Smartphone Holdout Coming to an End?

Not having a smartphone defines me — and I’m no longer sure it’s for the better

Credit: Prakash Singh/Getty Images

MyMy 3G Blackberry, now over nine years old, drops calls constantly. This problem started a couple of years ago, shortly after I’d taken a tutoring gig that required frequent phone meetings — and frequent apologetic calls back to the client. T-Mobile customer service suggested I upgrade my phone; apparently, towers that support their 3G signals are going the way of the dodo.

I chose this phone in 2010 because it was neither a touchscreen smartphone nor a flip phone that required hitting a key three times to type one letter. Now I’m like a polar bear standing on a shrinking iceberg. The ground around me has fallen into a digital ocean, and I’m trying to figure out if it’s finally time to jump in.

I study and write about the effects of smartphone use, particularly among my university students (whom I have made lock their phones in pouches during class). It’s well known that Steve Jobs and Bill Gates disallowed or severely restricted their kids’ smartphone and tablet use, with good reason.

I’m the only adult — and often, the only person — most people know who doesn’t own a smartphone. And that’s okay with me.

Multiple studies show that smartphone use reduces gray matter in the brain, which impacts, among other things, emotional control. Smartphone use also degrades the brain’s white matter, or the tissue that contains nerve fibers and helps relay messages between brain cells. The devices and the apps we use on our phones exacerbate loneliness and depression, make us forget how to socialize in person, and decrease our ability to empathize. And then there are the data and privacy issues.

We all draw our lines somewhere, and for a decade, this has been mine. But now I find myself reconsidering.

Professional

When I didn’t get cell service in most of tech-forward Iceland, I crossed my fingers that I wouldn’t experience any car or health problems, and that was that. But during an interview for a book I’m writing, my Blackberry dropped a call — one that, incidentally, I was conducting on speakerphone so I could use a digital recorder to capture it — and I wondered whether my refusal to own a smartphone was hurting me more than it was helping me. The app TapeACall alone — which allows you to easily record calls on your smartphone — would change my life (and benefit my work).

Social

I’m the only adult — and often, the only person — most people know who doesn’t own a smartphone. And that’s okay with me.

Until fairly recently, none of this has been a problem. Currently, I’m teaching in London for six weeks, and the British communicate primarily through WhatsApp (as do people in Chile, Turkey, China, and pretty much everywhere but the United States.) When I ask people if they can simply text me, they raise an eyebrow. I’m often the only person standing on the corner with a map, which I embrace. I want to know more than whether to turn right or left at the next stoplight — I want to know where I am, and the shape of the city. I don’t want my explorations curated by apps.

The world is changing

Printed tickets are disappearing. I’ve had to transfer concert tickets to a friend’s phone so I can get in. I struggled to join a gym here in London because membership and admission for so many of them run on apps. The number of interactions that require apps will only increase — am I ready to forego all of them?

One of my old professors was a self-professed Luddite who, back in 2004, refused to get email, despite the pleas of students and administration. He didn’t want to have to check it, to be beholden to a whole other dimension of work and life. I understood his point, but I also remember thinking, come on — if you want to function in the world, and in your particular job, you need email. At a certain point, societal and professional obligations begin to force one’s hand..

A quick Google search brings me to my professor’s LinkedIn page, and knowing that he has stopped resisting makes it just a little easier to contemplate the same.

Not having a smartphone also reveals a contradiction about who I am. I’m a science writer who focuses on robots and artificial intelligence — I’m fascinated by technology and spend more time researching and thinking about it than about anything else. I worry that not having a smartphone, and thus, only understanding their capabilities secondhand, will hasten the kind of cognitive obsolescence people my age observe in their parents. Will I become like my mother, whose email contacts seem to routinely vanish or whose printer mysteriously stops working? Perhaps that’s bound to happen regardless, but being anti-smartphone doesn’t make me more nimble around tech.

I’m wrestling over whether to own a portable portal to the world, to infinite worlds. Is that ridiculous? I wonder if I’m being stubborn for the sake of it. Perhaps the world has changed so much that refusing to use a smartphone hampers my own development. Am I getting in the way of my own evolution?

I’ve always said I’d hold out as long as I could, which suggests I’ve expected there to come a time when I couldn’t hold out any longer. Perhaps that’s why getting a smartphone would feel like a failure — that I couldn’t do it, as though I failed some mission. But a mission to what, be “good” or “real”? Or maybe, not to turn to the dark side, which is what my friends and I in NYC used to call it when someone we knew succumbed to the temptation to become an asshole, a sad facsimile of a Sex in the City character, or a ruthless Wall Street type.

My abstention wasn’t designed to be a contest, but it increasingly feels like one. I used to think it’s me against the corporate giants, and getting a smartphone would be a victory for Apple, Facebook, Google, and the other media giants whose apps I would inevitably download. But I’ve already given them my data — even though I don’t use any of their apps, I still use their platforms and programs on my computer. I used to think that it was me against everyone else, resisting the temptation to prioritize screens over people, no matter how ridiculous everyone thinks I am. But I’m coming to understand it’s not that either. This contest is between me and me. How long can I hold out in this bet against myself? And ultimately, what do I gain?

The question about whether to get a smartphone isn’t just practical — it’s symbolic. Perhaps it sounds melodramatic, but I’m worried this may be a battle for my soul. Like most people in first world countries, I’m split between the physical world and the digital one, and I’ve been able to remain pretty firmly in the former. Getting a smartphone would change that balance. Like when the front of the roller coaster crests the top, and, sitting in the last row of seats, you hold your breath and wait for the plunge. There’s nothing you can do to stop it.

I’ll eat junk food when I’m at a party, but I won’t bring it into my house. Proximity destroys willpower, so my strategy with smartphones, like with junk food, is to keep them away. When the thing I crave is within easy reach, I’m done for. That’s why I suspect that the gratification of owning a smartphone would be so instant that within hours I’ll marvel at how and why I went without one for so long. I’m not sure how I feel about that, though I’m pretty sure how I feel about it right now won’t matter.

Recently I visited the Kennedy Space Center, and when I bought my ticket I learned that a Delta IV rocket launch had been rescheduled for that evening. I didn’t want to pay extra and then hang out at the crowded Center until 9 p.m., but I wasn’t going to miss the launch. Figuring out how and where to watch the launch without the help of a smartphone became a gratifying problem-solving game that involved meeting and chatting with other people and asking them for advice. I ended up on a Cape Canaveral Beach with a couple who moved there from Tennessee who make it a habit to enjoy picnics on the beach during rocket launches, and who were also surprisingly knowledgeable about NASA’s budget.

That’s what I think I’ll miss.

More worryingly, perhaps I won’t miss it after a month or week or day has passed. I wonder how long it would take for me to convince myself that it’s a relief to have access to information all the time. A relief not to fight it anymore. Maybe what I’m really worried about is that it won’t be difficult at all.

What does it mean to erase a line whose existence has been defining, largely because of how certain it was? I won’t be who I am now if I get a smartphone. But maybe the bigger problem is drawing a line in the first place. You might draw that line with every intention of honoring it, but people change. The world changes, and we know what happens to those who refuse to embrace that.

I probably should. I probably have to. I still don’t actually want to. The idea of putting a smartphone in my own hands scares me. But I may very well do it anyway, even knowing that there’s no going back.

Science writer, teacher, geek. Bylines in Slate, Daily Beast, Aeon, WaPo, Astrobiology, New Scientist, and others. Tweets @couldthishappen

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