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I’m Going Back to my “Dumb” Phone. Should You?

For the next month, I’m trying out a smartphone-less existence. Am I crazy?
December 10, 2012

On Friday, I sat down in a McDonald’s on Broadway, to write a Technology Review post. I placed my chicken fingers, my laptop, and my black iPhone 4 on a round, black table, and set to work. After a while, I gathered up all my things–or so I thought–went to the bathroom, and came back. After a few minutes, I realized my iPhone was gone. I Skype-called it; whoever took it had already shut it off.           

I’ve been an iPhone user for a little over four years. Like many people, I found it did nothing short of transform my life, when I first started using it in the fall of 2008. As a reporter, it solved multiple problems I’d been having in one fell swoop. On reporting trips, the thing has been a sort of digital Swiss Army Knife, directing me to my next interview, then recording that interview, then letting me document the setting of the interview in a photograph.

But not all the changes were good. I, like a lot of people, have a love-hate relationship with the Internet. I don’t like to use the language of addiction casually, but the common denominator was this: I was engaging in behavior that, on a deeper level, I didn’t want to engage in. I was checking email too frequently, and surfing websites when what I wanted to be doing was reading books. My iPhone beckoned to me, from my pocket, an almost physical tingling. Much as I have loved my iPhone, I’ve never hated it more than when I’ve finally gotten into the swing of a good novel, only to feel an insatiable urge to check my phone. That wasn’t true of me five years ago.

Like a lot of people, I don’t want to be constantly connected. A few months ago, I began to wonder if my iPad had begun to assume most of the functions of my iPhone anyway, and whether as a result I might be able to revert back to something like my old Motorola–a “feature,” “flip,” or “dumb” phone, depending on your preferred nomenclature (see “Is It Time for Me to Go Back to My Flip Phone?”). More generally, I wondered if I could begin to lead a life in which I had greater control over when I was connected, and when I wasn’t.

I biked to the AT&T store in downtown Brooklyn, thoroughly taxed the patience of a very helpful employee with my dithering, and walked out with a new phone.

It’s an Alcatel 510A. This being a hardware blog, after all, you’ll want the specs in all the traditional spec-relating language: My phone packs 64 MB of internal storage (50 MB available to me), and 128 MB of RAM. It sports a 611 MHz MTK6276 processor. My LCD display has a resolution of 128x160 pixels, in splendid 18-bit color. My battery’s 850 mAh Lilon, and the whole thing weighs in at a little under 3 oz.

In other words, I bought the dumbest phone I could buy.

It “set me back” $20. That’s less than the $35 restocking fee, were I to want to exchange it.

For the next month at least, I plan to experiment with a smartphone-free existence, and I’ll be blogging about it along the way. I hope to figure out whether it’s possible to reclaim a small corner of my life that is less constantly connected. I want to learn whether it’s ever rational to deliberately saddle yourself with outmoded technology. And I want to be given a vivid reminder of the various ways I’ve become dependent on smartphones and mobile computing generally.

I stepped out from the AT&T store on Fulton Street with a smile on my face. I felt, in a way, liberated. I had no means of checking my email, or headlines. I had to engage with the world around me. Music was playing from an adjacent storefront. The smell of hotdogs wafted from a nearby vendor. Throngs of people emerged from a nearby shoe store with shopping bags. It was pleasantly warm for December, and a gentle breeze blew through the street.

Seized with an impulse to document the moment I entered this new low-tech mode of life, I reached for my phone. That’s when I realized the Alcatel 510A doesn’t have a camera.

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