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My Dumb Phone Experiment: Week Two

In modern society, there’s no such thing as giving up your smartphone.
December 21, 2012

Readers have been responding to my month-long experiment in technological regression: I’ve decided to replace my stolen iPhone, for a spell, with an old-fashioned Alcatel feature phone. My hope was to reclaim a corner of my life as saner and less constantly connected. So far, the experiment hasn’t been going great; as I mentioned in my last post on the topic, I miss my iPhone quite a bit. I whined about the indignities of having to type out SMS’s on nine number keys, for instance.

One reader wrote something very perceptive: that my problem was that I was trying to fit a smartphone lifestyle into my new “dumb” phone existence. One thing I’ve realized more vividly, in the few weeks that I’ve been a smartphone abandoner, is that the smartphone isn’t just a product; it’s a societal phenomenon. No man is a technological island, and just because I’ve given up on my smartphone doesn’t mean that my friends and coworkers are necessarily willing to join me in my attempt for a more casual relationship with connective technology.

Back when everyone had feature phones, a kind of abbreviated caveman speak (“meet bar 5 min”) was in wide currency. It’s the kind of caveman speak that I’m reduced to now. But my friends, with their iPhones’ virtual keyboards and their (let’s face it, more-helpful-than-not) autocorrect, are spouting small novels. I remember conducting SMS repartee as fluently as many an in-person conversation. That’s not possible on a dumb phone, but until I condition my friends not to expect that of me, I just come off as a jerk.

That’s just one example. But I find that there are a suite of ways, large and small, in which I’m realizing that, in a sense, an individual cannot choose to renounce a smartphone. If he’s knotted up in a society that itself is smartphone-powered, and he is necessarily going to remain a part of that society, he will constantly be apologizing for himself, scrambling to catch up, making excuses–and begging.

Because the other thing I’ve learned is how dependent I am, now, on the technological kindness of strangers. “Could you spare a little bandwidth, mister?” I may have renounced my own smartphone for a while, but that hasn’t prevented me from borrowing those of friends, or in some way relying on their 3G connectivity. On a date, I ask her to Yelp around for a good bar. Out with friends, I rely on them for the best transit directions. Unilaterally disarming myself of my smartphone reminds me a little bit of being one of those people who chooses not to vaccinate their child. On the one hand, it’s rational, since the mere fact of the rest of society being vaccinated ensures such a general level of public health that there’s no one who even has the mumps to give Timmy to begin with. On the other hand, it’s selfish, and if everyone did it, we’d all have the mumps.

I gave up my smartphone, but in some ways, I’m still surfing a broader wave of the smartphone revolution. A true dumb phone experiment would involve an undisclosed location in the countryside, or perhaps a fallout shelter.

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