I vividly remember the day I got my first smartphone, I unboxed it on the bus home and marvelled at the touch screen which I genuinely thought was ‘magic’. From the moment it booted up my relationship my mobile phone changed forever — up until this point it had been little more than a passive plastic brick that carried out my commands with minimal enthusiasm, but through advances in technology it had suddenly transformed into an eager personal assistant, helping me wake up on time, informing me of where my next meeting was and telling me the best way to get there. However, the more you rely upon a someone to organise your life for you, the more you become dependent on them and this new shiny pocket PA secretly knew this along. Those idyllic billboard posters of instantly shared family snowboarding holiday moments masked a more malevolent narrative — slowly but surely our photos, music and contacts were being taken out of our hands and stored in the ether for ‘our best interest’. With increased capability came an increased pressure to respond — suddenly we all now faced an electronic social accountability where programs like ‘Whatsapp’ allowed people to see the last time you’d checked your messages and thus calculate whether your response or lack of it conveyed a particular meaning or message. It’s not exactly the dystopian future portrayed in the Terminator movies but if it was up to me I’d say that stopping Snapchat alone was worth sending Arnie back for.
It wasn’t even that long ago that I hailed the advent of smartphones a Godsend. They offered a welcome distraction from those frustrating ‘down time’ moments you get in life — waiting for buses, stuck on stopped trains, walks to work etc. If a friend was late to meet you in a pub, you could cover by looking at your smartphone - a social cloaking device where you became simply ‘one of the crowd’, taking care of business on the move. People looking at you didn’t think ‘loser whose mate has bailed’ but instead ‘busy professional’.
But at the end of 2016 something inside me snapped. I got sick of not being able to have a proper conversation with people because their eyes kept tracking down to note incessant updates from their phone — almost as if their little plastic PA was jealous of not getting their undivided attention. I grew tried of being a slave to the charger because the battery wouldn’t last a full day, desperately closing down applications to re-route emergency power like a low budget ‘Apollo 13’; and I’d had enough of sitting in bed, face bathed in blue light scrolling through Facebook feeds of idealised homelife snapshots posted by people who deep down weren’t quite as happy as they’d have you believe. So I decided to make a change and filed for divorce from my smart phone on 1st January 2017.
I read that a company called Punkt were encouraging people to ween themselves off smartphones by swapping to their robust and retro handset the MP01 — designed by Jasper Morrison. So I signed up for this Digital Detox and haven’t looked back since. This initiative offered the possibility of release from the shackles of the next gen phone but without having to use a handset that looked like it’d been sat in your kitchen ‘odds & sods’ drawer for 10 years. Digital Detox is a big sacrifice - it means no e-mail, no photos, no WhatsApp and no social media, basically sending you back to the sepia tone days of surviving on just text messages and voice calls. How long or how much you want to do it is up to you, you can just try stepping away at weekends or put your smartphone away when you’re sat having family time in the evenings. I think just the desire to make the change is the most important part.
Since taking on the challenge I genuinely feel that my life has changed for the better. I tend to call people to chat a lot more now as texting seems less personal (and is more difficult), I’m loving not being a beleaguered cog in a massive 20 person Whatsapp coversation machine where you wake up and have to work through 50 messages that you don’t fully understand. Not having work e-mails spewing out at me through my phone has also been a revelation — the amount of times I’ve replied during the heat of the moment whilst on the move and wished I’d just waited and calmed down! Now finally I don’t have any choice but to wait until I get home. Most importantly of all, I’m starting to notice and appreciate my surroundings, and I didn’t realise how much I’d taken them for granted. Do me a favour and look at people as you walk around today — you’ll probably notice that pretty much everyone’s attention is monopolised by their phones, it’s crazy — walking, sitting, running, always looking down at the phone. I sometimes think that if the iconic alien arrival scene in 1996’s Independence Day happened now it would’ve taken until mid-afternoon for anyone to even notice the hovering UFOs as we’re all too busy looking down at our damn phones!
So this is now my new life mission, and I’m pleased to say it’s so far so good — I’m only on social media and e-mails when at home or at work, outside of that people will have to call me or maybe push the boat out and have an actual face to face conversation. I urge you to give it a go, and the next time you see a stressed out businessman scrolling through tiny e-mails on a train or an overtired nightshift worker popping imaginary phone fruit on a packed platform remember that the Digital Detox emergency exit is always there for you if you should choose it.