We would just sit there in silence, scrolling away

Although it doesn’t seem like it, given its current ubiquity, the first-generation iPhone came out just eleven years ago, in the summer of 2007. It would have been hard to imagine then that the iPhone, or smartphones in general, could so quickly become almost indispensable in so many areas of daily life. I have here, for example, a letter from my bank, informing me that its mobile banking app will soon be the only “complimentary” method to obtain a TAN number (a one-time password for transactions). That is to say that, after little more than ten years, a bank can take it for granted that its customers all have smartphones in the same way that it takes for granted that they all have mailing addresses.

I don’t think many people considered the consequences of smartphone use when they bought their first iPhone, say, in 2007. Being seventeen years old at the time, I certainly didn’t. Since I continued to use the iPhone for the same functions as ever – making calls and sending texts – its main attraction to me at that time must have been just its trendiness, although I remember taking some pleasure in the object itself. (After all, it was a novel design.) However, I don’t remember its being much use as far as the Internet was concerned. Maybe cellular data networks were still too slow to want to use; maybe there were too few websites with decent mobile versions. Or maybe, not being much interested in any of the social networks, I just didn’t have much to do on the Internet at that time. In any case, beyond the convenience of having an MP3-player built into my phone, I’d say that the first-generation iPhone didn’t bring me much in the way of new functionality, nor did it meaningfully changed the way I used technology.

Now in 2018, just eleven years later, things look very different. The primary function of the smartphone is by no means sending texts (much less making calls, which seems to have become a kind of crisis measure, to be taken only in case of emergency). Even quotidian tasks that have nothing to do with communication would now seem to be virtually impossible without the assistance of a smartphone: waking up on time in the morning, reading the news, transferring money, taking pictures on vacation, setting a timer while cooking, finding a decent restaurant, finding your way to that restaurant… The question that was rarely asked, as smartphones were being insinuated into every aspect of our lives, is whether their indispensability, born of their convenience, wasn’t also creating a dependency on that other feature of smartphones: the distractions they purvey. For smartphones aren’t just convenient tools, but inducements to waste time.

At least they were for me. Over the years using my smartphone became almost a compulsion. I found myself reaching for my phone to check the same five or six websites (mostly to do with news) in every free or idle moment. This would definitely happen when I was waiting to get somewhere: in the subway, on a car ride, on an escalator, etc. But it was becoming hard to resist even in company, among friends. When we were in a restaurant, and there was a lull in the conversation, I’d have to make a conscious effort not to pull out my phone (much as it annoyed me when the others did just that). Then there might come that moment – now such a common sight – when we had all taken out our phones, everyone at the table, and would just sit there in silence, scrolling away. And in my case, at least, that was all it would amount to: aimless scrolling away. It wasn’t as if I were conscientiously reading through each article, really trying to stay informed; I usually wouldn’t read anything beyond the (admittedly, these days, horribly fascinating) headlines. It had somehow become an exercise in just scrolling through the website, even when I knew, having just done it an hour before, that I would find nothing new or interesting. And at night, when I should have been sleeping, this website-checking and aimless scrolling really did become compulsive. (I say “website-checking,” as if it were always the New York Times; I won’t even go into the YouTube videos…) I’d hate to know how many hours of sleep I’ve lost over the years just messing around on my phone.

So I’ve decided to get rid of my smartphone. Which has probably been made possible, or at least much easier, by the availability of a “non-smart” phone that’s also non-embarrassing. (If as a teenager I took pleasure in the iPhone as an object, I’d say the MP01 has the features of a more adult aesthetic: simplicity, a certain pleasant heft in the hand…) Although many people seem to use the MP01 as an occasional alternative to their smartphone, on weekend getaways, etc., I’ve decided to use it as my one and only phone. In doing so, I’ve had to recognize how truly dependent I’d been on my smartphone to fill every spare moment of time: at first it does feel strange just standing there in an elevator, doing nothing. But I found that, after just a few weeks, I hardly noticed not having a smartphone. I did notice, however, a great deal more of the world around me. I found I could finish whole books in the time that I’d been spending – not to say frittering away – on my smartphone while traveling. And, while it’s sometimes slightly annoying not to have Google Maps in my pocket, I don’t otherwise feel that I’ve lost anything by not having a smartphone – at least nothing I wasn’t happy to have finally given up.

George Brauer
Berlin, Germany

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