Smart­phones prom­ise to make our lives eas­ier, faster and more con­nected, but are they mak­ing us hap­pier? Bronwyn Wil­liams ditches hers to find out

Fashion Quarterly - - Feature -

Ev­ery morn­ing I wake to the sound of bird­song. Star­lings and spar­rows chirp qui­etly, stir­ring my con­scious­ness, their ex­cite­ment slowly build­ing un­til the in­creas­ing vol­ume snaps my eyes open. A crack of win­ter light peeps through the cur­tain and tracks along the du­vet. Glanc­ing at my phone, I switch the bird alarm off and then, de­spite my good in­ten­tions to go for a brisk walk while think­ing mind­fully to set my­self up for a pro­duc­tive day ahead, a tap of my thumb sucks me into a vor­tex of In­sta­gram scrolling. I emerge half an hour later, and hav­ing run out of time for my walk (again), I get up, phone in hand, and be­gin my day.

I open Spo­tify and it sug­gests mu­sic to get dressed to. I check my cal­en­dar while brush­ing my teeth, in­sert an emoji into a group chat and book in my evening spin class on the Les Mills app. On the way to work, I hit play on a pod­cast and up­date my health app, all while spo­rad­i­cally googling things that pop into my head. Dur­ing the day I an­swer text mes­sages on the toi­let, Face­book Mes­sen­ger mes­sages while wait­ing for my cof­fee and What­sApp mes­sages in the lift. I use a bank­ing app, a selfie-air­brush­ing app, a boomerang app and a healthy-eat­ing app, Google Maps, Uber and, while in the Uber, an app that tells me my per­fect foun­da­tion match. Be­tween all that, I In­sta­gram, In­sta­gram, In­sta­gram and email, email, email, un­til bed­time when I need Headspace — a med­i­ta­tion app — to soothe my­self to sleep.

One evening, feel­ing pan­icked and empty af­ter a par­tic­u­larly vig­or­ous so­cial me­dia ses­sion, I be­gan to count. I’d used 15 apps that day. And the day be­fore that. The fol­low­ing week I in­stalled an­other app — a us­age tracker —and baulked when it an­nounced that I looked at my phone an av­er­age of 115 times a day.

It be­gan to dawn on me that the more I used my smart­phone, the more dispir­ited I was be­com­ing. The thing that was help­ing me mul­ti­task, do more and be more, was ac­tu­ally mak­ing me more and more un­happy. My smart­phone had be­come an in­vis­i­ble crutch, a ner­vous twitch, a dis­trac­tion from bore­dom.

Ev­ery spare minute of ev­ery sin­gle day, my head was buried in a small screen in the palm of my hand. I didn’t know how to be bored any­more; in fact I didn’t even know what bore­dom was. What was it like to be bored, to be in the present mo­ment, watch­ing the min­utes tick by and ob­serv­ing a crack snake up the wall of the doc­tor’s of­fice rather than read­ing about the black­head ex­trac­tion rou­tine of an Amer­i­can beauty blog­ger? I rum­maged through my mem­ory, strug­gling to re­mem­ber what life was like be­fore a smart­phone. I be­gan to won­der, what if I lived with­out it?

I im­me­di­ately be­gan to panic. What about my emails? How would I get around with­out Google Maps? No Uber? And what if some­one needed to get in touch with me via Mes­sen­ger? What would I do with my spare time? And, most im­por­tantly, how would I keep up with life? De­spite the end­less ques­tions, I be­gan to get the fa­mil­iar feel­ing of hav­ing reached max­i­mum ca­pac­ity. It was time for a detox of the dig­i­tal kind.

I im­me­di­ately be­gan to panic. What about my emails? How would I get around

with­out Google Maps? No Uber?

I’m not the only one go­ing through a tech cri­sis. As our lives be­come in­creas­ingly com­pli­cated, more and more peo­ple are choos­ing to slow down, erad­i­cate un­nec­es­sary tech­nol­ogy and switch off. Just like the slow-food move­ment, the slow-tech move­ment pro­motes the con­scious con­sump­tion of tech­nol­ogy and in­for­ma­tion rather than sub­scrib­ing to the ‘al­ways on’ no­tion that modern de­vel­op­ments al­low. And there’s a mar­ket for it too, with Nokia’s iconic text and call-only 3310 brick phone — these days called a ‘dumb­phone’ — sell­ing for top dol­lar as a col­lec­tor’s item on eBay and a re-re­lease ex­pected here to­wards the end of the year.

While Nokia is tak­ing the nos­tal­gia route, oth­ers are de­vel­op­ing new tech­nol­ogy that aids a so­cially ac­cept­able switch off. Light Phone, a Kick­starter-funded pro­ject, is a no-web, no-text phone that only makes and takes calls. The size of a credit card and mar­keted as ‘your phone away from phone’, it works as a seam­less ex­ten­sion of your smart­phone, al­low­ing you to keep your same phone num­ber.

“When we con­sume so fast, there’s no way for us to ap­pre­ci­ate any­thing… our lives [lack] mean­ing and pur­pose,” says co-founder Joe Hol­lier. “Go­ing light means leav­ing be­hind your smart­phone and all of its noise in ex­change for serene sim­plic­ity.”

Serene. Sim­plic­ity. Those were two words I cer­tainly didn’t as­so­ciate with my cur­rent life. Fig­ur­ing most di­etary detoxes last about a week, I de­cided to go for the same length of time with­out my smart­phone. That Sun­day, I headed to my lo­cal tech store and lo­cated, af­ter much search­ing, their sin­gle re­main­ing dumb­phone, an Al­ca­tel sell­ing for just $19. “Is it for your emer­gency dis­as­ter kit?” the young teller asked. Emer­gency? Dis­as­ter? Sort of.

Dur­ing one of our reg­u­lar Face­Time ses­sions, I told my friend what I was plan­ning to do. A highly strung cor­po­rate exec, she’s also a heavy tech user. “Eugh,” she shud­dered, “I could never do that.”

“But wouldn’t it be nice to have more time to think?” I asked. There was a long pause. “I’m too scared to be alone with my own

The first time I felt re­gret was at lunchtime, when my col­leagues be­gan chat­ting about a celebrity In­sta­gram that had been posted over the week­end

thoughts,” she an­swered. I was shocked by her re­sponse, but not all that sur­prised. In a world where most of our on­line ex­pe­ri­ence is dom­i­nated by look­ing into other’s heav­ily cu­rated lives, deep in­ter­nal thoughts — when we get the time to have them — of­ten re­sult in us stew­ing over our own short­com­ings. My mother, who de­spite be­ing tech-lit­er­ate still uses the orig­i­nal Nokia 3310, was thrilled I’d fi­nally seen the light. “When you go with­out it, you’ll re­alise you don’t ac­tu­ally need any of that ex­tra stuff.”

Later that night, I switched SIM cards and af­ter re­al­is­ing my iPhone had sucked my con­tacts into the Cloud, set about man­u­ally in­putting the de­tails of peo­ple I called reg­u­larly into the new phone. Send­ing a trial text to my hus­band, it all came rush­ing back: the te­dious mash­ing of the same key in or­der to get a sin­gle let­ter out, the aching thumb af­ter a day of heavy us­age and the tick box to ‘add re­cip­i­ent’ that so of­ten re­sulted in an ac­ci­den­tal ‘send to all’. Gone were my apps, my so­cial me­dia and my ar­ray of bird species to wake up to. I had a cal­cu­la­tor, an FM ra­dio and a choice of 12 alarm sounds rang­ing from laugh­ably twee to ir­ri­tat­ing.

De­ter­mined to make the most of my detox, the next morn­ing I rose early, wo­ken by a tinny syn­the­siser that jarred me enough to forgo the snooze op­tion. I walked along the wa­ter­front and with­out any­thing plugged into my ears, watched the sun rise. I felt like I was on hol­i­day. In­hal­ing lung­fuls of morn­ing air, I mar­velled as the sun burst onto the sky­line and shifted across the wa­ter. I ar­rived home feel­ing awake, strangely en­riched, and… calm. Af­ter few ini­tial glances at my phone, I re­alised there was no point both­er­ing; there was noth­ing to see: no pop up alerts or ‘un­read’ icons hov­er­ing over an app. On the way to work, I sim­ply watched the traf­fic. What was on my mind? Not much at all. My time in the cof­fee line was spent chew­ing over a story idea. With­out the dis­trac­tion at work, I got more done than ever.

The first time I felt re­gret was at lunchtime, when my col­leagues be­gan chat­ting about a celebrity In­sta­gram that had been posted over the week­end. Or­di­nar­ily I would have seen it and the re­posts, read the back­lash and been right in there OMG-ing with them. I didn’t even know who they were talk­ing about. Sud­denly, I felt iso­lated. That af­ter­noon I left my phone on my desk dur­ing a trip to the bath­room and re­alised, with blind­ing amaze­ment, that if some­one wanted to get hold of me, I could al­ways call them back. And that text mes­sages don’t have to be an­swered within a cer­tain time­frame.

As the week went on, my phone be­gan to spend more and more time on my desk when I went to get a glass of wa­ter, sat in meet­ings and walked around the of­fice. By Thurs­day, I was brave enough to leave the phone at home when I went out for din­ner. With emails now rel­e­gated to of­fice hours only, a line emerged be­tween work and home that hadn’t ex­isted be­fore. My spare time be­came more pre­cious.

With a dumb­phone, the pace of life was slower. I spent a lot of time on call wait­ing while book­ing gym classes and cabs (which I ul­ti­mately ditched in favour of get­ting my hus­band to or­der Ubers for me, af­ter dis­cov­er­ing the ex­or­bi­tant price of a reg­u­lar taxi). Hav­ing no smart­phone forced me to think for my­self. Ap­point­ments were writ­ten into a di­ary and I be­gan re­ly­ing on my mem­ory, which worked just fine. Though I’ve lived in Auck­land for five years, I’d al­ways used Google Maps to get around, blindly fol­low­ing as an Amer­i­can woman barked di­rec­tions. With my map app gone, I fi­nally be­gan to get to know my city.

I en­joyed the fact that I was no longer a piece of traf­fic data. When ques­tions popped into my head, I took plea­sure in mulling them over, rather than go­ing di­rect to Google. I also be­gan to draw on the knowl­edge of those around me, which re­sulted in a num­ber of phone chats with peo­ple I don’t speak to as of­ten as I should.

Ibe­gan to re­alise that tech­nol­ogy, which prom­ises to make life eas­ier and con­nect us, does just that, but lit­tle of it is mean­ing­ful. Rather than liv­ing in the mo­ment, we’re in­hab­it­ing a place called nowhere, al­most all of the time. With­out the smart­phone I was present; I had breath­ing space. A task be­came just a task, not the mul­ti­tasks I was ac­cus­tomed to. There’s a pre­sump­tion that equates busy­ness with pro­duc­tiv­ity, and al­though with­out my smart­phone I may have ticked off fewer tasks, those I did do were done more ef­fec­tively, and with pur­pose.

The week was soon up. That Sun­day night I reached for my smart­phone —and then stopped. I wasn’t ready to have it all flood back in. Sure, some of the apps make life eas­ier and my so­cial me­dia feed would al­low me to keep up with wa­ter-cooler chat, but the ben­e­fits of a smart­phone pale in com­par­i­son to those of liv­ing with­out one. I may still re­turn to tech, but for now I’m stick­ing with my dumb­phone while my iPhone rolls around, switched off, in the bot­tom of my bag, just for or­der­ing Ubers.

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