(Not Exactly) Roughing It

I remember an episode of NPR’s The Diane Rehm Show that featured a man who was touting a life without smartphones. He and his wife and children had all gotten rid of theirs and replaced them with normal mobiles, and the man said that his life felt calmer and he felt like his time was used more wisely. I found myself agreeing with everything the guy was saying. I’m pretty sure I even tweeted about it from my BlackBerry.

Yes, even though I thought this man had a point, I was very much enthralled with my own smartphone. And yet at the same time I felt resentful of it. In addition to being alerted every time I got a call or a text, my BlackBerry let me know every time somebody emailed me at two addresses, left me a comment on Facebook, mentioned me on Twitter, or instant messaged me through AIM, Yahoo!, G-chat, MSN, Skype, and BlackBerry Messenger. If one of my friends sneezed while thinking about me, I’m pretty sure it triggered some sort of alert on my phone. Some of my friends even took it personally if I didn’t respond to their messages INSTANTLY because they knew my phone was telling me I was being summoned via a complicated series of lights and beeps and vibrations. And while I could have shut off any or all of these alerts, once they started, I couldn’t stop them. It made me too anxious to silence my Berry. I was worried I was missing out not just on something, but everything.

At the risk of sounding like I’m fishing for compliments, y’all, I’m just not that important. I’m a paper-pusher and freelance writer. Nobody is going to die if I can’t be reached via 75 different applications. Nothing is going to explode if I don’t have instant and constant access to the internet. I sit in front of a computer all day at work and check my email, bank account, and Facebook page regularly, and though I’m loath to be in front of the computer at home after spending eight or nine hours working at one during the day, I usually take a few minutes to check my Twitter feed as well as my email and Facebook again before I go to bed. I spend Saturday or Sunday mornings catching up with my favorite blogs and hunting down recipes, and any time I think of something I need to check, I can grab my netbook and head over to Google pretty much whenever I want.

My point is that even removing the BlackBerry from my life wouldn’t mean I was suddenly removed from the technology I rely on to keep me in touch with people. But the thought of being without it while I listened to and agreed with this guy preaching the gospel of simplifying his life by cutting his iPhone out of it made me want to break out in hives.

Then my beloved BlackBerry fell into a toilet. And before you ask, no, I wasn’t texting or talking in the bathroom. I’m a full-time student in addition to a full-time employee, and since I carry a bottomless school bag that swallows small, expensive gadgets instead of a purse most of the year, I’ve long since gotten into the habit of keeping my phone in my pocket. I bent over to tie my shoe or adjust my pants leg or something and the phone just slipped out and landed in the (mercifully clean) toilet with a horrible splash. It blinked pitifully at me for a few seconds while I resisted the urge to plunge my hand into the bowl to get it, and then the screen went permanently black.

Even with insurance I couldn’t afford to replace it, so I didn’t. The decision to cut my smartphone from my life was made for me by the mere fact that my finances wouldn’t allow it. I may have loved my BlackBerry, but not more than I love having a roof over my head, food in my fridge, and hot running water. My brother kindly loaned me his old Samsung Sway, which, while not pretty, works perfectly. I had to get used to texting on a T9 keyboard again, which has been a pretty hilarious adventure for me and my friends, but what surprised me most about unwillingly downgrading my phone technology was this: after the initial shock and disappointment wore off, I didn’t miss the BlackBerry. I don’t miss the BlackBerry. Everything that guy said was right. I have my free time back. I don’t obsessively check my phone for status updates and new tweets and messages and emails because I can’t.

I know I’m not the only one who’s gone through this. Many of my friends have become very dependent on their smartphones. And I’m not knocking them for it. I loved my BlackBerry because it was fun. It gave me lots of things to look at and play with when I was in a doctor’s office or airport. It allowed me to share weird or funny observations with the world every time and everywhere they occurred to me. If it hadn’t fallen into the toilet, I’d still have my smartphone, and I’d still love it.

But I’ve made the best of my loss and I’ve wound up feeling better without my Berry. I read more now. I enjoy my quiet time more. I still text a lot (and boy, have those old T9 skills gotten rusty), and I’m in no way trying to suggest that I’ve gone from being tethered to my Berry to living in a shack in the woods without running water. I enjoy technology very much (I’m even looking at getting a Nook), but the difference now is that I own my phone. My phone doesn’t own me.

Today I became eligible for an upgrade, and the decision to keep a basic phone or upgrade to a smartphone again was before me. My brother has offered me his Droid Incredible for free, so it was merely a question of whether or not I wanted to (or could) pay for necessary data plan. I could reasonably do this, but after I thought about it—and I mean really thought about it—I ordered a basic phone. I did upgrade slightly: the new phone has a slide-out QWERTY keyboard. T9 really is the pits. But it was free, I can most definitely afford the bill (it’s what I already pay), and it will serve my mobile phone needs fully and well. I’m not only satisfied, I’m happy.

I realize I’m in the minority for my age group here, but I’d still like to know: how do you guys feel about this? Do you think you’re (for lack of a better word, though I hate to overuse this one) addicted to your smartphones? Have you avoided getting a smartphone on purpose? Have you had one and gone back to a basic phone, like I did? Or would you rather eat glass than get rid of your smartphone? I’d like to read your thoughts on this.

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15 responses to “(Not Exactly) Roughing It

  1. I purposely don’t have that kind of phone for just that reason. I am scared of getting sucked in. My phone allows me to text, talk, and access online unlimitedly, but it’s your basic phone with limited capabilities when I am online. On occasion I wish it did more, but it gives me what I need, and a little more, for a great price. I think I might possibly never sleep if I had something that offered more. ;)

    Rose

  2. I’ve purposely avoided getting a smartphone, both because I simply don’t enjoy doing things intended for a full computer screen in miniature AND because I don’t want to turn into a zombie douche like many of my family members. Seriously. I’m sick of looking at the tops of peoples’ heads when I’m talking to them.

    What a great piece. Well thought out and genuine. Nice one, Panda.

  3. I am, as I’m sure you will guess, hopelessly addicted to my HTC HD7. I text, call, Facebook, tweet, email, blog, surf the web, read books via the kindle app, play games via the Xbox synchronosation and take photos and videos with it. I listen to my music, the radio, watch YouTube, download podcasts with it. I have the Microsoft Office suite, I have apps for my favourite newspapers and search engines… I feel mildly unhinged when its not in my hand. I have the twitter and Facebook alerts turned off (because my job is social media I have them on tweetdeck anyway so that would be duplication!) but otherwise I am online 24/7 in varying degrees. I can live without it when I want to… But rarely do I want to. I’m a lost cause go on without me!!!

    • You do strike me as the kind of person who definitely knows how to turn off, though, Leem. I don’t think of you as the kind of smartphone addict who tweets through dinner and doesn’t take time to savor the food. The way you write about things clues me into the fact that you still take time to indulge in real-world pleasures, like tea and books and your lavender plants. So take comfort in that! I don’t think you’re lost! I think you’ve probably found more balance than you give yourself credit for.

  4. I use my phone for talking and text messaging.
    I feel like that is all I really need it for.

  5. When my old not-so-smart phone died suddenly on a road trip this May, I resisted a big upgrade and bigger expense and replaced it with another not-smart phone with an awesome slide out keyboard (samsung intensity 2).

    Gosh, how I tried to like it… I rationalized all I could during the daylight hours, taking photos, texting them to Facebook, doing all the things I had liked with my previous phone… yet, my dreams told the true story.

    In my dreams, I absolutely *hated* this new phone. The dreams were consistent, and they were unstoppable. I only had a few weeks in which to decide to keep the phone or not. I didn’t.

    Now I have my first smart phone, an inexpensive DROID pro, and I like it. I really do. I am on it maybe a bit more than the old one (okay, quite a bit more) but the ability it has given me to keep up with my business without being tied to my computer is priceless. Not to mention I can blog from it… too cool.

    I wasn’t much of a phone call person anyway; the new phone supports my preferred habit, however antisocial, of communicating in writing.

    Awesome post. Thanks for getting me thinking! — (k)aly

    • I hear you on the antisocial part. I really dislike talking on the phone and make only a few regular exceptions. I much prefer texting. About the only time talking wins out is in the car (and then only on long trips). Though even that’s not fun, because I can’t hear jack on my headset between my poor hearing and road noise. Blerg.

  6. Ahh, the electronic leash. I can understand totally why you are keeping away from it. From a personal standpoint, I have it because I am always on the go since my side job requires me to be on the move. If I didn’t have that, though, I would be tempted to stick to a regular, cheaper, phone. In fact, I was, too (I like those rugged waterproofed phones more to reflect the fact that I tend to break electronics).

    Unfortunately, it’s now reaching a point for me that I’m even considering getting a laptop despite how much I hate how much it costs upgrading something with such specialized parts.

    Also, fun fact: I once dropped a leatherman in a toilet. I was granted the benefit of being able to fish it no problem though since it was basically an iron brick of stainless steel.

    omg I just noticed the tiny hidey-smiley on the page.

    • I would probably benefit from a smartphone if I had a job that required me to travel or be available even when I wasn’t in the office. As it is, though, I’m lucky enough to be able to forget about my job when I leave the office. They have my mobile number if something comes up and I need to come in on a Saturday or something, but otherwise I’m free to pretend I don’t have a job in the evenings and on the weekends.

      And, man, it’s been so long since I *didn’t* have a laptop I’m not sure what I’d do without one. :/

      • This is why I don’t give out my phone number to work since people can be like children about it. Not in the immature sense, just that I feel like I need to change their diapers every so often because someone doesn’t know when the paper tray is empty, or how to reboot a computer. It’s not everyone at work that does it, but there’s always those few that ruin it for everyone else.

        Those people honestly remind me of the “Prince of Space” episode of MST3K where the “greatest geniuses of the Earth” can’t seem to understand anything that is being told to them and seem to desperately cling to their flagrantly dressed saviour as he prances around zapping Japanese middle-aged teletubbies.

  7. Good God yes, but I’m not interested in breaking that addiction.

    Before I had a smartphone, I didn’t like the idea of them. They were worse phones than non-smart phones, being bulkier and having poorer battery life. They were worse than laptops in that you couldn’t attach a nice keyboard and monitor (to smartphones of that generation, anyway), and again they have worse battery life. I generally had access to both a non-smart phone and a laptop, so it was hard to see what I was missing.

    Then I got a smartphone and daylight broke. Urgent support calls no longer required that I run into the office or into a coffee shop just to enter a few keystrokes at a server console. The dream of taking a vacation without lugging Lappy486 along became a reality. The camera sucked, but I always had a camera on me, which was nice. Paying for a data plan would have sucked, but with tethering it doubles as my home internet connection at less than the cost of a home internet connection.

  8. Well, I do love my smartphone. I like being connected to all these different things/apps/bits of silly. Yes, I even enjoy being kind of pretentious by looking crap up online from my phone. I’m also quite aware that I look like a complete ponce when I am looking at websites from my phone. When I feel like I need a break from it, I put it in another room and go do something else that way I’m not going to, for sake of argument, stop writing a blog post or stop reading a book, just to get up and walk to another room just to check on my phone. however I do agree with your point that if I didn’t have a smartphone, it wouldn’t exactly mean that I’ve fallen off the face of the planet.

    • Hmm. I was instantly notified that Chuck Steinhilber replied to the same blog post that I did.

      Temmahkrik may be onto something.

  9. I have been using a dumb phone until I changed my phone to a smart one in April.. Feels awesome!!! I agree with what you say about the free time and the quality of life…but having Google Maps at my beck and call (I get lost easily) is reassuring for me, to say the least. <3

    • The only time my smartphone ever blew my mind was when I was in Chinatown with my boyfriend eating at a Japanese restaurant, and I decided to see if there were any Japanese dollar stores around. (I used to go to one outside of Chicago, so this wasn’t a totally random thought.) Using my BlackBerry I was able to Google “japanese stores chinatown nyc,” find an address for one, plug that into the Google Maps app along with the address of the restaurant we were at, and get walking directions to the store. Even my Luddite boyfriend was impressed by that (not to mention that I got to show him how to get somewhere, when he’s the one who’d been leading me around all day).

      As a funny aside, the store was actually in Little Italy, which we both thought was hilarious.