Before I tell you what it was like to go a week without my smartphone, I have a confession to make: I cheated.
Not much, mind you, but when ReadWrite editor-in-chief Owen Thomas asked one of his writers to take a week’s vacation from my mobile devices and write about the experience, I volunteered. I thought it would be much easier than it was.
It was painful.
No Phone, No Fun
I expected to go through withdrawal pangs from my obsessive addiction to my iPhone and Kindle Paperwhite.
But I wasn’t counting on how the world is increasingly designed for mobile. From mobile check-in at the airport to phone calls (remember those?) to taking selfies in exotic places (like, um, Atlanta), the world expects us to have a phone.
There are workarounds, of course, but most aren’t worth the bother.
My week without mobile was unpleasant, but oddly satisfying. It made me rethink when and why I used my devices.
Day 1 (Remember The Sabbath Day, To Keep It Less Mobile)
As a religious guy I take my Sundays seriously. “Thou shalt rest from thy mobile device” is not a harsh commandment. At least, it shouldn’t have been. But by 6:30 am, I was already having problems detoxing. I had forgotten to turn off notifications and my phone was already buzzing with inbound text messages.
Messages which—by the rules of my personal challenge—I was forced to pretend didn’t exist.
After muttering some very un-Christian words, I solved the problem by turning to Apple’s Messages app and Skype on my Mac.
I’m a self-identified iSlave, and Apple makes it easy for people like me to trade iMessages with other people using Macs, iPads, and iPhones. But for my Android friends—maybe some Windows Phone users, too—I had to use Skype to send texts. The downside to this option is that the texts are only one-way—even if you pay for a Skype number, you can’t receive texts. Anyone wanting to respond to me would only be able to reach me by SMS in a week.
Telegram might be faster.
After all, I can’t really call them because, well, I don’t have a phone. Not this week. While there used to be pay phones around, they’re quickly fading from the Western world. Complicating matters, we currently don’t have a home phone because, well, mobile phones. (Curse you, Owen Thomas!)
It turns out Google Voice would have been a better option here, as I could have sent and received texts using that service, but I didn’t want to set up a whole new phone number.
The day went from mobile bad to mobile worse. At church, I couldn’t fill in the dull moments with surreptitious checking of news about Arsenal, my favorite soccer team. At night I gave up on reading Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, which I was reading on my Kindle. Technically, I could have logged into Amazon’s Kindle for Mac application, but the reading experience on a laptop is too unpleasant.
I ended up going to bed early because, well, what else was I going to do without my phone?
No smartphone? No Uber.
Day 2 (Mobile-Free Days And Mondays Always Get Me Down)
I have no idea why I decided to accept Owen’s challenge this week. Living without mobile seems manageable if you aren’t very mobile. But I travel extensively for work and this week was no different.
First thing, I had to fly to New York and, sure enough, this created problems. I always check in using Delta’s mobile app, which lets me change seats, view my upgrade status and more. Not today. Today I had to print out a paper boarding pass.
Or I would have, had I not also realized that I couldn’t hail an Uber without my phone, and getting a taxi this morning was simply too complicated (for a variety of reasons). Uber adultery committed, I decided to transgress with Delta, too. (Sorry, Owen! The spirit was willing but the flesh was weak.)
In the old days, I wouldn’t have had a choice about putting my phone away when the plane took off. Now that the FAA has lifted its restrictions on in-flight usage of mobile devices, I was forced to think for an unbearable stretch of 30 minutes until we got to 10,000 feet and I could inhale the Internet through a Gogo Wi-Fi connection.
At JFK, I saw the long taxi lines and I cheated again to use Uber to get to the MongoDB office in Midtown, with its glorious Internet connection. There, I felt capable of abandoning mobile forever …
… or at least, until it came time to find my way to dinner with my daughter down in the West Village. I looked up the fastest way to get to Barbuto on my laptop and hurried out the door with this knowledge in mind. Almost immediately it was rendered moot by the arrival of a third person. I had to resort to Google Maps for updated directions.
The score: Matt vs. mobile, 0–4.
Day 3 (Tuesdays With Mobile-Free)
My mobile-free nightmare started the moment I woke up: My phone is my alarm. Thanks to Owen Thomas, I had to relearn how to program an alarm clock last night and, worried that I messed up, I also asked the hotel to wake me. At 5:00 am both started blaring at me.
It was not pleasant.
Nor was exercising without my music. Or checking in for my flight from LaGuardia to Atlanta, or getting from ATL to my meeting in Buckhead. Or finding a way to notify my lunch appointment that I’d be late.
The only pleasant thing about the ordeal was not having a way to peep in on the fantastic vacations my friends were having on Instagram and Facebook. Both are technically available on my laptop, but without those icons and notifications nudging me, I found no urge to check them.
But disconnecting from friends also meant disconnecting from family. Reading to my youngest daughters is a beloved routine that makes my weeks on the road bearable. Owen Thomas and the crappy hotel Wi-Fi (for which I blame him, too) ruined that. I normally read to them off my Kindle over FaceTime. Instead, I tried Amazon’s Kindle Cloud Reader and Skype, but the sound quality was terrible. After enduring repeated Skype stutters, we gave up.
Days 4–7 (The Upside Of No Mobile)
The rest of the week got both worse and better as the week went on. Worse, because it became abundantly clear that the Western world is made for mobile.
Even simple pleasures like going for a run or riding my bike require a mobile device if I want to track my times and record my miles (and I do, notwithstanding the “run/ride naked” movement).
There are things that are both easier and better with my iPhone at my side.
But here’s the other thing I discovered in my week (mostly) without mobile: I got to think again. I don’t know if Google (or, in this case, mobile) is making us stupid, as Nick Carr famously argued, but I do know that my mobile devices have prompted me to be far more frenetic and less thoughtful than I used to be. A week without mobile helped me to rediscover a certain measure of serenity.
While the first flight without a mobile device to keep me company during taxi and takeoff was brutal, by my fourth flight of the week, I looked forward to the reprieve.
And it reset my habits, at least for a time. Driving my car back home in Utah, I no longer needed to check my phone at every red light or stop sign.
In fact, I liked the “silence” so much that I took some great advice and turned off all notifications on my mobile devices, set email to “manually fetch” (which dramatically extends my battery life, too), and went a few places (like the gym) without my phone.
Bizarre, but true.
I don’t expect to go another week without mobile. Maybe on a vacation, but not in the middle of a work week that involves heavy travel.
But even on vacation, there are practical reasons to turn to a mobile device: getting directions, keeping track of my kids, looking up information.
The goal, then, isn’t to completely eradicate mobile from my life, but to tame it. By understanding when I truly need my mobile devices, as opposed to just wanting them, I can return to a direct experience of the world around me. That’s a trip.
Images by Madeleine Weiss for ReadWrite