June 6, 2023


Innovation Leader

My life without a smartphone is getting harder and harder | Jen Wasserstein

I’ve always gotten by fine without owning a smartphone – until now. Covid has made my already obsolete 90s-designed Nokia flip-phone nearly useless. I’m suddenly surrounded by QR codes. There are now Airbnb doors I can’t open, cars I can’t start, menus I can’t read. Paper menus have vanished; ordering food has become an ordeal.

At a recent dinner with friends, after some initial chatting, everyone stared at menus on their phones. I sat there for a minute looking around the table and then whispered to my neighbor, discreetly asking to look on. When I eat out alone, I show my flip-phone to the waiter and ask for a proper menu. After an eye-roll, they’ll either bring out a paper menu from some vault in the back or hand me their own phone to use.

It’s awkward when I ask a stranger for directions and they pull out their smart phone, looking at me as if to say, “where’s your phone?” My brother says I’m like a smoker who won’t buy her own pack, but smokes everyone else’s. I never wanted to start smoking at all, but the world is conspiring to make me bum one. If I bought my own, I know I’d be smoking a pack a day.

Americans check their smartphones an average of 96 times a day, which works out to once every 15 minutes. Two-thirds of Americans check their phones 160 times every day. Social media companies admit they exploit our dopamine receptors, designing products to hook us, such as irregularly timed rewards.

Can I tolerate a little slot machine in my pocket, or would I be lured in? Would that tiny thrill of social affirmation turn me into a compulsive checker? Tracking screen-time, turning off notifications, setting monochrome colors, taking “digital-detox” retreats or “internet sabbaths” – none of this seems to make a lasting dent. We are being manipulated – and we clearly have a problem. We all know it’s wrong, but we reach for it anyway.

It’s not like I work on a typewriter. I have a computer that I use for work, online shopping, time-sucking web-surfing and movie-watching. But, when I’m not at home, I don’t have access to any of it. My flip-phone doesn’t play music or take photos. I have a clunky camera which mostly sits in the closet. My phone can get a text, but emojis appear as plain squares, so I don’t know the emotion being conveyed without accompanying words. One friend texts me: “big heart big heart big heart emojis.” My Nokia cost $70 and I’ve dropped it dozens of times and it’s never cracked. It’s also a very snazzy yellow. But that’s the limit of its seductive features. There’s nothing addictive about a flip-phone.

Everywhere I go, I see people staring into their screens. On sidewalks, I walk hoping people look up in time to avoid a collision. I see couples in restaurants each staring lovingly into their hand-held device. When I eat out with friends, their phone sits face-up on the table like a third wheel, pinging and flashing until attention is inevitably turned in its direction. Apologies are made and there’s always an urgency for one response, one minute.

I want to take a walk with only the city or woods taking my attention. I look up at buildings. I people-watch. Usually people are on their phones, so there’s no eye contact. The clock on my flip-phone tells me if I’ve walked for an hour. I don’t need to know how many steps I’ve walked. I have an alarm clock on my night table. I hail taxis; there’s no Uber or Lyft in my little, shrinking world. I lug whatever book I’m reading in my purse – my excuse for never reading War and Peace. I’m all about the old model; everything being replaced by innovation is what I still rely on.

My phone plan works only in Europe, so I didn’t pack my Nokia on a recent week-long trip to New York. Before I left Spain, I told my New York friends to meet me at this place and time, like in the old days. We’re all over 40, we remember pay phones and how making plans used to work. It still works: a friend picked me up at the airport and, throughout the week, everyone showed up as planned, one friend even commenting that the novelty of meeting up this way is “kind of fun and quirky”. I felt pretty good about surviving for a week without a phone. Until Newark.

Getting back home to Spain required a Covid form with a QR code. The airline employee at the Newark check-in counter seemed baffled by my not having a smartphone and told me in a conclusive tone that the QR-coded form is required, despite my proof of vaccination. I started to panic and said, “So, everyone needs to buy one product in order to fly now?” He said, “I don’t make the rules” – an Orwellian response if ever there was one. I had to get this coded form, so I begged to borrow the closest stranger’s smartphone. I called a friend who went on the website (“but it’s all in Spanish”) and emailed the QR-coded form to the surly employees at the help desk. The stranger whose phone I borrowed was frantically waving at me that he had to go. I quickly thanked my friend and she said, “Jen, just get a normal phone.”

I feel self-conscious when I pull out my phone or tell someone that I can’t connect through social media because I’m not on any of it. I know I come across as smug and virtue-signaling, like I’m too good for what everyone else has. You’re probably thinking right now how obnoxious I am. I know.

There’s a fanaticism that comes with everyone being a consumer of the same product. Any dissent is reflexively attacked or, at best, dismissed. “How can you live without one?” “What are you trying to prove?” Other than this anomaly, I live a normal consumer life. I shop on Amazon (with quiet shame). I’m hooked on innumerable companies and products that I find morally offensive. This is my typical response – but it’s hard to hear me from way up on my high horse. I appear judgmental just by virtue of not owning a smartphone. I am broadcasting that I couldn’t fully disconnect if I carried the world (wide web) around in my pocket. And that you and I both know you can’t either.

I’m determined to hold out for as long as I can. My 17-year-old daughter can’t imagine life without her smartphone. She has Instagram and Snapchat and texts constantly. I rarely hear her speak on her phone. I wonder about the strength of connection developing between her and her texting friends. What havoc her phone is wreaking on her attention span. But I’m complaining about the horseless carriage. There is no winding back the clock. Clocks aren’t wound any more.