Smartphone Detox

Ricky Takkar
Created on September 13, 2022 (updated every now and then)

Just as I was about to pre-order the iPhone 14 Pro Max and get a trade-in quote for my current 13 Pro Max for what would have constituted my sixth consecutive annual upgrade, I suddenly questioned why. My quick-thinking, emotions-driven system of the mind that Daniel Kahneman refers to as “System 1” in “Thinking, Fast and Slow” was quick to squash further pondering on the topic by convincing me that this is just how things have been. Meanwhile, the question had also activated the other, more deliberate and pensive, system in my mind (Kahneman calls this “System 2”) resulting in stalling the purchase.

Intermittent bouts of deep thinking and personal reflection within “System 2” over the following days roused an epiphany: I had thought of more reasons to ditch my iPhone (and smartphones in general) than to keep it, let alone purchase a new one. I am a strong believer in technology and smartphones, in my opinion, are a natural step in the evolution of technologies of which they are comprised of. For this reason, I established early on that instead of planning some lifelong abstinence from smartphones, I needed only to engage in a sort of detox. One long enough to galvanize my return to iPhone from a transition phone based on my annoyance with the latter rather than my desire for the former. Below are some pros and cons I came up with about ditching my iPhone:

Pros of quitting a smartphone

  1. Exponentially slower, harder, and inefficient access to distracting activities that boost procrastination. Slight tangent: I theorize that humans possess finite units of attention, or at least high-level attention, per unit of time. Wandering around today's cacophonous digital world consumes those attention units at a rate that's second to none. Consider all the mental context switching one practices as they scroll through r/popular on Reddit or the YouTube homepage before questioning the source of their exhaustion. Smartphones make it too easy to succumb to engaging in activities unrelated to the one you unlocked your phone for. Just as it allows you to get your work done and communicate seamlessly, so too can it unlock a treasure chest of everything unnecessary and unproductive. The ideal fun one derives from the smartphone experience is an ephemeral break from the mundane. Unless that fun reorients itself as a productive part of one's life in the long term, it is best left as a distant yet semi-accessible treat. Framing such fun as a distant yet semi-accessible treat is a function of discipline which I lack. 

  2. Less screen time. Hours of staring at a smartphone is certainly not great for our eyes.

  3. Increased privacy. While I doubt companies are as incentivized in developing the infrastructure to harvest data from feature phones like they do from smartphones, it's unlikely a feature phone possesses the ability to gain, organize, and share user data like a smartphone. And while some may criticize Android for being less privacy-focused than iPhone, the ability to customize its OS in a more granular way allows skilled users to implement privacy-preserving measures in a way that iOS just can't.

Cons of quitting a smartphone

  1. Harder to maintain quick and easy access for digital communication with contacts. But why am I enforcing the expectation on myself of being ultra-responsive to digital communication at all times? Why does it make me anxious to consider walking down the block to buy groceries without my iPhone? Is the anxiety worth it? What information am I afraid of missing when I don't have my iPhone with me? After all, it would never be the case anyway that I'd be gone for hours on end without access to my phone. My guess is that society has induced an irrational need within us to remain digitally connected at all times. Why should we be? I aim to retrain my brain into accepting that it's okay for me to not carry my phone with me at all times. Moreover, I have no qualms about reducing the weight of the texting/snapping frequency parameter in a function that quantifies the health of my relationships with others. There are scenarios that necessitate timely, if not instant, responses, but almost always the related infrastructure relies on far more than just an individual's phone to reach them. 

  2. What about apps I find essential like Maps, 2FA (e.g., Duo/Symantec), Spotify, Uber/Lyft, Grubhub/DoorDash, etc.? Had I not found the Unihertz Titan Pocket, which offers these apps without the bloat and design choices I dislike about traditional smartphones, I wouldn't have made the switch. More on this later…

  3. Involuntary attention attraction. Someone will occasionally notice my Unihertz Titan Pocket phone and strike up a conversation. It's like being approached by onlookers who admire your car or compliment your watch. Except what's different in my phone's case is the onlookers have no intention of ever wanting to use it, and the questions they ask tend to come from a place of bewilderment rather than appreciation. A small percentage of these people though are genuinely curious, and more often than not, they tell me they'll now consider switching, too.

Obviously, I still needed a phone if I was going to ditch my iPhone, but it needed the right balance of smart and lack thereof. After doing some research, I found the perfect match: Unihertz Titan Pocket. A compact yet bulky device akin to yesteryear's Blackberry. The Unihertz Titan Pocket provides LTE connectivity and runs on Android 11. For those interested in stripping superfluous Android features, there are tools like Universal Android Debloater. Personally, I also use the Niagara Launcher that helps set a minimalist home screen on my new Android device. One may argue that my transition phone, rather than being a true feature phone, is merely a bare-boned Android smartphone with a lackluster UI, so can it truly be considered as taking a break from smartphones? One look at the phone, and you'll realize that despite it being able to run apps like YouTube and Reddit, you would have to be compelled to browse endlessly on its no-frills roughly 3-inch touchscreen. But that is perfect for my intended use case: apps of such nature are still accessible when I'm in dire need (e.g., hailing an Uber), but I'd typically rather not use them at all. 

Ultimately, there is no comparison of how much more capable a modern smartphone is than a feature phone. But with great power comes great responsibility. Honestly speaking, I find it more and more the case that instead of owning my iPhone, it has started owning me. When I'm not working, every second I spend without my eyes glued to my iPhone is a second spent performing a task that prevents me from doing so. It's important I remind myself that there is lots to see that's beyond the smartphone screen. And for that, I'm taking a break from iPhone and other smartphones.

Update (January 2023): It's now early 2023, and I've spent about three and a half months with the Unihertz Titan Pocket. My experience with the phone itself had been stellar in that it was an exact match for my objective. Specifically, it provided an apt balance between smart features like NFC payments, and lackluster UI/UX that hindered my procrastination due to lack of self-control. There were some obvious shortcomings that did make life hard with the Titan Pocket. For instance, using Maps for navigation is not as seamless an experience on a sub 4-inch screen as it is on a larger counterpart. Then, there's the inability to have effective video calls (of course, FaceTime doesn't work either). Finally, I could not avail all the features of the AirPods Max which, after testing a friend's pair, I knew I had to buy. What ultimately galvanized me to return to the iPhone was that I realized my inability to use it responsibly burdened close contacts who just wished to FaceTime me biweekly. Was it fair to inconvenience loved ones by my stubbornness against using an iPhone simply because I couldn't control my desire to endlessly scroll Reddit or watch random YouTube videos? Moreover, was I being fair to myself by preventing myself access to the latest technology simply because I lacked the discipline to use it as an asset rather than a liability? No. So now, I'm back to an iPhone, albeit an iPhone 13 mini to help curb the desire to endlessly scroll and consume content ignited by a large, gorgeous display. My lesson is this: the iPhone, and other smartphones, does whatever you want it to do, and it does it well – so it's my responsibility to use it wisely.