There have been a bunch of “How to break up with your phone” articles in my RSS feed of late, so I guess it’s that time of year: the digital equivalent of spring-cleaning posts.
There was once a time where telephones were wired into buildings, and to speak with the voice of someone else you had to call the telephone in the building where you hoped the person you wanted to speak to was located. Or you had to go to a public telephone box, which was a metal kiosk most often used as a rain shelter or toilet, where once again you had to place a call to a building, as calling other phone boxes involved pre-planning and guesswork and hoping someone else wasn’t using it or sleeping in it.
And then the mobile telephone became available generally, where you could call the pocket(ish)-sized device belonging to the person you wanted to speak to. Though the first person I knew with a mobile phone, in the last half of the Eighties, carried it around in a briefcase and used it to “impress” girls at clubs by letting them call people with it from the club floor. Until that cost him all his money.
Mobile phones developed new features – “feature phone” was the word – and became connected to the world in new ways, with SMS evolutions and WAP, the early mobile web. Feature phones became “smartphones” and before we knew it they became always-on anti-boredom devices, weaponised to become more immediately interesting than whoever you were sitting with or whatever was on the television.
And now they’re a Problem, because they’re attention-sucking focus-destroying addiction-generating monster boxes that eat everything around them. Just today, I have seen solves for this ranging from putting a rubber band over the screen to spending a couple of hundred on apps to stop you using apps.
Here’s the thing. If you own a smartphone, then you hold in your hand a very powerful little computer that’s capable of connecting to millions of handy little services. It should do what you tell it to, to the best of its ability. But the apps that make it go are programmed by people who want it, and you, to do what they tell it to. “Breaking up with your phone” is really just about busting that chain and threading your own. The people who made the phone itself want the phone to be useful to you, just like any other consumer product. Vorspung durch technik. Bosch and its “with many solutions that can lead to a better way of living.” Obviously. Think of it as a concierge device, there to make life smoother and simpler. And disable any function that gets in the way.
Just take social media off your phone, for God’s sake. If you really need the private messaging functions, get the dedicated apps like Facebook Messenger or Instagram Direct Messenger rather than the full-fat apps, but letting FB on to your phone is a bad idea in any case. Train your friends to use Signal or something. Twitter is broken and you shouldn’t be using it anyway, but if you’re determined to keep it on your phone, create a local news list and pin it so it’s what you see when you open the app. At least that’s useful. Also try disabling commenting on all of your social media posts for a few weeks and see if you can be bothered to switch back afterwards.
Kill all of your notifications except for the useful stuff – delivery notices, weather alerts, maybe newsflashes (although these are not all made equal – getting a BBC breaking news alert about the fucking cricket is, I submit, not worthy of a breaking news alert push), and people you need to hear from. Turn your phone into a useful concierge device, is the thing. Ask it to tell you only what’s useful to your life.
Use widgets to make your home screen more useable at a glance, and stuff your “problem” apps into a folder that you have to tap to open. If you have phone twitch, make it so you can get what you need from flashing the home screen. Weather, headlines, photos, calendar, whatever works for you. Unless it’s actually urgent, wait until you’re back at a desk to answer your email. Your concierge service is there to tell you a message has arrived for you, not to demand an immediate response.
Smartphones are incredible tools. I can use mine to identify a plant in seconds, see weather radar on my home screen, check my heart rate, send money to family within a minute, download and listen to podcasts, order goods (even my organic produce provider has an app, an excellent one), read a book and get the news. It will tell me when it’s going to rain and track my deliveries. Also I can use it to place telephone calls to people rather than buildings. It’s not for mitigating fleeting moments of “boredom.” Everything bad we say about phones now is pretty much everything bad we used to say about television: it’s just that phones have been made better at the bad stuff. Reconceive it as a tool in your pocket with many solutions that can lead to a better way of living. It’s your service. It works for you. Keep it that way. That’s all you need to do.