MIT Technology Review

Monday, December 10, 2012

I’m Going Back to my “Dumb” Phone. Should You?

For the next month, I’m trying out a smartphone-less existence. Am I crazy?

On Friday, I sat down in a McDonald’s on Broadway, to write a Technology Review post. I placed my chicken fingers, my laptop, and my black iPhone 4 on a round, black table, and set to work. After a while, I gathered up all my things--or so I thought--went to the bathroom, and came back. After a few minutes, I realized my iPhone was gone. I Skype-called it; whoever took it had already shut it off.           

I’ve been an iPhone user for a little over four years. Like many people, I found it did nothing short of transform my life, when I first started using it in the fall of 2008. As a reporter, it solved multiple problems I’d been having in one fell swoop. On reporting trips, the thing has been a sort of digital Swiss Army Knife, directing me to my next interview, then recording that interview, then letting me document the setting of the interview in a photograph.

But not all the changes were good. I, like a lot of people, have a love-hate relationship with the Internet. I don't like to use the language of addiction casually, but the common denominator was this: I was engaging in behavior that, on a deeper level, I didn’t want to engage in. I was checking email too frequently, and surfing websites when what I wanted to be doing was reading books. My iPhone beckoned to me, from my pocket, an almost physical tingling. Much as I have loved my iPhone, I’ve never hated it more than when I’ve finally gotten into the swing of a good novel, only to feel an insatiable urge to check my phone. That wasn’t true of me five years ago.

Like a lot of people, I don’t want to be constantly connected. A few months ago, I began to wonder if my iPad had begun to assume most of the functions of my iPhone anyway, and whether as a result I might be able to revert back to something like my old Motorola--a “feature,” “flip,” or “dumb” phone, depending on your preferred nomenclature (see “Is It Time for Me to Go Back to My Flip Phone?”). More generally, I wondered if I could begin to lead a life in which I had greater control over when I was connected, and when I wasn’t.

I biked to the AT&T store in downtown Brooklyn, thoroughly taxed the patience of a very helpful employee with my dithering, and walked out with a new phone.

It’s an Alcatel 510A. This being a hardware blog, after all, you’ll want the specs in all the traditional spec-relating language: My phone packs 64 MB of internal storage (50 MB available to me), and 128 MB of RAM. It sports a 611 MHz MTK6276 processor. My LCD display has a resolution of 128x160 pixels, in splendid 18-bit color. My battery’s 850 mAh Lilon, and the whole thing weighs in at a little under 3 oz.

In other words, I bought the dumbest phone I could buy.

It “set me back” $20. That’s less than the $35 restocking fee, were I to want to exchange it.

For the next month at least, I plan to experiment with a smartphone-free existence, and I’ll be blogging about it along the way. I hope to figure out whether it’s possible to reclaim a small corner of my life that is less constantly connected. I want to learn whether it’s ever rational to deliberately saddle yourself with outmoded technology. And I want to be given a vivid reminder of the various ways I’ve become dependent on smartphones and mobile computing generally.

I stepped out from the AT&T store on Fulton Street with a smile on my face. I felt, in a way, liberated. I had no means of checking my email, or headlines. I had to engage with the world around me. Music was playing from an adjacent storefront. The smell of hotdogs wafted from a nearby vendor. Throngs of people emerged from a nearby shoe store with shopping bags. It was pleasantly warm for December, and a gentle breeze blew through the street.

Seized with an impulse to document the moment I entered this new low-tech mode of life, I reached for my phone. That’s when I realized the Alcatel 510A doesn’t have a camera.