MIT Technology Review

Monday, March 11, 2013

My Dumb Phone Experiment: Phase Two

In which I upgrade my dumb phone -- reluctantly.

You may recall that I have become one of these Thoreau types who has forsaken all society, by which I mean that I have given up my iPhone. Or, not quite given it up -- it was stolen, and then I chose not to replace it, and then I blogged about my experiences with a $20 Alcatel dumb phone for a month, and then my dad gave me a Verizon iPhone without a data plan that I use as a sort of iPod Touch. In a word, I’m not quite living in a cabin in the woods. But I’m very stubblornly trying to shed myself of the constant connectivity that was the hallmark of my prior iPhone-centric life.

The experiment ended in an unexpected place; I had thought I would be desperately waiting for the month to end, so I could rush out and buy an iPhone 5. Instead, I decided that the portfolio of dumb phone, iPod Touch, and iPad (even without a data plan), was more than enough mobile technology for me. Some of my happiest days have been when I strike out with only my dumb phone, knowing that even if the urge to check my email seizes me, I wouldn’t be able to.

Or at least -- I wouldn’t be able to easily. As some of you pointed out, my “dumb” phone wasn’t really a dumb phone at all. The $20 Alcatel phone I purchased actually did get 3G internet access, but two aspects of the phone made checking email or surfing the web on the device highly impractical. The T9 text entry system made entering any text an enormous hassle (which took a toll on my social life, since SMS’s from friends sometimes went unheeded), and the internet only rendered in a clunky text-only format that was hard to navigate.

However, on two occasions, I found myself in semi-desperate need of internet access while on the go. Normally my strategy in such a situation would be to pop into a Starbucks (or merely stand outside of one) and pull up my iPhone. But I was on such a short time frame that I pulled out my Alcatel and did some clunky, slow Googling.

It appears that one of those forays into the Alcatel’s version of the Internet somehow saddled the phone with a virus. My sister began receiving long strings of blank text messages -- dozens, maybe hundreds of them -- that I simply didn’t send. And I began receiving blank text messages from strange numbers, too. That fact, coupled with my frustration with T9 text entry, led me into an AT&T store again today to upgrade my phone.

Did I struggle with temptation, when faced with the possibility of upgrading to an iPhone 5? I did. Of particular use to me would be that phone’s HotSpot option, for bloggin on the fly. But I held steadfast, and instead chose a $30 Alcatel phone, the 871A PP. Truthfully, I didn’t research the purchase as thoroughly as I should have. I saw a cheap phone with a physical keyboard, and went for it.

As I walked out of the store, I saw to my dismay an array of icons on the screen -- Facebook, Twitter, an envelope indicating mail. It seems that even in this extremely low-end phone, apps like these are considered indispensable. I asked Lydia, the AT&T employee who had been helping me, if there was a way to erase these apps. She said no, but assured me they were not as convenient to use as on a smartphone; they require continuous and repetitive logging in, she claimed. The store simply didn’t have what I wanted -- a phone with a physical keyboard and with no Internet access whatsoever.

We’ll see how it goes. I’m trying to go as long as possible without logging into these services; the day I do, I fear I’ll start thinking of my 871A PP as just a (really bad) iPhone, and I worry my old email addiction will intrude again on my life.

It’s bothersome to me that even in shedding my iPhone, connectivity seems downright inescapable. It is as though even the lowest of low-end phones see Facebook, Twitter, and email connectivity as their birthright. If this phone proves to be a distraction, I don’t know what I’ll do -- I may begin to shop around at Verizon or T-Mobile stores, to see if they have anything “dumber” to offer. I may turn to eBay for vintage models, if any are still supported. I may beg Fred Stutzman, the maker of Freedom, the Internet-disabling app, to enter into negotiations with Apple to make his app available on their devices (Stutzman and I have talked about the barriers to this before).

Or I may just move to Walden Pond.