One Year Without A Smartphone

Yesterday I bought an iPhone 11. That in and of itself is not a particularly noteworthy event. Apple sells about 10 iPhones a second these days. What makes it a landmark event for me is that I bought the iPhone after a more than a year of digital detoxing on my Punkt MP01 dumb phone. The main reason I switched back to the iPhone is my desire to connect to other people more and deeper. One of the other reasons is that I see my iPhone differently now.

Deep cleanse

I have been through a thorough cleanse of any toxicity that the digital apps on my iPhones for the past 8 years leading up to my digital detox had built up inside of me. I feel clean now and feel like I can make a fresh start. I started the digital detox because I felt myself becoming addicted to the infinite scroll and little bursts of endorphins that are programmed in the apps on my phone. It wasn’t serious, it did no harm to my life but I just did not like the idea of dependence, the addiction, however mild it was. Apps like Instagram, Youtube, LinkedIn, and even the browser sucked me and kept me engaged longer than I wanted to. All the content I was streaming into my head also did not add a lot of value. Over the course of about 8 years, I grew to detest all these apps and the device they ran on. My body was filled with negative emotions when it came to this digital addiction. There are good sides and bad sides to all the apps but at the time, the bad things overshadowed the good ones. I felt the apps added no value to my life. I was feeling this on all levels. It wasn’t just about the time these apps sucked up, the low value of the content they served, and the dependency that they create. I also felt the apps disconnected me from life on a spiritual level, that they were distracting me from what life is really about, from reality, from nature. I felt I was trapped inside The Matrix and had to get out.

Liberation

So I quit cold turkey. Not just turning off all notifications. Not just turning my phone to greyscale to avoid the lure of all the red notification dots. Not just deleting all apps and keeping the device. I got rid of my iPhone and bought a Punkt MP01 dumb phone. I could only make calls and send and receive SMS text messages.

It was liberating.

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Photo by Aditya Saxena on Unsplash

At first, I feared I could not keep it up but the energy I got from unplugging myself from the Matrix was enormous. I felt like a burden fell off my shoulders. It felt like a veil was lifted from my eyes. I could see the world with new eyes. The fog lifted from my brain. There was no more digital device standing between me and the world. I could see the world with no filter. I could use all the time I saved to read, to hike, to exercise, to write. A lot of people think it is impossible to live without a smartphone today. I pulled it off. Me not having a smartphone became a social currency. Being able to pull off not having a smartphone was more impressive than buying the latest flagship smartphone. It was tantalizing.

Not having a smartphone became part of my identity, a token of who I was and what I stood for: discipline, focus, mindfulness, thinking different.

The digital part of social connection

That was until I realized I needed to connect more to other people. My personal development goals for this year are about my desire to connect more to people, to collaborate more, to co-create more. Through reflection on events leading up to this weekend, I suddenly saw how I was missing out on the digital part of social connection.

Writing texts on my T9 dumb phone keyboard in SMS takes considerably more effort than communicating on a full iPhone keyboard on WhatsApp. At first, I enjoyed the reduction in communication that was now limited to strictly necessary messages. Not only did it take me more energy, but the people around me with full keyboards were also all using WhatsApp and did not fancy going “back” to traditional SMS text messaging. The initial peace and quiet that was caused by the lack of communication pivoted into a feeling of disconnectedness this weekend. All the messages that seemed superfluous and meaningless at first now seemed the glue that holds social connections together.

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Photo by Mehrpouya H on Unsplash

Because I quit apps like Instagram as well, I did not get exposed to all the meaningless images that populate the platform. But it also caused me to miss out on all the wonderful experiences my friends, colleagues, and family shared there. I could have gone to them physically or call them and ask them about their experiences, but reality showed me I didn’t get around to that so much.

Quitting mail and calendar apps that contained work stuff enabled me to disconnect from work after work hours better. But it also made it harder to schedule meetings with friends and family if I had no access to my laptop and my calendar.

This year, I learned that the digital part of human relations has become so omnipresent that disconnecting from the digital world means partly disconnecting from your social environment. And this weekend, that price became too high for me to pay to get more focus and less distraction.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to lose my focus. I’ll have to find a way to stay focused and mindful while still owning a smartphone. In the past I tried different tactics like but they didn’t work for me. Now I am confident that I can stay mindful and focused.

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Photo by Simon Migaj on Unsplash

Seeing the iPhone in a different light

That is mainly because I see my iPhone in a different light now. I am rid of all the toxic emotions I had towards it. I also have the experience of the state of consciousness of not having a smartphone that I can go back and visit any time to be more conscious in my use of apps. The main thing that has changed this past year is me. Because we see things not as they are but as we are, the iPhone has changed because I have changed.

“We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.” — Anaïs Nin

Before I had the idea I used the apps just because they were there, now I have a specific purpose. Before I had the idea the apps were controlling me, now I feel like I can control them. Before I was not a conscious user. Now I am. My purpose is social connection. My goal is clear. I hope this will protect me from wanting to publish things on social media to attract the most amount of likes. I hope I will do it to share moments with people to involve them, to connect to them. I hope I can bring a more mindful attitude to these platforms. I hope I can walk around in The Matrix like Neo after he unplugged, on my terms.

I still don’t like the mental models the social media apps create. The apps have deeply ingrained in them the bias to spend more time on them than necessary, to do things to score likes, to consume more than you want. I don’t like the term “follow”. I like “connect” better. I even saw Instagram analysis apps that tracked who watched your profile the most and labeled those people as “stalkers”. This to me shows the mental state people are put into. I would love to see them called “active connectors” or something like that. The word “like” has also been tainted. Maybe it should be “see” or “relate” or “feel”. Little things can make a difference in UX designs. Social media have turned into contests, into win-lose games.

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Photo by Laurenz Kleinheider on Unsplash

The spiritual connection between people that they can also enable is snowed under. I feel we should share to connect, not to score. Even the choice to display data (the number of likes) adds to a mental model that can destroy the apps in the long run. It seems like an innocent design choice to display the data that is available for the number of likes. The ripple effects are huge. Mental models are shaped, the behavior is created. The responsibility of designers is becoming bigger and bigger. I am happy to see Facebook taking some steps in the right direction with Instagram. The removed the concept of the infinite scroll and replaced it by “you are all caught up”. They are experimenting with not showing the data of how many likes your post has. I am glad they start to see the danger to the mindfulness of people and therefore the sustainability of their platform. I’m sure it’s a business decision and not a spiritual one, but the result is the same. Spiritual values seem to be aligning with business values.

The future

I’m curious to see how I will transition back to the iPhone, whether I can keep a mindful state of mind. It’s partly up to me. The apps I use are what I see in them, how I use them, how conscious I am of the controlling mechanisms, the biases that are built-in. All the big names in Silicon Valley are thinking about mindful, conscious media consumption. They are finding their balance. They know about the health risks and that their long term survival depends on finding a mindful balance. That might just be one of the biggest user-centered tech challenges in this decade. Users don’t just need seamlessness. The lives of people are not improved with more and faster alone.

I have to find my balance as well. We are not mindless sheep. We can be wolves. We can use design to do good. Of that, I am convinced. Stepping out of the bubble made me see the value of a little discomfort every once in a while. It also showed me the potential value of social media apps in inter-human relations.

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Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, don’t forget to hit the clap button so I know I connected with you. I will dive deeper into the topics of Design Leadership in upcoming articles. If you follow me here on Medium, you will see them pop up on your Medium homepage. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn to see new articles in your timeline or talk to my bot at dennishambeukers.com :) As of this weekend, you can also find me again on Instagram :)

Strategic UX Design Consultant @ Zuiderlicht / Design Leadership Forum Member @InVision / Design Thinker / State Secretary of Integration @ Ministry of Design

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