A little over a month ago, my wife suggested that I spend too much time staring at my phone, an LG G4.
I agreed that I used it too much. I was reading reddit, facebook, twitter, emails, instead of being present with my family. I was distracted from things that do matter by things that don’t matter.
So I proposed that I instead use a dumbphone. I did, for one month. I had no specific plans to end the experiment, but I felt enough pain points without a smartphone that I could readily justify a $200 Moto G.
Getting the phone
I was surprised that the mere idea of this seemed radical to most people that I spoke with about it. When I called T-Mobile to make the downgrade, even the person at the call center was surprised and a bit confused.
But the transition worked well. I was on a T-Mobile JUMP plan where I could buy my phone on an interest-free loan, and once I paid off half the balance, I would be able to trade it in for another, presumably newer and more expensive phone (see how they get you: new phones, and phone payments, for life!). But it turned out that I could also use it to ‘JUMP’ from an LG G4 to a nameless LG 450, the only dumbphone directly available from T-Mobile in the States. I learned from the person at the call center that this particular version of the JUMP plan was no longer available to new customers and I had been grandfathered in due in no small part to this ‘exploit’. Hey, I did manage to get out of owing $300 on a phone that I would only resell for $100 or so.
The phone cost $50 through T-Mobile. I stayed on my plan with data because my wife was also on the account, also with an LG G4. I had planned that if I would commit to using a dumbphone long-term, that I would transistion to a pay-as-you-go plan to save more money.
Life with a dumbphone
I was excited to start my dumbphone life. I learned that the word for being excited for using old technology is ‘luddite’ and I certainly was excited to be one. I encountered a lot of benefits and some drawbacks, both expected and unexpected.
The Lg 450 does have a camera but it is a terrible, terrible camera. We are lucky enough to own a nice DSLR Camera. I had noticed that too many times we would take photos of our kids with our phones when we could get better photographs if we took the DSLR camera with us on our outings. And indeed I did, and now I have some amazing photographs of our boys I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.
Of course, the downside of this is that on the small occasion I wanted to take a picture and didn’t happen to have the nice DSLR camera with me, I was pretty much shit out of luck. I encountered this on my oldest son’s first day of Pre-K, I didn’t even think to take the camera with me and I missed out on the opportunity. I’m writing it off as that real school won’t start until next year and I’ll be sure to have the DSLR ready that day.
Calling and Texting
Do you remember T9 Word? I did, and do. I thought it was an amazing feature on my cell phone in 2004 when I was a Junior in high school. And while I did enjoy having physical hardware buttons to press instead of tapping a touch screen, texting on a flip phone in 2016 is an exercise in frustration. Especially if you are texting someone who is sending you a stream of unanswered texts, because this phone will interrupt you every time. I had to force myself to remember that in 2004, people didn’t text as much as they do today, even though back then it felt very much like things were getting out of hand. The phone was only able to store about 450 text messages so I had to manually delete them as well, which I feel is ridiculous even for 2004.
I found myself quite a few times attempting to send a text message, then getting impatient, and calling that person instead. I think that was a good experience because it is much easier to relay information clearly and with the right tone with voice rather than with text.
Listening to Music
Of course, dumb phones don’t come with Spotify or Google Play installed. And my old click-wheel iPod died a year or so ago. So how could I listen to music on the go? I found on Amazon this dirt-cheap mp3 player for $20 or so. As of this writing it’s no longer available. But I’ll tell you, it’s pretty great. Its no iPod nano but it is one-fifth the cost. Having a separate cheap music player has a lot of benefits I wasn’t anticipating. The first advantage is that all the music is stored locally, so there’s no streaming lag. I was surprised how much streaming lag I was tolerating and really enjoyed having my music play the instant I hit play. I was also quick to notice that I no longer had to listen to advertisements from streaming music services which is really nice.
One thing that I thought would be a disadvantage was that you don’t have ‘the whole world’ of music with an offline music player. However I rather enjoyed this aspect of an offline music player for two reasons: first, there’s less decision overload when you have less music to pick from. The second, I feel more ‘attached’ to the music I’m listening to. I actually had to go and buy a few albums instead of just streaming them. I like that because I made sure to buy albums that were good from beginning to end. I get the impression from some music artists that they are frustrated at how much work they put into an album only to have one or two tracks streamed over Spotify while the rest is ignored. I think you miss out by not listening to the whole thing, and I am more confident that you miss out by listening to music playlists from algorithm-generated playlists that mix together songs from different albums.
I think re-discovering the offline music experience was my favorite success of this dumbphone experiment.
I pretty much stopped using Facebook, and only wrote a handful of tweets while at my computer at work or at home. I stopped reading a lot of reddit and only checked a few news sites as part of my morning and lunch work routines. Since I couldn’t read these sites from my phone, I consumed them a lot less. That was a really nice thing. I believe now that while its certainly important to be informed about the world around us, we have to remember that sites like Facebook and Twitter create echo chambers. Facebook is notorious for this, only showing its users content that their algorithms previously determined as relevant to them, creating large swaths of the internet that are at odds with each other and will never see any reason to comporomise.
But I digress. My point here is that I consumed social media and regular media less which is good for my brain. I became much more present around my family at home, which, if you recall, was the original purpose of this experiment.
Another great benefit was that I had the luxury of completely removing from my life one of the most stressful first-world problems: a dying phone. Both my phone and mp3 player could be topped off while even on the shortest car trip and both had battery life measured in days instead of hours like modern smartphones. I never had to worry about my phone dying.
I don’t travel to new locations very often, so I didn’t have much of a need for GPS in the first place. However, earlier this week I got lost while trying an alternative route on my work commute. Still, I was able to find my way. I think nowadays people are too blindly dependent on GPS to get around when we have gotten by quite well with conventional systems. There was one time, though, I was sent out to pick up a pizza and I had to call my wife for directions, which was surreal since practically nobody has to have the ‘I need directions’ phone conversation anymore these days.
A dumbphone does really come up short in the department of communictatino. I was missing out on the chance to communicate with my team at work using Slack. I also wanted to be able to send text messages more effectively for when it is neccesary. I also was frustrated a few times that if I was on the go, I had no way of getting the phone number of a restaraunt or a shop I wanted to call, apart from asking someone else to look it up or busting out a laptop.
Ultimately, this was a successful experiment
While I did end up going back to using a smartphone today, I consider this experience very valuable and I learned some valuable lessons along the way. If I didn’t a job that requires a high-level of communication or young kids who I want to capture moments with, I would very likely still be using a dumbphone. I’ll keep my LG 450 maybe for a rainy day. And I’ll definitely never again get a $600 loan written for a smartphone when a $200 one can do all the same stuff. Hopefully I don’t get caught up reading too much Reddit on my phone again.