Unplugged

Since the summer of 2020, I’ve been the Slow Tech columnist for The Idler, a most excellent magazine I strongly suggest you check out. It’s all about escaping the horrors of modern consumer capitalism, and represents an interesting strand of self-sufficiency, practical anarchism and frugality in a chaotic world.

I’ve written about lots of ways that older and simpler forms of tech can make your life simpler and more rewarding, and for the Christmas 2021 issue, I reviewed five non-smart phones that I felt were particularly interesting. Due to the magazine’s lead time, I was writing this column in August last year, and I contacted the makers of the very interesting Light Phone 2 to see if they’d send me a model to review. They very kindly agreed, and its arrival started something of a revolution in my life.

The Light Phone 2’s extremely minimalist interface – that’s pretty much all it does (although a Directions app was added after I took this photo). What’s not obvious from this photo is it’s tiny size – the surface area is the size of a credit card, and it’s only about the same thickness as a few of them. It’s so small and light you’ll barely notice it – which is, of course, the whole point.

For a future Idler column, I’m going to do a long-term review of the phone and talk a bit about how it’s changed my relationship with the Internet. It’s started me off on bit of an adventure, really. Just after the Light Phone arrived, I took a trip to the absolutely stunning bothy at Craig, and spent a wonderful couple of days wandering along the beach, and sitting by the fire reading a book. That book was “Digital Minimalism” by Cal Newport.

The author is of the opinion that modern tech is far too intrusive, and has damaged and manipulated us to a really shocking degree. I’d long suspected this, and the book really does articulate the slightly random thoughts I’d had on the subject. It’s full of practical ideas on how to reduce your tech dependence and be more present in the world, and I read it with interest.

He suggests an interesting experiment to try, if you can, which is to go cold turkey on your smartphone for 30 days. The idea is to remove as many apps and services from your life as you possibly can, and then go without them for a month, so that afterwards, you can progressively introduce only the ones that you genuinely need. It felt pretty radical and I never quite got around to doing it, but it did make me think a lot about my relationship with my smartphone, and given the rather opportune arrival of the Light Phone, it allowed me to begin redefining things.

Essentially, since August, the Light Phone 2 has been my main device. It’s a very stripped down and very small device that only does a few things – primarily it calls, texts, has a directions app, acts as a WiFi hotspot for another device, and has a calculator and alarm clock. It can play music and podcasts as well, but that’s it. The makers have deliberately designed it to deal with these essentials alone, and you can’t get emails or any form of social media on it. It can be used in a variety of different ways to wean you off your smartphone, but I started off by putting my SIM in it when I wanted to unplug for a bit, and it’s got to the point now where my SIM is in it about 99% of the time. I still take my smartphone out with me, but I only connect to it when I feel a need to do so. That need has progressively got less as time has gone on.

Although I didn’t “detox” in the way that Newport suggests, the effect over time has been similar. I’ve tended only to use my smartphone when I think of something I specifically need or want to do, as using it while I’m out involves firing up the Light Phone’s hotspot or finding public WiFi. This makes using the Internet a rather different experience from being permanently connected to it. No scrolling mindlessly just for the sake of it. No constant beeps and pings demanding your attention. A much clearer sense of what you need and don’t while you’re out and about.

It’s made me realise just how manipulative and addictive smartphones are designed to be, and I’m really glad I’ve managed to extricate myself from that. I deleted Facebook some years ago after some unwelcome drama, and I’ve never liked the angry hornet’s nest that is Twitter, but I think I was pretty addicted to Instagram. Being connected to it less made me step back and think about how I used it, and I realised I didn’t like the way it was making me behave. I recently uninstalled the app from my phone, and found I didn’t miss it. My account is now suspended pending deletion, and that’ll be my last social media account gone. I honestly don’t think I’ll miss it. The whole thing exists to sell you crap you don’t need, and is very hard to control as just about everything you see is controlled by algorithms you can’t opt out of. You can’t be sure what’s true and what’s not, the place is awash with “influencers” (euurgh) and I kept getting stupid spam messages trying to scam me or otherwise demand my attention. Much as I’ll miss certain things, it’ll give me more time to spend here, which I’ve been meaning to do for ages. Sure, I’m still getting spammed, but it’s easier to control, there’s no advertising, and I can say what I want. It’s much better.

As my smartphone is now only occasionally online, my fitness tracker watch wasn’t constantly buzzing, so I was only wearing it for tracking my step count. I originally got it several years ago when I was in a sedentary job and concerned about how inactive I was getting, and it did encourage me to walk more. However, fast forward to now, and I’m doing a much more active job and managing to get out for walks without needing the constant reminders. I realised that the constant reminders to be active were a nuisance that I didn’t need, and that the step streaks and competitions were becoming addictive. Also, all my data is probably monetised somewhere, and I just don’t need to share that crap with anyone. So…I blew the dust off my analogue watch, got the battery replaced and am enjoying the use of an attractive and entirely dumb device that does just what it needs to do – tell me what the time is.

I say all of this as someone who adopted smartphones very early. I was provided with a Windows Mobile smartphone for work in about 2006 or so, and it was designed to help me keep in touch with things while out and about – I worked for London Underground at the time, and would often be out on the system dealing with something. It was quite something to see what these devices could do, and for several years, I was a big fan of Windows Mobile, especially the devices with fold-out keyboards. These devices really were a convenience boon and suited me perfectly, especially because back then no-one had quite worked out how to monetise them and extract personal data off them to sell stuff to you. That, unfortunately, came later with Android and iOS. I was very disappointed that Windows Mobile died as an OS, and smartphones soon became dystopian privacy nightmares that were deliberately designed to take over your life. I’m scared that most people aren’t bothered by this, and don’t seem to mind that they’re being constantly monetised by big corporations with absolutely no morals. We’re constantly sold the convenience of smartphones, while incredibly rich people laugh at us for getting hooked on their systems. If you want a frightening read on this subject, try “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” by Shoshana Zuboff. If you have any sense, you’ll destroy your phone immediately and go and live in a shack in the woods. Unfortunately, I don’t think this book will ever get a particularly wide readership as it’s absolutely massive, and quite hard going to plough through, but perhaps a more accessible alternative is Jaron Lanier’s “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now”. He’s worked in high up positions for tech companies, and very tellingly doesn’t use social media himself.

The COVID pandemic has been made more dystopian to me by the extensive use of mobile phone check-ins for track and trace purposes and also the use of vaccine status apps, all of which have absolutely horrific privacy implications, and I don’t feel were ever necessary. We briefly had an incredibly botched and heavy-handed vaccine passport scheme here in Scotland, but for the few times I had to prove my status, I used a printed paper copy. No way was I putting the Scottish Government’s woefully compromised and unfit-for-purpose app on my phone. It genuinely scares me that so many people don’t seem to grasp the problems inherent in governments tracking your movements and storing data on you, as you only need to look at the absolutely brutal way the Chinese government is behaving at the moment. Why we voluntarily allow faceless corporations and governments to hoover up information about everything we do and everywhere we go is completely beyond me, and it genuinely worries me how far this will go before people realise just how much they’ve been conned, manipulated and controlled.

I was around for the early days of the Internet, and in the late nineties it was a genuine revolution. So many exciting things happened. Within a few years, though, it really had rotted into something utterly ghastly. I’m really glad that writing my magazine column led me to look at things from a different angle, and grateful that a phone specifically designed to be non-addictive has helped me re-engage with the offline world.

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