My son was born in 2006. The iPhone was born in 2007. They have been competing for my attention ever since.
I always knew it was wrong to steal a moment to look at my phone instead of my son. But I thought I had plenty of moments.
And then my son was 12.
My time as the father of a small child had come to an end. What had I given my device that I could have given my son? Like the average American, about four hours a day. Every day. Two waking months out of every year. Two waking years out of the dozen my son had been alive. Gone. And now my son wanted his own phone. Most of his friends already had one. What could I say? I wanted my son to see his thoughts as precious, private. I wanted him to keep his free time for himself.
“If the phone is so bad,” he asked, “why are you always on it?”
I wanted to tell him what Cal Newport wrote in Digital Minimalism, that “people don’t succumb to screens because they’re lazy, but instead because billions of dollars have been invested to make this outcome inevitable.” I wanted to tell him that when you look into your phone, you think it’s just your two eyes looking at a screen. What’s really happening is that 10,000 programmers’ eyes are looking back at you, following you, tailoring your environment so that you’ll keep looking. When you think about it, an iPhone is really an eye phone.
But nothing I said meant anything to my son. I had to do something. So, I quit.
At the phone store, the saleswoman keyed in the codes to switch me to a flip phone.
A “dumb phone,” some people call it.
“Did anyone ever ask you to do this? Go backward instead of forward?” I asked.
“Do you think it’s a good idea?”
“I mean, maybe. But how are you gonna get places?”
My son and I left the store with my new dumb phone.
A minute later, I reached in my pocket to check something. There was nothing to check.
There was only my son. “Now what are you going to do?” he asked.
“I have to think about it.”
And I thought about it. What could I do with four extra hours every day? Two extra months every year. How could I change my life? How could I transform my world?
As I look at the data of how my life functioned in the real world without an iPhone, I find only improvement. Here is what a year without an iPhone taught me.
As a one-time fiction writer who had transitioned to nonfiction for financial reasons, I’d always wanted to get back to making things up. In the iPhone-less period I started and finished a novel, written in longhand on paper. You can read it here (remember, always hustling). By allowing myself long blocks of uninterrupted phoneless time, I was able to complete something that I hadn’t done since the advent of the smartphone.
Overall, I’m about five pounds lighter and my blood pressure is about 10 points lower on the diastolic and systolic indicators than it was when I was as an iPhone user. I also went vegan during this period and upped my exercise–but my improved regimen can itself be traced back to my lack of a smart phone. Eating with a phone in hand can lead to distracted overeating.
As I mentioned, quitting the phone saved me some money and those funds boosted by the returns on my solar investment allowed me to do a little self-investment. I’d always wanted to learn Greek. I found a teacher and during the last quarter of my phoneless year met weekly with her at distance. It’s a long way until I become a ξέρω όλα (a know-it-all) but the next time I go to Greece (whenever the hell that will be) I think there’s a good chance that I will be able to order a χωριάτικη (Greek salad) and ask for the λογαριασμό (bill).
Life extension by literacy
I don’t have any hard data on how much I read. I didn’t use my year to read all of Proust 20 times as I pointed out in The New York Times in 2019. I didn’t even think about it, frankly, because reading books became a pleasure again, and I did not even want to track it. And it turns out that feeling of wellbeing while reading might have been good for me in the long run. Actually, it might have even given me a longer run. A 2016 study published in the journal Social Science and Medicine found that individuals who read books regularly increased their lifespan by an average of 23 months.
In letting my iPhone go dead, I experienced a kind of rebirth: of sensation, orientation, calm, and connectedness. Sure, there are times when it would be convenient to look up the nearest diner, the best new toaster, or to hear what a friend had to say about a movie I enjoyed. But there was literally nothing that couldn’t wait and literally nothing that didn’t improve with more time put into considering before issuing a reply.
And now a year later, I lie in bed with my son, reading to him and talking about the day. I wonder how many more evenings I’ll be asked to join this nighttime ritual. I know the days of chats like this are numbered. He has growing up to do.
But as I read to him or talk with him or laugh with him, I realize that I, too, am experiencing a transitional moment—a crisis in maturity where we must weigh the evidence and choose wisely for the sake of our future.
We are embroiled in a massive shift in consciousness, desperately trying to hold on to what is human. Trying to be compassionate and empathetic in the face of device culture that makes us cold and cut off. All I have are my basic human qualities: my ability to love, empathize, experience, and explore. These are things I choose to do with my own two eyes, looking up at the night sky.
Adapted from Goodbye Phone, Hello World by Paul Greenberg with permission by Chronicle Books, 2020.