I got another notice today over both text and email informing me that “the T-Mobile 3G network retirement is approaching fast.” I have until July 1 to replace my BlackBerry Curve. After that, I won’t even be able to make 911 calls on it. So marks the end of my life without a smartphone.
Years ago, during a spate of dropped calls, a T-Mobile customer service representative told me that 3G networks were disappearing and that the advanced age of my device qualified me for a free phone upgrade. “Why wouldn’t you want a smartphone?” dumbfounded service reps ask me when I call.
People have seemed perturbed by my refusal to get a smartphone, as though it personally offends them. Friends offer their old phones after they upgrade, as though lack of hardware must be what’s holding me back, and they seem surprised when I decline. Earlier this year, multiple people sent me articles about the retirement of BlackBerry’s legacy service, each asking — not without some glee — if I was finally going to get a smartphone. Perhaps they think I don’t understand that smartphones are portals to anything and everything.
That’s exactly why I don’t want one.
Remember when objects weren’t “smart” versions of that thing but just the thing itself? When watches were watches and glasses were glasses and refrigerators were refrigerators? I don’t want my phone to be a computer, television, stereo, or map. I just want it to be a phone — albeit a decent one that allows me to talk and to text, the only two functions I need or want. And I don’t want a Jitterbug or any of the big-button phones marketed toward seniors. After 13 years with a QWERTY keyboard on my phone, I don’t want to press the “2” key three times to text the letter “C,” as required by the few non-smartphones T-Mobile offers.
My avoidance of smartphones, as well as the ability to come up with workarounds for the apps and other features I can’t use on the go, has been both a choice and a privilege. I realize that many people who cannot afford smartphones are locked out of access to health care portals and even restaurant menus in our QR-code era.
A couple of weeks ago, I left my phone at work. I had no problem going without it. I want that always to be the case. As a college instructor, I have for years lamented diminished student attention spans, as well as students’ own dismay at their inability to disengage from their phones. When I teach in London and fan my maps out on my desk, students gasp as though I’ve shown them an astrolabe.
In the 2004 reboot of “Battlestar Galactica,” humans use older technology to prevent being hacked by the cylons, artificially intelligent robots bent on destroying the human race. The cylons can infiltrate the avionics of the more sophisticated fighter jets. The Galactica bans computerized landings and requires pilots to land manually on the battleship. In a war against the cylons, advanced technology will never favor the humans, but humans gain the advantage when they return to technology they can understand, repair, and disconnect. Although humanity isn’t at war with robots or AI (yet), the lesson still applies: sometimes, progress is analog.
Some people call me a Luddite, but I’m not fighting against technology or progress. I’m fighting for my autonomy.
I often think of a scene from “Mad Men,” in which employees at the advertising firm ponder their creative futures after the company buys a monolithic new office computer. “This machine is intimidating because it contains infinite quantities of information, and that’s threatening, because human existence is finite,” says the installation supervisor. “But isn’t it godlike that we’ve mastered the infinite?”
No one “masters the infinite,” but smartphones make humans think we have. Even if such mastery were possible, I’m not sure it’s desirable, though Apple and Samsung would likely say otherwise.
Philosopher David Abram argues that humans’ obsessions with phones and screens is an “attempt to recreate that old experience of intimacy with the world around us.” Hunter-gatherer societies were animistic — many believed that oceans, mountains, trees, and other natural entities have awareness and offer mutual sensory experiences. One can feel the wind announce a coming storm, check the sun’s position to deduce the time, or wayfind using the stars. The more humans turn away from the outside world in favor of the worlds on their screens, the more alienated we become from the environment and from Earth itself. “Nature deficit disorder” is becoming more widely recognized, as researchers note negative behavioral implications for phone-tethered youngsters. If Abram is right, the decrease in outdoor time results in the desire for even more screen time, creating a vicious circle.
As much as I’ll miss my old BlackBerry, the irony that this brand of phone was the first to enable employees to respond to email when not at their computers isn’t lost on me. I never used my BlackBerry for email, so perhaps I can similarly evade the temptations of a smartphone.
But just to be sure: After months of research, I purchased a 4G phone that remains in its box under my desk. It’s technically a smartphone, but even when I do unbox it at last, I won’t buy a data plan.
Joelle Renstrom is a science writer who teaches at Boston University.