Why I Don't Have a Smartphone
I don’t carry a smartphone. Not even a dumb phone. Most people assume I’m too poor to afford a phone plan. Not true. I voluntarily live without a phone. Technically I do own smartphones, but I don’t use them.
For most people in the civilized and semi-civilized world, phonelessness seems impractical. It’s hard to speak in general about the consequences of not carrying one since everybody uses them in different ways depending on their location and life role. The consequences range from a life of hardship to being happier and less distracted.
Reasons I Don’t Use a Smartphone
I find myself on the far end of that range being happier and less distracted. For me, phonelessness isn’t a burden most of the time. It’s a relief. So let’s talk about why I choose to live without a phone, since non-poor phoneless people are an extreme minority.
Smartphones Are Addictive and Distracting
The last smartphone I used was a Google Pixel running GrapheneOS. It had a SIM card, but was in airplane mode unless I was making a call. It was always on silent with no vibration. Unless I deliberately pulled it out, it couldn’t interrupt my day.
It was still tempting though. If I didn’t have anything to do for 5 minutes, what better opportunity to pull out my phone? Upwards of 90% of what I read and watched on it was irrelevant and 70% of it I’d forget by the next day. But it was something to do, a source of constant stimulation, always available when I wanted it.
It was just too much. I was sitting at a dinner party talking with people and it was fun, but not as fun in every moment as the internet. On the internet, there’s limitless entertainment, endless intellectual stimulation from the world’s greatest minds, more creative artwork than I’ll ever personally encounter, and models which make real people pale in comparison.
So there was always this strong temptation to pull out my smartphone and browse the internet rather than engage with the real people sitting in front of me. It’s not like digital media didn’t cause problems before smartphones, but I can’t bring a TV or PC to a dinner party and the environment is too distracting for a book.
A smartphone is small enough to bring everywhere and for some strange reason, it’s more socially acceptable to pull out one’s smartphone at the dinner table than it is to open a book. It’s the ultimate distraction.
One of the first things I noticed when I gave up my smartphone was that other people are hopelessly addicted to them. It’s frustrating trying to connect with people who are always on their phones. I can seldom get through a shared meal without others checking their phone several times, as if it were more important than the people sitting around them.
Sometimes the consequences of incessant smartphone checking are deadly. Millions of crashes happen every year because of texting while driving. I can’t imagine what’s so urgent for so many people that there’s no time to pull over.
So one good thing about phonelessness is I live without the temptation to use a phone at inappropriate times. I’m more aware of what’s happening around me and more connected to others. When nothing interesting is happening, instead of mindlessly scrolling on my phone half paying attention just to keep up the dopamine levels, I can take that moment to appreciate my life and be mindful.
Smartphones Fuel Toxic Always-Online Culture
Another reason I don’t have a smartphone is it creates the expectation to be available all the time. Always-online culture spoils employers. They expect employees to always be connected, creating a toxic work culture where ‘me time’ is provisional. It ends the moment you get that call or text from the boss. For firefighters, it makes sense. But that expectation now applies to all jobs and it’s totally unnecessary.
In my personal relationships it’s practical not to be constantly connected. I can imagine lifestyles where it isn’t practical, but I suspect it’s more practical than people realize, especially for those without dependents. In life, there’s very little that can’t wait.
Lots of people don’t really need a mobile phone and definitely not a smartphone. For many, a home phone would suffice. While it might be somewhat inconvenient not to have a smartphone, some of that inconvenience is because people intentionally organize their lives around their smartphone. Some reorganization would solve that.
Smartphones Don’t Respect User Freedom
Yet another reason not to have a smartphone is they don’t fully respect user freedom. My Google Pixel had a nonfree Goolag bootloader. It was very off-putting every time I saw the Google logo show up on boot, knowing the bootloader was nonfree and couldn’t be replaced. The fact that GrapheneOS only supports devices with a nonfree bootloader written by a spooky company diminishes the good of it.
I could go the Replicant route. But none of Replicant’s fully supported devices have free bootloaders.
The Linux Smartphone App Ecosystem Isn’t Mature Enough
The more recent Linux smartphones are sufficiently free. I actually own a PinePhone. Its nonfree modem is isolated from the SoC and main memory. It has hardware kill switches for the few closed subsystems that require non-free blobs. So the problem there isn’t freedom.
The problem with the PinePhone and other Linux smartphones is, despite impressive recent development, their application ecosystems are insufficient for me. They don’t support the applications I use.
I Can Get By Without One
Sometimes I have to place calls for doctor’s visits and set other appointments. For that I use someone else’s phone. It makes no sense for me to shell out money to the phone companies for a plan when I rarely make calls and my family and friends let me borrow their phones when I do need to make a call.
Even if I didn’t have a phone to borrow, I could use the PinePhone as a home phone. Unless I was expecting an important call, it wouldn’t even need to be powered on. Changes in appointments would just go to voicemail which can be checked asynchronously. I could still live distraction-free and wouldn’t need to carry it with me.
Regular readers of this journal are probably wondering when I’m going to mention privacy. It’s widely understood that smartphones are tracking and surveillance devices, so surely that’s another objection, right?
Smartphones Are Surveillance Devices
Well actually no. It’s possible to have a smartphone that isn’t a mass surveillance device. When I had the Google Pixel, I enabled airplane mode and MAC randomization. I used free software from F-droid exclusively. Traffic was onion-routed via Tor. Bluetooth was disabled and wifi as well when I wasn’t using it. I taped both front and rear cameras. So privacy wasn’t an issue for me.
The average person’s smartphone is a surveillance device with dozens of proprietary apps tracking them every which way and a crippled, vendor-locked excuse for the latest version of Android. As for iPhones, there’s no excuse for having that trash. They’re even worse for your freedom than vendor-locked Androids.
Non-techies don’t know how to protect themselves from mass surveillance, so surveillance still counts as a reason for others not to have a phone.
On The Benefits of Having a Smartphone
While I’m talking about all the bad things about smartphones, don’t think I’m oblivious to all the good things. I’ve had a smartphone for most of my life. I know the good. They make irreplaceable multi-tools. You can quickly contact others. If you ignore all the bad, smartphones augment human beings.
Is there some way we can have the good without the bad?
Can We Have The Good Without The Bad?
The vast majority have nonfree surveillance phones dependent on big tech. This can be remedied by using free software.
Solving smartphone addiction isn’t as straightforward. While plenty of people can use their smartphones without becoming addicted, staggering numbers of people still self-report as being addicted. Young people are highly addicted to their smartphones, unable to have simple get-togethers with friends and family without staring at their screens.
Given all the kids addicted to smartphones and tablets, I’m not hopeful young people can use them without developing an addiction. So I’m not sure whether we can have the good without the bad. Maybe a new, non-addictive mobile operating system would help. Or maybe new technology isn’t the solution.
In my own experience using a smartphone without social media or notifications, I still wasted time on it with passive entertainment rather than doing other things I would’ve liked to do. For me, if it’s capable of web browsing, it’s too distracting. I’m better off without one.
That’s why I don’t have a smartphone.