When I was growing up, "being online" was a black & white concept. I would sit down at the computer and be online, then I would walk away and be offline. They were two different worlds.
My iPhone has blurred that boundary into nonexistence. The healthy separation is gone; I am never truly offline anymore. It's exhausting.
I am not a luddite; I love computers and build software for a living. But phones have gotten too good. They are taking over our lives.
I feel powerless over mine. I am picking it up constantly for no good reason. I can't resist its Siren's Song. Self-control has not been a viable solution.
Not long after I confronted this, I saw Casey Neistat saying the same thing:
deleting apps, limiting usage, self-control. None of that works, it’s just too easy to turn it back on. my ego demands it and my monkey brain succumbs. I need something more prohibitive— Casey Neistat (@Casey) December 8, 2021
My "screen time" is not as bad as his, but seeing him publicly say this validated to me that my problem is real 1. My iPhone is making me dumber.
Why it's a problem
Having a smartphone with you means you always have a zero-friction portal into the internet. It means you're never offline.
This is a problem because the internet is distracting. It's alluring. It's addictive.
I can't stop picking up my phone. I'm bored. I wonder if I have any new emails? Anyone liked my tweet? I wonder what's happening. This is purely a dopamine addiction. My brain is looking for a hit.
As a result I am not mentally present, ignoring what is going on around me when I should be cherishing things like playing with my kids.
I have also been noticing that my ability to concentrate for long stretches of time is deteriorating. I can't go long without seeking an interruption. This trend is particularly horrifying.
My relationship with my phone is just not a healthy one. I've uninstalled and reinstalled Twitter about a dozen times. That's called app relapse. I know others who do this as well. I've also tried using "screen time" to block apps after some time, but always end up overriding it.
Being bored is healthy, it means your brain is hungry. Suppressing that hunger with a phone is like eating empty carbs.
Yes, the internet is useful. Smartphones can be useful. But they are useful when used with clear intent.
I don't want to always be online. Living this way is not making me happy. It's time to figure something else out.
What is a phone?
The question is: "what bad things would happen if I just threw my phone off a bridge?" So I enumerated the things I use it for, and categorized them. 2
It turns out the only reason to carry a phone around 24/7 is so a few important people can reach me. It's also exceptionally good as a camera, map, and music player, but I don't need any of these with me everywhere I go.
It turns out, at its core a phone is still just a phone.
The two-device approach
So what to do with this? The popular pattern I've found in my casual research 3 is a two-device solution: you carry a basic phone that's always available for receiving calls/SMS, and leave other less critical functions to an iPod touch, a tablet, laptop, etc. The idea is you can always leave the second device at home, or hide it in a drawer, thereby physically separating yourself from it.
In my digging, I found there's two categories of basic phones. First, there are plenty of phones that are just cheap, like flip phones and Nokia bricks. These generally cost less than $100.
There is also a growing category of higher-end "minimalist phones" which are limited in functionality not by their price, but by their designers' philosophy. The most notable ones I've found are the Light Phone, the Punkt MP02, and the Mudita Pure.
All of these generally cost several times a basic flip phone, but ironically they actually do less. They are aggressively minimalistic. None of these three have a camera, for example.
Punkt MP02The Punkt MP02 (New generation, late 2021)
I chose to go with a Punkt MP02. I like its design, and the philosophy behind it:
"If anyone wants to talk to me, they can give me a call. Other forms of communication, for example email or social media, are available when I choose to use them – and via a linked device that allows me to use them more effectively."
"Focus is at a premium in the digital age. The MP02 4G mobile phone makes it easier to be where you are, whether that’s a family weekend away or an important business meeting. It gives you freedom from a constant onslaught of designed-for-addiction notifications and other distractions. It puts you in charge."
The idea behind the MP02 is it's just a phone + SMS, but can offer its 4G connection to other devices via Wifi tethering:
"When it’s time to get online, the MP02’s 4G LTE connection can be shared with a tablet/laptop – which means easier typing in comparison with a smartphone, and a bigger screen. This two-device approach means that the Internet is something you dip into, rather than the other way round."
"When it's time to get online"... there's that black and white boundary! These people get it!
I was excited to find a company that is so perfectly aligned with how I was deconstructing this problem. This is a modern 4G compatible phone which has only the core function of always being reachable by calls/SMS, and allows for tethering via a second, less addictive device like a laptop (or a SIM-less iPhone).
Now when I take my kids to a playground or go hang out at a cafe, I can safely bring just my basic phone and choose to leave more distracting devices at home. I feel so free!The MP02 is much smaller and lighter than the smallest iPhone (iPhone SE)
At $380 the MP02 costs almost as much as an iPhone SE. It has very nice build quality with satisfying tactile buttons. It's small, light, feels good in your hand, and IMO looks cool. I really like how small it is. The battery seems to last about 2 days.
It's also very minimal. In addition to basic calls and SMS, it notably has a Signal client called Pigeon. There's no email, no camera, not even physical volume buttons. You can receive MMS pictures but you can barely see them. It has no games. It's truly less "feature complete" than your average flip phone.
Here's a full list of apps/functions that it offers:
- A very basic calendar, with no support for events
- Clock: alarm clock, world clock, stopwatch, timer
- Notes (but it's a T9 keyboard, so...)
- Pigeon (a Signal client)
- 4G tethering
That's it. There's no other software for it, no app store. It has 16GB of storage.The MP02 has a white-on-black, text-only interface. There is a terminal-like quality to it.
The point is, there's no wiggle room for this thing to start getting bloated. It's a simple tool and it does its job well 4. It will probably improve in minor ways, but its feature set seems relatively fixed. There is nothing here for me to get addicted to. So far I'm pretty happy with it. 5
Ironically, this phone resembles the exact "problem" that Steve Jobs outlined when he revealed the iPhone:
"...[Blackberries] all have these control buttons that are fixed in plastic and are the same for every application. Well, every application wants a slightly different user interface, a slightly optimized set of buttons, just for it. And what happens if you think of a great idea six months from now? You can’t run around and add a button to these things. They’re already shipped."
Even more ironically, I remember we used to call those things "crackberries". And now here I am reminiscing.
Steve was brilliant, and so was the iPhone, but it has simply gotten to be too much for me. I'd rather have it the old way.
1 My high school friend Mike Beswetherick was on this train long before anyone else I know, ditching his iPhone for a cheap flip phone many years ago. He also once made the memorable comparison that checking Facebook is like taking a drag of a cigarette. I haven't had a Facebook for 10 years, but my iPhone is no doubt my cigarette.
2 Here is the full list:
- Absolutely necessary wherever I go
- Useful & phone does it exceptionally well
- Useful, but don't need a phone to do it
- Unnecessary but can be fun
|Being reachable by important people like wife/kid's school/certain coworkers||#1 Most Important|
|Calling other people/businesses/911||Also Important|
|Camera||Useful, nice to have|
|Maps, directions||Useful and second to none, but I rely on it too much|
|Music / Podcasts||Useful and second to none|
|Flashlight||I can just use actual flashlights|
|Calculator||Laptop can do it|
|Setting timers/alarms||There are other solutions|
|Paying for shit with Apple Wallet||Can use physical cards|
|One-time passwords (TOTP)||Yubikeys can store TOTPs|
|Video calls (Facetime)||Laptop can do it|
|Chatting with people on Telegram||Laptop can do it; not critical to respond immediately|
|Browsing web, reading ||Laptop can do it|
|Checking the weather||Laptop can do it|
|Checking crypto prices||Laptop can do it|
|Checking email||Laptop can do it|
|Banking/Stocks||Laptop can do it|
|Ordering takeout||Laptop can do it|
|YouTube||Laptop can do it better|
|Can access on secondary iDevice on occassion|
|Games like 2048||I can't beat my wife's high score!|
A smartphone is too many things at once.
The amount of time I spend on my phone (𝘛 ) is an exponential function of how many things it can do (𝓃):
𝘛 = (𝓃 reasons to pick it up) * (𝓃 things that can steal my attention)This is less of a problem with a laptop, which is large and not convenient to casually start using for a few seconds. This is also why a basic phone is awesome.
4 I has a few nice features that are unique to its form factor. For example, it brings back speed dial; you can set up shortcuts for each key. I can call my wife without looking at the phone, by simply holding down the "5" button. You can't do that with a touch screen. The shortcuts also go beyond simply placing calls: I set up another button to toggle the 4G tethering on and off.
5 That said, the MP02 is not perfect. Its biggest drawback is it can't handle group SMS. I will probably post a follow-up, more in-depth review of it in the future.