Wherever you go, people are on their “smartphones.” In airports, restaurants or on the street, people are almost permanently glued to their devices, obsessed with the idea that they cannot exist without being connected to the cyber world. Thus, they text and tweet, email and Google, follow and like in an effort to be constantly present online. It has become part of a “normal” existence in today’s postmodern world.
However, not everyone is connected. A growing number of smartphone dissenters are trading in their passport to the digital world. They are buying dumb phones that actually do only what phones used to do: take and make calls.
These rebels are not postmodern luddites or technologically challenged people. They are smart people using dumb phones. They see their decision to disconnect as a liberating experience that allows them to live their lives free of the mediation of electronic devices.
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Dumb phones are a small but robust part of the phone market. By buying the cheap $30 headsets, owners can join the one percent who make up this elite group. In fact, many smartphone refuseniks are professionals, some even come from Silicon Valley where they help design the offending smartphone devices and apps. Executives can easily respond to ads for the simple flip-phone Jitterbug in The Wall Street Journal.
The one percenters give many reasons for their free choice. These durable phones never need to be upgraded to a later and greater model. They have a standby battery life of weeks (as long as 38 days) and require no expensive data plan. They can be given to children or elderly to use for calling in case of emergency or need without major investment.
There is no constant urge to check e-mails or status updates or notifications. It’s just the phone. The bare basics triggers a feeling of huge relief at not having to respond and be distracted at every moment.
There are other more compelling reasons to pull the plug that go beyond mere personal convenience. Sociologists and other scholars are concerned about what chronic smartphone use is doing to minds and relationships.
In his excellent book, “Deep Work,” author Cal Newport claims smartphones and other devices accustom the brain to be constantly distracted. The user lives in a state of divided attention and cannot focus on getting real work done. He finds the devices deteriorate a person’s ability to think and work profoundly.
Smartphones are supposed to be great connecters to the world, but they are themselves devices that inhibit deep connection with others. Recourse to constant texting, for example, takes away the facial expressions, tone and voice inflection that help bond relationships and give nuance. The mere presence of a smartphone in a conversation is an invitation to pay less attention since it can lead to frequent interruptions.
Someone might say that such reasons are really nothing to lose sleep over. Actually, smartphones are also the cause of loss of sleep. Many people (44 percent of those 18-24) actually fall asleep with their smartphone in their hand. When notifications sound, people interrupt their sleep patterns by answering it. The screen light also interrupts the circadian rhythms that help people sleep well. Moreover, the first thing many do is check their phones upon awakening.
Finally, there is thesheer amount of time people spend glued to their machines. Many spend an average of eight hours a day on all their devices. They are constantly checking their e-mails, tweets and messages literally hundreds of times a day. They lose awareness of what is happening around them, neglect family affections and easily live outside reality.
With so many reasons to quit, is it any wonder that many have joined the one percent who has declared their digital independence? Many of these go all the way and buy dumb phones. Others dumb down their smart phones. Still others use apps to control their smartphone use. It is all part of a reaction against a very real problem that is much more profound.
The abuse of smartphones is the product of a society that is frenzied and out of balance. It’s not just the phone, but what might be called a frenetic intemperance where everyone must have everything instantly and without effort. Now is the time for a return to those things like family, community and faith—those permanent things that really matter and should not be interrupted.
It is truly time for a return to order. Perhaps the first step is to stop smartphones from making people dumb.
John Horvat II is a scholar, researcher, educator, international speaker, and author of the book Return to Order, as well as the author of hundreds of published articles. He lives in Spring Grove, Pennsylvania where he is the vice president of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property.
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