Disconnect

I’ve talked before about my issues with cell phones, at least as it relates to the use of the cameras on them, but I thought it was worth talking about issues of connectivity as well. This could be thought of as an extension of that earlier entry, and will repeat some of the same points for different reasons.

I got my first cell phone when I was just about 18, and that was only because I had moved out on my own and needed a phone independent of my six roommates. I was one of the first of my friends to get a cell phone, and because I’m of a generation that got our first cell phones later in life than most today, I still remember a time before 24/7 connectivity and social media. I still haven’t lived as long with a cell phone as I lived without one, which is an interesting thought in and of itself. For that reason I think me and people my age are more aware of the changes in digital communication, &c since the advent of social media and ubiquitous cell phones more or less bisects our lives.

I remember being really impressed early on by the convenience of cell phones: being able to call someone from the store to ask if there was anything else I should remember to buy while I was out, being able to let someone know I was running late to a meeting, but it was the advent of texting that really was a game-changer for me. I have always hated talking on the phone, even as a kid before cell phones. Being able to carry on private, silent conversations with the ability to think precisely about what I wanted to say was a big deal for me as someone who likes to be thoughtful and precise in what I say and who hates being overheard.

But over time I noticed in my own life that not only were all of my friends spending their entire days staring at their phones. People stopped looking at one another while spending time together. No matter who you’re with, you’re always trying to interact with someone else. People’s attention spans seem to be dwindling, and while I can’t be the etiquette police for other people, I can try very hard in my own life to make sure that when I am not as engrossed in my phone.

Some of that effort involves old fashioned self-control: ignoring my phone when I’m spending time with my friends. But I decided to take an additional step to help reinforce my efforts to pay less attention to my phone: I disconnected my cellular service when my contract expired four years ago.

The thing that makes smartphones so hard to ignore is also the thing that helped me disconnect from my own, namely that the phone can function independently of the carrier and act like a computer or tablet. When my contract with Verizon expired, I simply called and told them to disconnect the service. I turned on Airplane Mode to keep my phone from trying to connect to cellular service, and enabled WiFi so that it can connect to the internet. I paid a one time ~$20 fee to transfer my number to Google Voice, Google’s free internet-based phone service and connected that number to my Google Hangouts account.

So, for the most part my phone works the same way, with a few minor tweaks. I can make and receive phone calls and send SMS text messages through Google Hangouts. If I want to use iMessage with other iPhone users, the messages show up as coming from my email address rather than my phone number (because my phone doesn’t recognize my phone number as connected to an iPhone because it’s routed through Google).

There are two big differences. Firstly, my phone only connects when I have wifi, so if you call or text me while I’m out riding my bike, or driving, or on the bus, or in the park, I won’t receive it until I arrive somewhere with wifi (my house, my work, or a Starbucks). Secondly, I don’t pay a cell phone bill anymore, which means I’ve saved about $4,000 in the last four years.

Of course, given the ubiquity of wifi, taking this approach doesn’t disconnect you quite as much as you’d think; plenty of people have no idea that I don’t have any actual cell service because I still respond to calls and texts without major delays. But it does help in some substantial ways. Because my phone doesn’t work 100% of the time, and doesn’t work when I’m in transit, I have become much less addicted to checking it constantly. Once you internalize the knowledge that your phone doesn’t always have new information for you, you stop checking back on it constantly. It helps break a cycle and force you to check your phone when you can and when you need to, and ignore it when you’re out and about. It also saves you a ton of money. Not having to worry about my cell phone bill — among other things — has allowed me to work fewer hours and stress less about money.

If I were a true luddite, I’d have simply thrown away my smartphone rather than trying to find a compromise to keep it while using it less. If I saw no value in my smartphone, I certainly would have sold it or given it away. But there are many legitimately important things that having a cell phone enables me to do that would be impossible or at least much more difficult to do without it. Taking pictures of my work in the salon, keeping track of my calories and fitness goals, and mapping directions are the biggest non-frivolous uses of my cell phone. While I could simply buy a digital camera and use a notebook and pen to calculate calories and macronutrients and fitness progress, and carry around an atlas, keeping a small rectangle in my pocket seems like a more efficient way to do all that.

However, cellphones are not invincible. My iPhone 5 is showing signs of aging; it slows and freezes at inopportune times, &c. When it finally becomes inoperative I’m not sure what I will do. Part of me wants to let it be my last cell phone and perhaps invest in an iPad mini, something that can serve more purposes while at the same time being less accessible (since it can’t fit in my pocket and be reached for discreetly at any time), but part of me wants to simply let it go and make do with my laptop.

I’m trying to navigate a fine line between allowing myself to benefit from the aspects of technology that save me time and allow me to live my life better while rejecting the things that waste time and keep me from living my life. It’s a hard thing to acknowledge an addiction or a compulsion. What parts of your life, what habits are you rationalizing and defending because you’re afraid to give them up? It takes serious introspection to recognize an unhealthy cycle and try to break it.

I think I’m doing a little bit better than most of my peers, but is that setting the bar too low? I don’t know.