Last week in the New York Times, tech writer Kevin Roose wrote about setting aside his smartphone and “unbreaking” his addicted brain. Without his phone, he said, “I became aware of how profoundly uncomfortable I am with stillness.” It’s unnerving, he went on, “being alone with your thoughts in the year 2019.”
He eventually cleaned up his phone by getting rid of social-media apps and disabling push notifications for everything except calls and texts from certain designated people. He also took up pottery, and spent 48 hours entirely disconnected. This past Monday he posted a screenshot update on Twitter showing how much less time he’s been spending on his phone since his “detox” — about a quarter as much as before. (The screenshot was taken, suspiciously, with his phone.)
My own phone broke a few weeks ago. It’s boring to explain, but basically I can only connect to Wi-Fi. Texting is mostly out. I tried to buy a new one online, but it was so expensive that both my credit and debit cards thought it was fraud, so the purchase wouldn’t go through. At first this was frustrating (do I have to go into a store?), but then I thought, You know what, fine, it’s out of my hands now.
Walking around disconnected, like we used to do all the time, feels surprisingly wild. I know it’s trite to talk about unplugging, as Roose notes (“entering phone rehab feels clichéd, like getting really into healing crystals or Peloton”), but it is remarkable how different it feels. Naked, exciting, a forgotten kind of solitude. Not having a functioning phone makes it feel like a door I’d unwittingly left ajar, deep in my brain, has closed again. On the other hand, I have no idea how to get anywhere.
I once read a theory that the week before your period should be considered a “vixen” week rather than a PMS week — a time of exceptional clarity, during which you can look ruthlessly at your own life without being clouded by the hormones that make you want to run out and try to get pregnant. What in your life is working, and what isn’t? What should stay, what should go? I don’t know if it’s true, but I liked it, and being phoneless reminds me a bit of this.
The more I tell people my phone is broken, though, the more I wonder how long the excuse will last. I mentioned it to my mom, but then a week later she started texting me again. I hadn’t gotten a new phone or told her my old one was working again (it was), but maybe that’s the window. You get it fixed within the week, or you get another one. You don’t just stay out of the game.
Eventually I’ll get a new phone and I’m sure I’ll be tempted to reconfigure it with minimal push notifications, etc., but ultimately I think the only way to feel this kind of freedom is to just not be connected at all. It’s even better when it happens involuntarily, too, because it seems like all the rules and restraints are their own kind of stressful prison. If your phone breaks, relish it. Drag your feet. Take up smoking.