How To Show an iPhone Who's Boss: Detox is Working

On November 9th I put up a blog post saying "Smartphones Are Making Us Think Small Thoughts." I found that for any quiet moment, I was immediately, (and addictively) turning to my iPhone for a hit of email, NY Times, instant messaging, or Twitter. I found myself thinking differently. Thinking smaller. I set out to tame the smartphone beast.

I decided to take action. Actually, drastic action. I went to the AT&T store and asked for a "downgrade." I turned off the data and phone plan on my iPhone. I paid over $200 for a dumb phone with no commitment (so I could eventually get my iPhone 4S upgrade…no I'm not giving up of smartphones forever!) I'm here to report that the experiment is working, and that I'm learning a ton.

I found out that there are two applications on the iPhone that I cannot live without. Luckily, these are not addictive at all, but they are useful: Calendar and Contacts. There's just no way that a dumb phone, even one with a pop-out keyboard, can handle either of these tasks. So, I have successfully re-created my PalmPilot days. I have a device that I carry that does a great job of calendar and contacts, and it even syncs automatically over WiFi to all my desktop machines. Very nice.

Even though the iPhone has no data or phone plan, it still can search the web when there's WiFi. So I had to take another step: I removed all the addictive apps, which actually turned out to be a small list:

-- Email
-- NY Times
-- Fluent News Reader
-- Twitter
-- Txt (killed when I ended the AT&T plan)

Interestingly, that took care of it. Yes, I still have Safari when there's WiFi, and yes, I could look at the NY Times website. But I don't. It's not there all the time. And it takes too long. I can't just whip out my iPhone, click an icon, and get a minute or two of news satisfaction.
The same is true for email. Here's what I get when I hit the email button now. A start screen, because I went into settings and turned email off. If I really had to send an email, I could go into settings and turn it on. I could be back in the email business in a few minutes. But I don't. It just takes too long, and instead of using up that couple minutes in email every free moment, I'm reminded that I'm changing paths. (By the way, I had to turn email back on to get that screen image. It was quick, and no problem to do that in an emergency.)
What have I learned? Lots. First - dumb phones have really, really bad interfaces. Mine, the Samsung Evergreen, comes with a 157 page manual. And it needs it. Everything you do takes many keystrokes and many menu hits. Each time I use this thing I remind myself that I'm part of a human experiment aimed at increasing creativity, and that's why I gave up my iPhone.(mostly except contacts and calendar) It turns out that making an interface without a touchscreen is really hard. AT&T and Samsung have teamed up to provide a particularly convoluted interface.
This is a screenshot from a well-produced 8-minute YouTube video that shows how the Evergreen phone works. Go ahead and watch a minute or two and then you'll know what I'm going through in the name of science. (By the way, I think they call it Evergreen cause when you throw it away, you don't have to feel guilty cause they've made it recyclable.)

I've learned some interesting things about contacts. When I first got the phone, I was told I could take it to Staples and move my contacts over from the iPhone. But I had 2800 contacts there, so I went through and culled it down to the people I might likely call. That brought me to 144 contacts. I never went to Staples, and I'm saving names in the phone as I go. I have about 20 names, and that seems pretty good. Hmmm. A factor of about 100. My contact list goes back to my PalmPilot days -- around 1998. Thirteen years of contact accumulations with nary a major culling.

Lastly, there's the benefit of delayed gratification. I believe that smartphones are killing our ability to accept delayed (or maybe better yet, non-) gratification. One of my goals in this experiment was to break the instant information pipeline. This part of the experiment is working well. With the iPhone I've found myself expecting instant answers to any little query that pops into my head. "Was J. Edgar Hoover really gay, as the movie portrayed?" "What is the status of the Fukushima 5 and 6 reactors…the ones at a distance from the worst hit ones?" "When does 30 Rock premiere this year?"

The answers to all of the above? I don't know. And I haven't looked. And maybe, just maybe, I'm better off not knowing.
3 responses
I've been doing this for about 2 years just by virtue of being on T-Mobile and all iPhones being locked to AT&T. I have an iPhone 4 with no service + a Motorola RIZR. I may take the plunge the opposite way soon though -- Apple just released an unlocked iPhone 4S a few days ago...
fascinating experiment, bill. please keep us posted! i've been thinking about switching to an old-school motorola razr for voice and txt'ing - and just carrying a myfi type data hotspot for my tablet and smartphone to talk to...
I've been having the same inclination to dumb down my phone. It's nice to read about your experience. I think that it brings up such an interesting question of how can we quantitatively measure the depth and breadth of creativity and thinking in general. When you write, "maybe, just maybe I'm better off not knowing," do you think that you'll be able to determine how successful the experiment is in the future? Can our own understanding of how we think and how our thinking changes be trusted within that self-referential loop? Is there a way to externalize the process through self-tracking in order to better investigate and understand the results of this sort of experiment?