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Three Men Who Don’t Own a Smartphone

What’s the world like without being able to beam the internet straight into your goddamn eyeballs 24/7?

Imagine for a second that you lived life without all your texts, your favorite apps and the internet in your hands. Now, stop imagining because we asked three guys who don’t have a smartphone (or at least tried not to have one) so you don’t have to pretend you still have an imagination after years of smartphone abuse.

“I’d use a phone if I had more of a profound need for one.”

Phil, 72, never owned a cell phone: The world really thinks less of a person who doesn’t have a phone. It always goes like this: “Do you have a card?” And I go, “No, I’m retired.” So they say, “Give me your phone number,” and I say, “Well, I don’t have a cell phone.” They say, “How the hell does anybody reach you?” I say, “Well, that’s the point!”

I never felt like I needed one. You’re tethered to a phone in business all the time, and when I was in business, I was always at my desk. So I never felt that not having a phone was any loss, but I think that it’s a matter of need. For example, if I was out and about in a sales capacity, I’d definitely need it. I actually was in sales for a while, but not at a time when people really had access to wireless technology.

I remember having the first car phone — it was a big box that you actually moved out of your car, and you had to plug it into your cigarette lighter. It was the coolest thing to have a convertible and to have everyone looking at you going, “Look at that guy talking on a phone!” It was a very prestigious, erudite way of dealing with the perception of wealth. At the time I had a black and red pinstripe Bentley, and I drove it to the gym with the top down. I got out in my muscle T-shirt, and this really cute girl goes, “Wow, what’s a young guy like you doing with a Buick?” So I sold the Bentley. I said, “I don’t need this crap; I’m getting rid of all this stuff.” And I’ve never returned to that kind of lifestyle. I’m low-key.

I’m not even tempted to get a phone. Never have been. But I love going with my wife to get hers. I like the technology — I like to see how it all works. I play on it; I can pretty much manipulate it better than her, and she owns it. Texting is a cool thing — I really like that feature. I like the mobile internet on it, and the maps. I couldn’t actually get along in this world without my navigation system in my car, I rely on that a lot.

When I vacation in other cities — we do that a lot — the phone is really important, but I always have my wife with me. The few times I don’t, I feel, in a way, vulnerable, because everyone else has one. That’s a funny feeling, to not have one actually feels naked in a way. For example, if there was an emergency, I’d have to actually ask a stranger to use his or hers. I don’t run out of gas, but if something happened on a freeway, that’s always a freaky thing. And going out at night without a cell phone, if I’m not with my wife, there’s an anxiety — just the mere fact that everyone else has instant communication and I don’t.

I made this mistake of venturing off somewhere by myself for a day, and the person I was meeting gave me the wrong address. I was in another city with absolutely no idea where I’m supposed to be, and it’s an important meeting. I used a pay phone to call information to reverse the charges to try to find my wife, who then would call him to get the correct address. That call cost $22.

I was at a dinner with five lawyers and me. All of them were on their cell phones while we’re having a conversation. One guy turns to the other and says, “You’re not listening.” And he turns to a guy across the table and says, “You’re not listening to us.” The guy next to him took his cell phone and put it in the pitcher of water on the table. Then everybody grabbed the other guys’ phones and put them in the pitcher of water — there were five phones in a pitcher of water! People were upset — oh my God. It was the craziest thing I ever saw, like an instant riot. I was laughing so hard. Everybody was 60 or older — this wasn’t a kids’ thing.

My wife often says that I refuse to get a phone because I don’t want to be found. She’s right, but that’s not exactly right. The real reason is twofold: Most all the calls are useless inquiries about how much money someone needs to borrow, or a report that someone my age just died.

I’m perfectly capable on a computer. I access the internet all day for research. I write. I work on spreadsheets. I know how to do stuff. I figured I’d get a phone eventually; I’m not like one of those bachelors who’s just never getting married. I’d use a phone if I had more of a profound need for one. It just isn’t like that though.

People are really disturbed when they hear I don’t have a phone. It’s almost like I’m taking something away from them: Their ability to interfere with me.

“The plus side about not having a smartphone is that you look up more.”

Jeremy, 32, dumbphone owner: I was on my phone constantly. I knew it, and it drove me crazy. So about three months ago, I bought a dumb phone that only does calls and texting. It’s been harder to get used to it than I thought it would — it was an impulsive buy.

I used to be on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram a lot — Instagram the most — and I hated how much time I was spending on them. Of course, I could have just deleted those apps from my smartphone, but I knew that the internet would distract me too, so I went all in on a dumbphone.

I wasn’t a heavy poster on social media, and I work on a computer all day, so I can still access them. The thing I miss the most is probably the camera. It made me appreciate how handy it is to have a camera attached to your phone, and that you can take a picture of anything at any time. Of course, I don’t see myself carrying around a camera everywhere now to make up for it — maybe special occasions, but not every day. If I switched phones all over again I’d probably look at every app on my phone and ask myself how I’d deal without it, or if I can live without it. Then again, doing that, I might have talked myself out of switching phones. And music — I had to dig out an old iPod and load some old music onto it for exercising. It felt like traveling back in time! I don’t really miss YouTube — I just watch it on my computer instead.

Lots of people are amazed when I tell them I don’t have a smartphone anymore, and everybody has told me they wish they could ditch their smartphone, but so far no one else I know has done it.

The plus side about not having a smartphone is that, basically, you look up more. Standing in a line, waiting in a waiting room or at a stoplight, my eyes aren’t on a screen. I’m looking around, hearing other conversations, picking up a magazine or something to read. I’ll still pull out my phone and maybe text a friend — texting is a lot more work, by the way, with just those number buttons. So you learn to deal with boredom, and now I feel how anxious and impatient I used to be — there are tons of moments every day, like waiting in line to order food, or waiting for it to be ready. I had to reach for my phone, or I’d be on it, going through apps, scrolling, without realizing I was on it. Now I’m the weird guy looking around the room!

It’s scary at first not to be able to check your emails. I still panic about it sometimes, but the people I email with the most, most of them know I switched phones and now I can’t read their email during lunch if I go somewhere. Most people have jobs where they need email or Slack way more than I do, though, so I’m not sure how others could get away from work email and apps.

I do miss a couple of the messaging apps. My friends all know by now to text me — or actually call and use our voices — but I wonder what conversations I’m missing out on in the old group chats. Ignorance is bliss, sometimes.

“The fact that Steve Jobs said he’d never allow his kids to use screens/phone, says a lot about the value of life away from screens.”

Ed, 42, who tried a dumbphone, but went back to a smartphone: In a vain attempt to reclaim my brain, I tracked down a Nokia “dumbphone.” However, texting was painfully slow. I was so used to using speech-to-text that I barely typed on a phone anymore.

Unfortunately my “no smartphone” story is one of good intentions, but it ultimately fell on its arse. Also, it was quite tricky to swap the SIM card from that Nokia phone to my iPhone, so eventually I gave it the boot. If there was a Nokia that made it super easy to swap SIM cards in and out of, then I’d probably have more luck. So texting and laziness got the better of me.

Also, I’m too busy to not have a smartphone. A smartphone means I don’t have to switch on my computer for internet and email, or plan ahead for day-to-day life, things like maps and booking reservations. It’s so darn easy on a smartphone. I have made an effort to read more books and try not to reach for the phone immediately. I try to pack a book if I’m traveling, so I don’t just sit staring at a phone. I’ve been having some success with that. Smartphones are certainly addictive devices that have invaded our lives and we’ve been willing addicts — everyone is glued to their screens now, it’s kind of sad.

I hope if I can teach my children to be disciplined with screen use they can get the benefits without the negatives. We only allow them to use iPads to do math homework. We used to give them iPads to keep them quiet on journeys, but it was only when we took them away that we realized how addicted they were. The trick is to give them something to do, so we always take pens, paper and books whenever we go traveling. The fact that Steve Jobs went on record to say he would basically never allow his kids to use screens/phone etc., says a lot about the value of life away from screens. Listen to Steve!

My friend was able to survive up until about a year ago with only a dumbphone, but WhatsApp was the death nail in his blissful lack of connectivity. In the end he was driving people mad that they couldn’t get in touch with him via WhatsApp and Facebook. We, as a society, have passed the point of no return in many ways.

I think, though, there’s a happy medium to be found. Basically, don’t download all the apps on your phone, mute everyone on social media and provide yourself with ample alternative sources of news and books. Switching to a dumbphone for a bit did make me think a lot about how much I was using my phone, so it was worth it because now I definitely use it less. I’m more proactive about changing my habits, things like taking a book with me, putting my smartphone in my pocket when I’m with friends or family or turning it to silent.

I can’t imagine life without it, so I need to learn how to live with it.