I’m Alive, I Promise!

Hello wonderful people! The past few weeks have gone by in a blur, with hardly any time to send you updates about my Not-So-
Smartphone challenge. I didn’t mean to abandon you!

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For almost all of July, I have been teaching a condensed summer course. The class met for 5 hours per day, 5 days per week, for 3 weeks. During the day, I would spend all my time teaching and getting ready to teach. When I finished teaching at 4, I would go home, eat dinner, then get right back to work planning the next day’s lecture and teaching material. I’d fall into bed around 1:00 in the morning, wake up at 6:00, and do it all over again. After the first week, I was exhausted. And the thought of having to do it for another 2 weeks?!?! Well, I was not a happy camper.

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But, luckily, the 3 weeks passed quickly. How could they not when you’re working 15 hour days? The weekends were also busy. Between an out-of-town family wedding and a multi-day volunteering event, even my Saturdays and Sundays were full. July 27 was my first ‘free day’ this month, and I pretty much slept all day.

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Yea yea yea, quit your blabbering and tell us about the challenge, already!!

Okay okay! Keep your pants on! As you know, this month’s challenge was to go without my smartphone, which gave me constant and immediate access to a whole host of addictive and distracting information. The challenge was given to me by my friend Chelsea, who wanted me to look at my habit of being constantly “connected” through my phone. I put “connected” in quotes because the connections I practiced were virtual, not actual. My phone was always within reaching distance, so that I could Google, Facebook, text, Shazam, Tumblr, and surf at any given moment. For July, I had to give all that up. I turned off my iPhone’s cellular data, disabled the wifi, and disabled text messages. Like the other challenges, the first few days were easy. Things didn’t start getting difficult until about 2 weeks in, when I desperately wanted to text instead of call and ran into a few situations where it would have been supremely easier to Google on the fly. Unfortunately, I ended up cheating twice, and both times were when I did not have access to a computer and I needed to call people who’s phone numbers were emailed to me. And as much as these cheats may be justifiable, I still felt guilty about it.

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So here it is: the good, the bad, and the ugly from July’s Not-So-Smartphone challenge. 

THE GOOD

By far, the positive lessons and habits from this challenge outweigh the negative ones. One of the most liberating parts of the challenge is stopping the “zombie phone.” By this I am referring to the mindless phone usage that occurs before I go to bed and again after I wake up. This kind of screen time was ridiculous. I would stay awake for an extra 40 minutes at night before putting my phone down to go to sleep. Then I’d spend another 40 minutes lying in bed the following morning after I woke up. I rarely did anything useful, most of the time I was just zoning out. Since starting the challenge, I have loved giving up the “zombie phone.” Before bed, I’ll read a book for a few minutes before turning out the light. And a few minutes is all I can manage because I get sleepy more quickly. Browsing your phone doesn’t have this same drowsy-ing effect because the blue light from the screen simulates daytime! You’re actually keeping yourself AWAKE by browsing before bed. So since the challenge started, I am delighted that I am falling asleep more quickly and ALSO waking up more quickly. I sleep better during the night and feel more rested in the morning, even when I only get 5-6 hours of sleep. I also take less time in the morning to get ready because I’m not wasting precious minutes on mindless screen time. Having more time to sleep was also a perk of the No Make-up Challenge. So, apparently…

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Another positive side-effect is that I interact differently with my environment without a phone. While standing in line, waiting for a coffee order, or eating alone in public, I would normally be on my phone, filling every single second with some kind of activity. But for July, I’ve been content to just ‘be’ in that space without using my phone as a buffer. At first I was uncomfortable with this. I wanted to be distracted. I didn’t want to be bored. I didn’t want to look weird. But eventually I accepted that I didn’t have to be bored in these moments – I could immerse myself in thought or spend the time observing my environment. This invariably led to scrupulous people watching, through which I noticed that I was  usually the only person who wasn’t looking at their phone. These days, everyone is so immersed in their devices, even when they’re together. This month, I have enjoyed the time I spent just existing somewhere, without the compulsion to reach for my phone for comfort and distraction from the “real world.” Why do we want to be distracted from the real world anyway?? When you really take in all the details of your surroundings – from the colors to the textures, from the sounds to the sights, from the pace of the people to the rhythm of your own breath – you realize there’s plenty to keep you happy, occupied, and phone-free.

Finally, just as Chelsea intended, I tempered my constant need for immediate information. After about a week, I lost the urge to compulsively depend on information. Instead of Googling anything that crossed my mind, I just thought about it or asked other people. I always got answers for what I really wanted to know, eventually. Instead of looking things up on my Maps app at the slightest inkling that there would be traffic or that I might be a little lost, I just went with it. I always got where I needed to go, eventually. Instead of wondering what people were up to and instantly checking Facebook, I just called people or waited until I was at a computer to check Facebook. I always connected to the people I wanted to connect with, eventually. What I’ve learned is that, in terms of information, I will get what I need eventually. And in the mean time, I have become much more patient about that process.

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THE BAD

I miss texting!! I don’t miss texting instead of calling, especially if I have more than just a quick message. I definitely don’t miss text conversations. These days, I’d rather have a spoken conversation than a text conversation. I miss texting the most basic, mundane things to people. To tell them I’m on my way or ask if they found a parking spot. I miss exchanging little bits of information through text. The problem with exchanging these little bits of information is that they can easily become whole conversations if you’re not paying attention. But for a quick, “Be there in 5,” texting is so much easier! After July, I do think I’ll text less. If I find myself having a text-based conversation, I will just call the person. However, I am looking forward to being able to text basic bits of information when appropriate.

I also miss accessing music. During July, I’ve been using my old iPod for music rather than streaming Spotify on my phone. The cool part is that I’ve reconnected with old songs and artists that I’d all but forgotten about. But one of my hobbies is discovering new bands and artists that I’ve never heard before. Without my phone to stream music, I haven’t been able to practice that hobby as much. I never knew how much I took that access to music for granted, but now that I’ve gone without it I definitely appreciate it more.

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I have also had a bitter-sweet connection to Facebook during this month. On one hand, I am happy to have put some distance between my normal life and ‘the Book’. Sometimes I find Facebook to be so pointless and tiresome, so I was happy to have limited access to it for a while. On the other hand, I also thoroughly enjoy finding interesting articles that my friends post. Also, many of my friends and family communicate with me through Facebook, either by writing on my timeline or sending me messages. Feeling like I was disconnected from or had delayed access to that communication was a bummer. All in all, I think I’m walking away from the Not-So-Smartphone challenge with a resolution to use Facebook purely as a way to communicate and share with people I care about, and stop using it as a way to kill time or seek ‘likes’ (which is really just a 21st century form of narcissism).

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THE UGLY

I have had to accept the fact that I just suck at voicemail. I sucked at voicemail before smartphones were even invented, and I still suck at it. Here’s a guarantee: if you leave me a voicemail, it will take me at least 2 days to check it and another 4 days to call you back. I don’t know why I am so bad at voicemail! I think its probably a combination of laziness and flawed cognitive reasoning. It’s as if I think that anything super important will translate into multiple phone calls, so why check a silly voicemail? Remember, I said flawed cognitive reasoningI know it irks my friends and family, especially when they tried to contact me by phone during July. I did try to be better at voicemail this month, but it was a pathetic attempt.

Finally, I didn’t realize how much I use my phone when I’m…um…in the bathroom. My phone was my companion for those minutes spent doing my business, and without it I found myself reading shampoo bottles, tampon boxes, just about anything to pass the time. Suddenly those pre-smartphone toilet-side books made a lot more sense to me. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with this new-found information, but at least I acknowledge that I need some form of distraction during those “special moments.”

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So, after almost a month without a smartphone, here are the changes I’d like to make to my phone use habits:

  • Don’t start back up with the zombie phone. Let my phone charge away from my bed so that I’m not tempted to browse, but close enough to use it as an alarm to wake up in the morning. Don’t zombie phone in the morning, either. Instead, fall asleep and wake up with a book.
  • Avoid using my phone as an escape or distraction. Instead, consciously try to exist without a phone. Use it when necessary, but not as a buffer between myself and the world around me.
  • Be patient when it comes to accessing information. Don’t reach for the phone whenever it’s convenient. Sit with the desire for information for a little while before resorting to my phone for gratification.
  • Text when it is most convenient, but not as a way of replacing spoken conversations
  •  Access music and Facebook consciously and with purpose
  • Try keeping my phone in my purse or in another room while at home. I don’t need to have it out all the time.

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Thank you so much for reading through this (admittedly long) post! I promise never to abandon you like that again! This month’s challenge has been so great, and I’m sorry I didn’t share it with you until now.

But stay tuned, because August’s challenge is coming up, and you won’t want to miss it.

Next month, we’ll all be feeling a little out of control!

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Not-So-Smartphone July is HAPPENING!

I feel like June’s No Makeup challenge was AMAZING. And this next challenge is sure to throw off my routine. This month, I’ll be dumbing-down my smartphone and only using it to make voice calls. No texting. No internet. No apps. No camera. Nada!!

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In order for this challenge to make sense, I need to give it some context. I was pretty late to the smartphone party. I didn’t get my first ‘smart’ phone until we were a few months shy of 2012. Before that I had one of those super-handy flip-phones that was always reliable, never broke, and had a battery that would last for DAYS! I loved that little flip-phone.

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Honestly, I avoided getting a smartphone for a long time. I just knew that after I had a smartphone, I would never be able to go back to not having a smartphone. The decision felt too permanent for me, and at the time I really liked having my life compartmentalized – my computer was for the internet and email, my phone was for calling and texts, my maps were for directions…you get the idea.

But I eventually took the plunge and got my first smartphone. At first, I was amazed. I could check my email on the bus! ON THE BUS!! At the time I was also dating a pretty tech-savvy dude, so he had me utilizing all my phone’s best features within a few weeks. In hardly any time at all, I was a widget-making, app-downloading, swipe keyboard-typing, voice-commanding queen.

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With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, I can see that having a smartphone really has altered my behavior.

  • Whenever I have a question about ANYTHING, I immediately reach for my phone to Google it. If I’m around others, I might ask them what I’m curious about, but even if they know how to answer my question, I’ll still Google it.
  • I text WAY more with a smartphone, probably because my keyboard is so much faster than with a flip-phone (remember that incessant ‘click-click-clicking’?). My texting has almost replaced my phone calling; seriously, I’ll type a mini novella to someone before I actually call them and speak to  them with my actual voice.
  • My use of social media has  increased. It’s so easy to access Facebook from anywhere, so the end result is posting/liking/checking in/hashtagging/commenting WAY more frequently.
  • Its easier not to plan ahead with a smartphone. With Google Maps and Yelp, who actually needs to take the time to sit down and plan their evening? Just tap and go. I used to enjoy planning ahead – looking at maps to get a lay of the streets, looking at all the options of where to go and what is nearby. But I just don’t do that as often now.
  • I’m permanently tethered to work. Seriously, I can never escape my email. You’d think having my email in the palm of my hand would make me better about responding to it, but somehow it doesn’t.
  • I take photos of dumb things. Things that don’t matter. Thing’s that I’ll never look at again. Things that probably no one will care about and that I’ll probably not even remember after a day. But I can take pictures of them, so I do.
  • I go full-on zombie mode with my smartphone. When I’m watching TV and want to zone out even MORE than I already am, I’ll grab my phone. When I go to bed at night, I’ll spend a solid 40 minutes messing around on my phone. When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I reach for is my phone. I use my phone when I’m barely conscious, just because it’s there and I can. 

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So how does all of this translate into a no smartphone challenge? This month’s challenge is coming from my friend Chelsea, whom I would describe as a person that is critical and curious about the role of technology in interpersonal interaction and communication. Chelsea is a master of the written word and an extremely empathetic communicator. She’s the kind of person that you know really listens when you talk with her. She is very observant of those around her and picks up on their personal styles quite easily. Chelsea noticed early on that I had an obsessive relationship with Google, and more specifically, that I craved constant information. She also observed that having immediate, instantaneous access to all human knowledge via my smartphone meant that it was never further than an arm’s length of my body. So when I asked Chelsea to come up with a challenge for my blog, she knew immediately that I should investigate my own relationship with information and technology, and that I should try to put some space between me and cyberspace. We had to have a couple of discussions to get the parameters of the challenge just right – she initially did not want me to use the internet to get information, which would be virtually impossible for me since I am constantly looking for research- and teaching-related material (not to mention it would KILL me). We finally settled on the not-so-smartphone challenge, and we both agreed that it would be a worthwhile adventure (though I did have my trepidations).

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Here is my interview with Chelsea, where we discussed the motivations, rules, and goals of this month’s Not-So-Smartphone challenge. Take a look:

Erica: Your challenge for July is to refrain from using my smartphone for anything other than phone calls, and basically treating my phone as a 2001 cell phone. Can you tell me about your motivations for this challenge?

Chelsea: Well I do have a smartphone, but I don’t use it nearly as often as most people use theirs.  As a result, I’m more inclined to notice and be interested in peoples’ relationships to their smartphones–similar to how Elisa was interested in your relationship to makeup because she didn’t wear it, and so noticed the differences in how it affected your lifestyles.  So, I’m interested in your observation and analysis on how we as a community and you as an individual use this specific technology to relate to the world around us.  How does it mediate how we relate to our environment?  How and why do we rely on it to synthesize our experiences of the world around us?  I’m also curious about the issue of immediacy–immediate access to people and entertainment and information–and how this has molded the way you live your life.

Erica: That’s really interesting because since you first suggested the challenge I have started paying attention to how I use my phone, and it’s crazy that it is almost attached to me at all times. It’s within arm’s reach of me most of the time during the day, and it sleeps next to me at night. Like you said before, it’s like an additional appendage! 

Chelsea: Right! 

Erica: I’ve also noticed that I multitask with it A LOT. Like, I’ll be watching TV and be on my phone. Rather than watching TV OR be on my phone. 

Chelsea: I think that’s the immediacy I was talking about.  The access you have to people and information has formed these habits wherein you are regularly doing more than one thing at one and dividing your focus.  In addition, I think people in general move from one thing to another more quickly because of this.  I mean, this whole idea started because I was amused at how many times in the course of a conversation or activity you picked up your phone to look for an answer to something.  I think you and I have come to agree that access to information is not a bad thing, but I do think it’s worth studying how easily and willingly we flit from question to question to activity (facilitated by our phone) and don’t really meditate on any one thing unless we set out with that intention.  

Erica: So true. And the thing that stands out to me is how RECENT this is in terms of our society. Since the mid-20th century, I think our society has been moving towards a culture of immediate gratification. As technological advancements improved and new devices were invented, we could to more things faster. But instead of creating more free time (as many hoped) they have actually led to a compression of time. We fill our ‘free time’ with other stuff. And the advancement of this ‘efficiency’ technology has increased exponentially in the last 15 years. I think the smartphone is a pinnacle of not just technology, but also how our use of technology is connected to time – we literally have the sum of human knowledge available in the palm of our hand, and we can access it instantaneously. And while that is amazing and important, I think it absolutely affects the way we act, the way we relate to others, the way we interact with our physical environment, and the way we understand ourselves. And it just started happening 10 years ago!!

Chelsea: Very true.  And yet even those of us who grew up in a world not yet overrun with technology have in part lost the ability to be a “human being” and not a “human doing” as a result…I’ve heard this phrase tossed around a lot lately, and I think it indicates a sad truth about how technology has affected our habits, interactions, motivations, ambitions, values, and (in my particular relevant experience) psychological makeup. I don’t think technology is solely to blame, but it has clearly shaped a cultural context.

Erica: Definitely. And what is unique about our particular place in history is that we have actually come of age during this shift. Unlike our parents, we were young enough when this mobile, personal technology took root that it substantially shaped our behavior from an early age. But unlike our (future) children, the fact that we witnessed this transition means that we won’t interpret it as an inevitable fact of life. 

Chelsea: Right. We have the unique ability to reflect on the differences it presents.

Erica: Exactly. Okay, so, what are the rules for the challenge?

Chelsea: You can use your iphone as a cell phone ONLY.  It can be portable, so it can go with you wherever you want to take it.  But you cannot use it for anything other than receiving or making calls.  You can continue to use your computer as you do, and you can use your ipod for music.  I don’t believe that these mitigate the meaning of the challenge, as you really aren’t doing anything you wouldn’t have been able to do 15-20 years ago.  The devices just look different.  And as we’ve discussed, I don’t want to interfere with your work.  You can have no access to applications on your phone or your ipod if you also have apps there.  We have agreed that once per day you may check for incoming text messages, and then respond to them via phone call only.  You may use Facebook and email via your computer to communicate with people.

Erica: So, just to clarify, we decided that I would turn OFF my cellular data and wi-fi so that I couldn’t access the internet. This will prevent people with iphones from sending me text messages, however, people with android phones will still be able to text me. So, when someone texts me and I CAN see the text, I will call them back and verbally tell them that I won’t be texting for the month of July. Is that okay?

Chelsea: Yes.

Erica: Okay, last question…. what are you hoping I’ll gain from this challenge? 

Chelsea: I’m going to itemize them:

1) I hope you discover a sense of autonomy from your phone.

2) I hope you derive confidence from your ability to problem solve and communicate without relying on your smartphone capabilities.  It takes courage to call someone and speak voice to voice in real time!

3) I hope you feel liberated in not needing or wanting your phone on hand at all times to help or entertain.

4) As a result, I hope you are able to experience more moments of contentment in being and not doing.

5) I hope you will find that you turn to people or yourself for connection and engagement rather than interacting with your phone.

6) I hope you become more deliberate in how you communicate and gather information.  In the loss of immediacy, perhaps you will make lists about the things you want to know and answers you want to gain, and meditate on them throughout the day until you can get to your computer, rather than getting those answers right away and not giving yourself a chance to figure it out yourself, brainstorm, discuss with other people, or ask someone else who may know (and in doing so forge a connection!)

7) Finally, perhaps stripping away this wealth of technology (just a little) will make you appreciate more the technology you may take for granted.  I know you already have a deep appreciation for the access to and wealth of knowledge available in today’s techno-world.  But, for example, will you be reawakened to the miracle of the telephone?  It is so commonplace now, but how incredible is it that you can talk to someone anywhere in the world in mere seconds, in real time, hear their voice and language and cadence–all using technology that is relatively simple and archaic compared to today’s technology?!

Erica: So true! I’m excited to get started!

Chelsea: Oh, and as a bonus, I kind of hope this has a trickle effect and affects how the people in your life interact with you (aside from the obvious, of course).

Erica: Oh, I don’t doubt that it will! It will definitely have a ripple effect.

So there it is! For July, I’ll be refraining from using my phone for anything except voice calling. I’m fearful that people in my life are going to stop talking to me, and I’m not looking forward to the “inconvenience” of actually having to TALK to people. But as soon as I remind myself that having people in your life to talk to is a BLESSING, not an “inconvenience,” I immediately feel better. It’s only been two days, and I’m already noticing a difference. Over the next month, I hope I can learn all the lessons Chelsea so carefully laid out for me. But mostly, I hope I don’t go crazy!

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