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!!


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.


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.


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. 


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).


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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