Dumbing down and disconnecting

I mostly remember 1997 through a nationalist haze of Cool Britannia, it was the year that Princess Diana died, Tony Blair became Prime Minister and the UK won Eurovision.
Looking back, it was also the year that I first became connected.
At the time, I was working away from home a lot for long periods and I decided to splash out on a mobile phone to stay in touch with people. I got a cheap, analogue brick. A Nokia rinGo. It couldn’t send SMS messages, it didn’t even have an internal phonebook meaning that I had to carry a notepad of phone numbers around with me.
Actually, scratch that. It was at a time when I still remembered peoples phone numbers.

Carrying a mobile around was liberating. Do you ever remember arranging to meet someone in town, them not turning up after you waited for an hour, then coming home to find a note by the telephone saying “Dave called. He isn’t going to make it”?
I loved the spontaneity and the freedom, soon everyone started carrying a mobile.
I had the first mobile with a colour screen, the first phone with WAP internet. Then smartphones happened and everything changed again. Subtly at first, being able to check your email or the weather. Then being able to Google that song lyric that was floating around in the back of your skull, just out of reach, like an ice-cream headache.
Then came the apps, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter. The device in your pocket now accesses the internet more than your PC or laptop. The way that we access information has also changed, our habits shaped by the devices that we carry.
We watch Vines and browse Facebook statuses because it’s quick, the perfect way to pass the time whilst queuing or avoiding eye contact with a charity mugger etc.
There’s been a backlash of course, now some people are worrying that we’re becoming too disconnected from the world because of our smartphones. Type the word dumbphone into a search engine and you’ll find a whole bunch of smug, self-congratulatory articles written by hipsters and tech-journalists, chronicling their spiritual journey of ditching their iPhone and bravely carving out a new life of ‘appreciating the little moments’ with a Nokia 5110 in hand. ‘Going retro’ is also more non-conformist and a way of showing your individuality amidst everyones yadda yadda yadda, blah blah blah…

It is with a heavy heart that I glance past my keyboard at the little plastic flip-phone charging on my desk, waiting to be used.
A flip phone that can be used for calls and texts only. A phone that advertises a calculator and calendar as features.
A dumbphone.

Samsung E1270

Let me be clear, I am not trying to reclaim my humanity and connect with the assorted mouth-breathers, drunks and nutters at the local bus stop. I’m not trying to curb a Facebook addiction or making a statement about increased lack of privacy and the way that we voluntarily give up our personal data in exchange for an easier online experience.
I’m just drained.

Our brains have been rewired by our ‘always on, always connected experience’, jonesing for the quick and easy dopamine hit that comes from being able to check social media or email in an instant. That reward system has trained our behaviour to constantly check for updates, even at the cost of stress and cognitive impairment.

I’m not built to multi-task, I’ll leave that to my computer. Instead, I have a constant, vaguely-realised feeling of unease all those moments that I’m not scrolling through a Twitter newsfeed or Zite article. I’m constantly checking my email, whilst simultaneously hoping that I don’t have an email that I’ll actually have to respond to.
I while away bus journeys searching a never-ending stream of trivia, “Who was the name of that song?” “How many films have Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro made together?” that doesn’t enrich or enlighten me. But if my battery is low and I try not to use my phone so that it lasts until I get home (you know, in case I get that earth-shatteringly important phone call just as I’m on 1% battery) I find that I become restless and twitchy.
Random thoughts occur to me, “Were Rod, Jane and Freddy married to each other…?” my fingers fly automatically to my phone, then I restrain myself.
A beat passes, then “Why do our fingers go wrinkly in the bath?” and I reach for my phone again without thinking.

I don’t need to know any of this stuff, I don’t even really want to. But the fact that I can has me reaching for the answers before I’ve even really thought about it.
Worse, I’m afraid of missing something. I can’t sleep without checking one last time what’s trending on Twitter or reading the news headlines. Even once I’ve finally surrendered the phone to the charger socket on the wall and laid down for the night it’s still right there, my clock, my alarm.
And it’s draining me. It’s dividing my attention and concentration to the point that even though I’m writing this post on a PC, I’m still checking my phone for updates at the same time.

The other day I realised that I have trouble concentrating when reading books. That I don’t read as often as I used to anymore. I realised that being always on, always connected was working against me, stressing me out and making me less happy and less focussed.

So here we are, a phone that cost less than a tenner on a Pay As You Go deal for £1 a week, and me. Not a life-affirming social experiment or an elitist article about going ‘off grid’. In fact, I imagine that this will suck to an impressive degree. The reason that everyone uses smartphones isn’t because of an unthinking herd mentality, it’s because they’re really useful. But not, I’m hoping, essential. I hope so, because I want my brain back!


UPDATE: 26/06/15

Well, I’ve been using my little, wee flip-phone for over a month now and I honestly love it.
I love the fact that I can charge it for an hour and it’ll last for over 3 weeks before needing to be charged again. I especially love the peace and quiet that I have now, I’m still available if someone needs to call me but I’m not at the mercy of every email, WhatsApp message or Snapchat.
The tariff that I’m on costs £1 a week on the EE network so, compared to my previous contract of £23 per month, £4 a month on PAYG is great.
A few things that I’ve noticed:

  • Unnecessary communication has been cut down a lot., I’m from a generation that use phones to actually phone people anyway and texting on a numeric keypad is carpal tunnel syndrome just waiting to happen, so I tend to call people when I need to get in touch with them.
  • My phone doesn’t start Google Now whenever an ‘OK Google’ advert plays on TV.
  • I have an appalling sense of direction so now, without GPS, I just get lost. A lot. I’m looking to move house soon so I’m viewing lots of properties in areas that I’m not familiar with… I take an adult with me.
  • EE doesn’t allow tweeting by SMS. A shame since that’s what Twitter was built for, so the one social network I thought I’d still be able to use on a dumbphone is out.