here is something wrong with my phone, and it is not just that the predictive text feature thinks I’m obsessed with ducks. The real problem is that my phone is the first thing I look at in the morning, and the last thing I look at at night. I come running when it makes a “ding” noise. I think in tweets and look at meals and people and imagine them cropped into squares on Instagram. There is something mentally totalitarian about it.
Smartphones are designed to addict us – nagging us with notifications, disrupting us with noise, making themselves indispensable. Social media apps harness neuroscience to the same end, triggering dopamine hits that lock us into them for hours. A terrifying new book, How to Break Up With Your Phone, says we are rewiring our brains so they are less organised for deep thought; killing our attention span, destroying our memory, sleep and happiness. Phones have changed the world, too; advertisers use them to hoover up our attention. We are no longer just consumers, but product. As Ramsay Brown, co-founder of app-designers Dopamine Labs, has said: “You get to use [Facebook] for free, because your eyeballs are what’s being sold there.”
The book aims to help us put our phones away. It is a 30-day plan starting with baby steps, such as buying an alarm clock, then progressing to auto-text responses, changing the screen to greyscale, and then – help! – an invitation to mindfulness. Due to my diminished attention span and craving for sensation, I’d prefer a single step, such as “throw your phone at a closed window” or “put it in the microwave” – as long as I could film it on my phone. I have tried some of the changes. I keep my phone in another room while working. I don’t cycle through a sequence of apps when I do pick it up, forgetting why I’m doing so. I now reply to messages once a day, like an 18th-century gentleman catching up on correspondence at his desk of a morning – except I do it in the bath, eating Maltesers, at night. The difference is huge. I’m reading more, I’m more able to string a sentence – hey, what’s that film where Keanu Reeves plays a Québécois goalie?
I’m also bored. Reducing my smartphone use underlines what was great about it in the first place. The ability to wormhole away from the static walls of my home and work. To connect to anyone. There is no way the people I drink with on Friday can compare to anyone. And it’s not as if mental peace awaits as soon as I set down the glowing Distract-Oblong. It’s impossible to reclaim the thoughts I want without including the ones I don’t – anxious, intrusive thoughts that are always waiting. Breaking up with my phone means accepting the tortuous, paradoxical timeline of lived experience: how a day can drag on for a year, and 10 years can vanish overnight.
But I’m doing it anyway. Putting down a smartphone is no less revolutionary than picking it up was. The best thing breaking up with my phone has given me is time. Time in which to be understimulated, or anxious. Time to stop being pulled in a hundred directions, envying the lives of others, and giving away my eyeballs for free.
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