unplugged

I Spent a Week Living Without a Smartphone. It Was a Disaster

People say ditching your phone uncomplicates your life. So why does everything feel so difficult?
September 18, 2017, 7:00am
All photos by Yudistira Dillianzia

It was a typical night. I left the office and went home to play with my daughter before she fell asleep. My Xiaomi Mi4 was charging across the room. It too was sleepy after I spent all night draining the battery with YouTube videos and other bullshit. Then, suddenly, the air smelled like something was burning. I looked across the room at my smartphone and saw smoke pouring out of the charging port. The charger had dipped into the water of the baby's bottle warmer. It stopped working immediately.

I knew I was screwed. The phone wouldn't turn on, the charger was non-responsive, and, in Indonesia at least, it can take weeks for new parts to arrive from overseas. The panic started to set in. Maybe this seems a bit dramatic, but anyone who suddenly lost their phone knows the weird anxiety that comes from being disconnected without warning. I screamed a bit inside.

Then I remembered the old Nokia 1200 sitting in my closet. It was my Dad's old phone, a classic that still has the distinction of being one of the best-selling phones in the world. I touched the rubber buttons. They were squishy and nice, but a little brittle with age. I checked the battery and surprisingly, it was full. The Nokia was a far-stretch from the smartphone I subconsciously depended on all these years, but whatever, it was still a phone. It had to be good for something, right?

Maybe spending a week low-tech and unplugged would be good for me, I thought. After all, plenty of people who say we're all addicted to our smartphones extoll the virtues of switching back to a "dumb phone" for a while. Hell, someone even made a $295 USD "dumb phone," for rich people to unplug (which is probably the best scam out there). All this chatter has to be onto something right? Wrong.

I use my smartphone for more than just checking Facebook and watching YouTube. I use it to talk about work on Slack. I use it to order a cab or an ojek to get home. I message my family, my co-workers, the daycare staff where my daughter hangs out while my wife and I are at work.

There are times where I want to cut all technology loose and live like one of Kerouac's dharma bums—wandering Indonesia with little more than an old flannel shirt and a notebook. But living without a smartphone for a week taught me something important: in this modern world, unplugging doesn't make your life easier. It makes everything a lot harder.

Day 1

Challenge #1: Getting to work. My wife left for work before me, but since neither of us owns car or motorcycle, we both rely heavily on GO-JEK and Grab. Both of these require a smartphone, something I didn't think about until this morning. I could, theoretically, take the train, but the nearest station is more than 10 kilometers away.

I texted me wife and she ordered an ojek for me. I got to work late. But that was only the start of my hardship. I need to reach out to sources, schedule interviews, and send emails all day. Ever try to do all of this with a phone that can only send SMS? It's exhausting.

Day 2

Challenge #2: I feel so alone. It's easy to forget that our smartphones mean we are constantly in-touch with people. Between social media, WhatsApp groups, and email, my phone is constantly buzzing with new notifications all day.

Then, suddenly, it was all gone. The feeling of loneliness was weird. My phone wasn't a lifeline to other people, but everyone else's still was. So at lunch everyone was staring at their phones and I was stuck sitting there wondering why no one was talking to me. My co-workers had Instastories to post, significant others to WhatsApp, tweets to send. I had snake and a sneaking feeling that no one liked me. How long can I keep this snake from biting its own tail? What is infinity anyway? Is it a snake eating itself? Or is it a lunch sitting there alone?

Day 3

Challenge #3: Feeling busy. My smartphone was more than a lifeline. It was a constant connection to work. I can't even count the number of times I fell asleep, phone in hand, replying to emails in bed. But you can't do any of this on an old Nokia. The dumb phone makes you prioritize and compartmentalize your life. I responded to emails on my Macbook. I responded to DMs, well, never. And I think I actually had more time on my hands. This was the only time in my life I got excited when my editors assigned more work, because without a smartphone, how was I going to waste my time looking at something else?

Day 4

Challenge #4: Entertaining my daughter. Look, I know they say you're supposed to keep kids away from phones and tablets. But how? My four-month-old is already hooked on YouTube. She stares at the screen, watching the little duck animation, with such a content look in her eyes that it gets me through my most-tired days. The reality is that gadgets aren't always a bad parenting tool.

But without a smartphone, I had nothing to calm my daughter down. I was totally screwed. She spent the entire evening in tears. And I swear I can still hear her cries as I write this article.

Day 5

Challenge #5: Breaking the boredom. When your phone can't do anything you never take it out of your pocket. But sadly our phones are the way most of us fight boredom. So, needless to say, I was bored all the time.

Day 6

Challenge #6: Staying in touch. All of my contacts were stored in my Google Cloud. So I couldn't even call someone up to talk if they weren't saved directly to my SIM card. Who was on there? My family and some friends I haven't spoken to in years. In no time I saw my social circle shrinking and by day six it was just me, my colleagues at VICE, and my family.

Day 7

Challenge #7: Fixing my smartphone. By now I was way behind with my work. I spent every hour I could in front of a laptop just to maintain internet access. Eventually I couldn't take it anymore. I took my phone to a technician in Ragunan, South Jakarta, who told me my PCB was fried. Thankfully, it was a cheap Chinese knockoff, so the replacement parts only cost Rp 250,000 ($18 USD). Sometimes, it pays to buy cheap.

By the end of the day I had my phone back in my hand. It was like someone turned down the gravity. Seriously. I hope I never have to do that again. Some addictions aren't worth breaking.