Living with a dumb phone in a smartphone world — a commentary by Jen Gibb

Coffeehouses in Europe were traditionally places that people could meet and discuss politics and other matters. It may have even been the place where the first Encyclopedia was born. But when I was at a coffee shop in LA last weekend, I didn’t feel like there was very much discussion going on.

Two of my friends were with me, and sometimes we can have really good discussions, but here we were, sipping our drinks together, me watching them on their phones—scrolling. Maybe it was Facebook. Maybe Instagram. I wouldn’t know because it’s a little awkward to lean across the table, peer at their screen, and ask, “What are you looking at?”

One of the girls asked me which filter I preferred for a picture she had taken of us at the coffee shop. I gave her my opinion, but I knew that even then it would be a long process to the actual posting of the picture. It’s a very complicated process choosing which edited picture to post, what caption to write, and what hashtags to use.

I took out my own phone, not really knowing what else to do. It’s a very old kind of flip phone, but having to wait every few words I write for the screen to catch up with my typing isn’t too annoying. I opened my messages and scrolled through a few that I had read already. Nothing had changed since the last time I read it. There wasn’t anything else for me to do on my phone so I just took out a book and started reading, which is what I would do if I was alone anyway.

In a world where the Internet connects people no matter where they are, there is a new kind of loneliness. It’s a feeling that’s coupled with the desire to be noticed and appreciated and affirmed. If a person is going on an adventure or having a good time on their own, it should be enough to be alone, but for some reason, it’s not nearly as fun if you can’t tell people about it. When you post a picture on Instagram or update your Facebook status, you can find the affirmation you so desire with the “likes” that people give you. This helps counteract the loneliness but doesn’t prevent it.

This is a malady that affects everyone. If you feel the need to share your good times with other people for affirmation, that’s a sign of loneliness in and of itself. But if you are one of the 20% of 18-34-year-olds that, according to Forbes, doesn’t own a smart phone, then your loneliness comes on a different level. You want to be where you are when you are there. You want to make the most of the moment. But none of the people you are with want to do that with you. They want to share the moment with the world. The world without smartphones has many benefits: fewer distractions, coffeehouses where people actually talk to each other, and the lack of a need to please people that aren’t with you. But we’re not living in that world any more. It’s a nice dream, but an unrealistic one.

Although it’s possible to live without a smartphone now, it leaves you very disconnected. Instagram just isn’t practical for people with dumb phones. And while everyone else is sharing games and apps with each other, you with the dumb phone are playing the demo version of Tetris alone. And when a moment gets awkward or quiet, everyone else escapes to their phones and pretends to be doing something important on it. There’s no way to pretend that you’re doing anything important on a dumb phone because there’s nothing to do on a dumb phone. But what smartphone activities are actually important enough to justify the amount of time spent using one? They are fewer than you would think; because any time spent with anyone is better than the time taken away from that moment posting about it on Instagram.

By Jen Gibb

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