What I Learned from Deactivating the Internet on My Phone

I remember growing up watching reruns of the original Star Trek series with my dad. In the middle of all the space exploration, planet saving, alien-babe getting, and space cowboy-ing, it was the gadgets that got my attention the most. Computers that could run entire spaceships, engines that could travel faster than the speed of light, transporters that could move people from ships to planets in seconds, tricorders that could diagnose any medical issue, and of course, communicators which gave even the most petty of officers access to a wealth of information at the simple press of a button.

These were technologies that would only exist in space, the final frontier, and other science fiction worlds. The notion that we would ever have access to anything similar was outlandish, if not outright impossible. Through my late teens to early twenties, this skepticism seemed to be correct. My first “smartphone" took two minutes to download an email, five minutes to open a web page (and the form it turned into from translating from a full web page into a smaller version to fit the phone’s screen was so mangled it wasn’t even worth it). I’m sure if anything like Netflix, Spotify, or any other more data-heavy juggernauts existed in the day, my old phone would have melted in horror in trying to process all that information.

It all changed with the iPhone. Like a sleek monolith descending from the sky, we all flocked to it, with equal parts curiosity, wonder, and fear. It was clear from the moment that Apple dropped that revolutionary device into the world that we were entering an age from which we could never turn back. While interstellar travel is still a distant dream, and—as far as I know—nobody has used the term “beam me up Scotty” and been teleported to a ship orbiting above Earth, the advent of the iPhone, and all the other smartphones that have come along with it, have made a tiny slice of that seemingly impossible technology a reality.

Today, the list of things one can do on their smartphone is almost limitless. Off the top of my head, with ease, one can: take photos, order takeout, check their email, check into Facebook, tweet, upload a photo to Instagram, find true love, play Candy Crush, book a vacation across the world, check their bank balance, call a taxi, manage their retirement fund, video chat with a friend across the world, watch movies, and get directions. The list goes on . . . and on . . . and on! Not to mention, a person can also send text messages, or make a phone call.  

Having the ability in the palm of your hand to do all of these things is amazing, and nobody can argue that the smartphone is a powerful device, but at times, I wonder, does this power come at a cost? Does the ability to be constantly connected with so many facets of our lives have any negative impacts? In order to have instant gratification, are we sacrificing other things in turn?

I don’t know. At least, at the beginning of writing this article, I wasn’t sure. But to get a better understanding of my relationship with my smartphone, I deactivated the Internet from my phone for an entire weekend. You might ask, “Why the weekend?” First, because my week is so highly regimented between work and home, I didn’t feel there would be much room to “discover” anything out of this experiment on weekdays. Second, because keeping the Internet deactivated from my phone for that long seemed too long, and third, the weekend, being a more social period of time, gave me more opportunities to be social and to see how the lack of a smartphone would impact my social activities. I decided to deactivate the Internet but left myself the ability to send/receive text messages and make phone calls. This was an experiment on how I related to my smartphone, not an experiment in turning into a hermit for an entire weekend over the summer. 

The experiment began at 3:34 p.m. on a Thursday (sorry, I only work Monday through Thursday—breathe, take it in, let’s move on). A co-worker of mine and I were enjoying an afternoon beer and discussing our plans for the summer as well as our overall plans and trajectories of our lives. I told him about my plan to “dumb” down my phone for the weekend, and this led to a discussion about occasionally changing our routines in order to have a better understanding of what impact these routines have on our lives. With that, I decided halfway through my beer was as good a time as any to jump into the abyss. My phone became dumb.

The first sensation was what I would imagine it feels like when a kid rides their bike without training wheels for the first time. I had been so used to something always being there, and now it was gone. While I was in no mortal danger, the sense of that thing being gone was alien and new. I put my phone away and figured I’d have at least until the evening to witness any real effects of my experiment. Well, I suppose scientists would say that experiments usually don’t go as planned.

Sent you one more email     

I received this text message from someone very important to me. While there was nothing in the text message (or in the emails that proceeded the new one awaiting me) that led me to believe it was in any way time sensitive, I knew that if I had access to it I would have wanted read it immediately.      

Without having read the email, I knew that it would have been a day turner. I would have read it, and whether or not I felt like dwelling on it with my friend sitting across from me, the content of the email would have descended on my head like a lead weight. While some part of me said, Psst, Noah, It’s OK, nobody knows you started this experiment—just go read the email and then start over, I didn’t read the email. The truth was, I was relieved. Not having access to that email kept me more in the moment and more connected to the friend I was with.

Now seems as good a time as any to discuss some of the other parameters for this experiment. One, to ensure that I had no slip-ups during the weekend, I deactivated the Wi-Fi from my phone. Now, I know you’re thinking, but Noah, you’d only have access to your Wi-Fi at home, and at home, couldn’t you just use your computer instead of your phone? What’s the point of keeping yourself from using the Wi-Fi on your phone at home? My answer to you is simple: while I could use the Wi-Fi on my phone at home, the goal of this experiment was to see and understand the entire impact of completely removing the Internet function from my phone for the weekend. The other parameter I wish to make clear is that I didn’t abstain from using the Internet entirely. Getting online via my laptop was completely admissible during the weekend.

Let’s fast-forward a few hours to Thursday night. I returned home from meeting my friend and a long day of teaching and physical therapy. I was looking forward to a nice shower. It was one of those occasions when I knew exactly what music I wanted to listen to. I didn’t own said piece of music, but it was OK, I could access it on Spotify! Problem! No Internet via phone equaled no Spotify! I put on another album that I had on my phone. No major loss, but it was the first time this experiment turned its back on me in a way I hadn’t considered.

Let’s fast-forward again to a few minutes later. I was done with said shower—I listened to Exile on Main Street if you must know—and was ready to meditate before going about my evening. I admit to being a total novice with the quiet art, so I was trying out an app on my phone. I click on the app, and immediately I read: Must have an Internet connection for this function to work. Again, something I could work around, but an inconvenience I wasn’t expecting all the same. 

Friday morning, I wake up. I will totally admit that I am one of those people who as soon as they wake up, they go through the phone cycle. I check if I received any text messages through the night, check my email, Facebook, and some of the news sites that I read. This all happens before I even get out of bed for that morning pee. I pick up my phone, get ready to begin said cycle, and then it hit me. I couldn’t! It felt strange to skip this part of my morning routine that was so . . . routine. Instead of reaching for my laptop—where I could have done any of the things I would have done on my phone—I picked up one of the books I’ve been reading instead and dove in first thing in the morning. Sure, I would have eventually got to reading, but there was something about not delaying it by an hour or so by going through my “cycle” that made it more pleasurable. Oh yeah, I also peed as soon as I woke up, instead of delaying that as well!

So I read. Now, granted, this is reading I would have done at some point over the weekend anyway, but there’s a certain satisfaction from reading so early in the day because a lot of how that time and space is usually occupied was off limits. At some point of my reading, I was inclined to make a Facebook post about the book. While if I had my phone handy, I would have done it in an instant, the fact that the convenience was off limits, kept me from bothering with the post. While it wasn’t anything important, it was a feeling/thought/sensation/etc. that under normal circumstances, I would have wanted to share. While this frustrated me at first, eventually there was a comfort that came out of not being able to express things so readily through the Internet. Throughout the day, as I saw friends, I gushed, and I gushed hard, over said book in person.    

Friday, for the most part, continued without incident. Before going out I needed to go onto my computer to check my bank balance, nothing major. There was a near miss when late in the evening some friends and I went to a bar in one of the few parts of the city I’m not familiar with. As we walked from one bar to the next, you better believe I mentally traced a map because I knew there was a good chance I’d be finding my way back on my own. As luck would have it, I left the bar with some of my friends and this potential crisis never came to fruition, but I was prepared to not be prepared!

Both Saturday and Sunday came and went without any major moments when I found myself missing the access I’ve been so accustomed to for years.

Surprisingly, my weekend with my dumb phone came and went without any major incidences. Going into it, I assumed that at some point I would have broken down and reactivated the Internet on my phone, just to be awash in all of those glorious notifications and what have yous, or by Sunday night, I’d be so zen about my decision that I’d find a way to downgrade my phone to the dumbest phone available. Somewhere in between those expectations, I also thought not having a smartphone would somehow make me a more social person. That when out with friends, I’d see them fiddle with their Facebook, tweet their tweets, and so on, I’d somehow have ascended to a level beyond those needs, and it would be reflected in my dumb phone. Really, in my curiosity to see how smartphones have impacted our lives, I was most interested in seeing how they impact the ways in which we relate to each other. To better understand how they change our social rhythms and cadences.

As the weekend went on, the relationship between myself, my phone, and my general habits began to change. I stopped thinking about my phone. I’d be in one room reading, cooking, or watching TV, and my phone would be off somewhere else, living its own life. I enjoyed the feeling of having some distance from my phone, and in that, distance from a world when it feels like we are always connected, and maybe more so than we need to be. Sure, I still checked out Facebook, read my email, and perused the news sites I usually do on my phone, but it all felt different. I was no longer passively doing those things while doing something else. They became conscious decisions and actions. I checked my email, once a day; I checked my news outlets, once a day; I checked Facebook, once a day. I found over time, my relationship with social media changed because the device that has so habitually been the gateway to social media access was out of commission. While at first I would get annoyed that I couldn’t post about something I was reading, or share a picture of an amazing breakfast I cooked for myself, I found those moments more fulfilling. Somehow, not being able to share those moments instantly, made them more impactful.

Of course, these positives came with a cost. It was the silly, and most trivial things that made me annoyed at not being able to use my phone in the ways I was used to doing in the past. Need to check a recipe before going shopping? Get on the computer. Need to find out if this product is appropriate for cleaning your yoga mat? Get on the computer. Need to confirm a location before leaving for a party?  Get on the computer. The silver lining in this is that I became more conscientious of things I needed to do on the computer, and so I’d assign myself short computer sessions. In doing so, I probably spent overall significantly less time on the Internet over the course of the weekend because I made it a point to do what I needed to do and get back to my life.

The most interesting thing I learned in my weekend with a dumb phone wasn’t how this downgrade made me relate to other people, but how it changed my habits when I was by myself. When I was out with friends, it didn’t matter whether my phone was dumb, smart, or even a genius. Nobody around me would have known about this social experiment unless I mentioned it. But when I was by myself, my choice to have a dumb phone really set in. When I read, I was only reading, when I watched TV, I only watched TV. When I made a delicious meal, I had to thrust leftovers on roommates instead of making my Facebook friends salivate over my work.

I wonder if what I learned about myself over this weekend (and feel free to ponder this question in your own life) has more to do with my level comfort in being alone, or ability to enjoy the quieter moments in life. Is it possible that after so many years of living in close quarters and so much saturation of social media and general connectivity, it’s more difficult to be OK with truly being alone? Sure, I’ll own that. 

Do I think that ultimately the smartphone is a great invention? Of course! Nobody can deny their impact around the world and in so many facets of our lives. All the same, I invite you to consider disconnecting that phone from time to time. Maybe just while catching up with a friend over a drink, or dinner with a loved one after they’ve had a particularly tough day at work, or for a weekend, or even longer! What I lost in convenience over the weekend, I gained back in quiet. I lost the urge to check this, update that, share that other thing. The less I had those urges, the more connected I felt to everything I did in each immediate moment. That quiet is valuable I think, and I hope you’ll find some time in your life to try it out as well.