One year without a smartphone, reviewed
From Jan. 2022 to Feb. 2023, I decided to live without a smartphone. What I learned is that it's not the phones themselves that are the problem.
When my son was almost three, his favorite thing to do was assemble his ever-growing collection of toys from the Cars cinematic universe and use them to reenact the first movie in its entirety. He always started out with a faithful rendition of the opening race for the Piston Cup, but as he moved into the film’s second act, he would quite literally lose the plot. But what his remakes lacked in verisimilitude, they made up for in purity of intention. If you have never watched a toddler manipulate toys with their chubby, uncoordinated fingers while using their inchoate imaginations to generate impossibly wholesome dialogue like, “Lightning McQueen, I’m going to help you because that’s what friends do!” — you should rectify this, even if it means creating your very own child right this instant.
And yet in January 2021, as I lie on the carpet of my son’s room — my attendance at these dramatizations was often demanded, on pain of tantrum — I was absolutely miserable. I had so lost control of my own inner monologue that I could, in an instant, go from basking in a child’s sense of play and wonder to becoming hostage to my own spiraling sense of dread.
Wow look at Hugo he’s so cute! He’s so smart and has so much potential! Whereas I have squandered my potential, and will be dead in mere decades, leaving behind no evidence that I ever existed.
This type of thought is a version of something that had been with me for as long as I could remember. But the difference was that instead of taking control of my brain for only an hour or two once every few months, these thoughts had slowly over the course of 2020 (did anything happen that year?) become my default setting. Even activities explicitly intended to be diversionary — like watching mid-aughts USA Network crime procedurals — would get me seriously bummed out.
Wow Tony Shahloub — what a talent! Whereas I will soon be dead, leaving behind no evidence that I ever existed.
Don’t worry. This this bit of oversharing has a) a happy ending, and b) a narrative purpose. Because when I tell you that when I got rid of my smartphone, it was not in my capacity as a snob who sees himself as too good for the miraculous technological diversions that bring delight to the masses — the 2023 version of the person who could never shut up about how they actually don’t even have a TV. When I decided to get rid of my smartphone, it was not because I saw myself as superior to anyone who loved their Android or their iPhone. It was because I was drowning, and the only thing I could think to do was get out of the water.