How can I take my life back from my phone?

Cover for The Luddite's Guide to Technology

Is there someplace in the world that does not have Internet?
-A prolific poster on Twitter

The π‘Ίπ’Šπ’π’Šπ’„π’π’ Rule

In The π‘Ίπ’Šπ’π’Šπ’„π’π’ Rule, I suggested that a good rule of thumb is to ask, “What do Silicon Valley technology executives choose for their children?” And Steve Jobs, for instance, did not have a nerd’s paradise for his kids. He had walls with big bookshelves and animated discussions. They hadn’t seen an iPad when it first entered the limelight. And employees of technology company chose what might seem some remarkably strict rules, because they didn’t buy into the mystique of hot gadgets. They knew better.

In Bridge to Terebithia, the author introduces Leslie as privileged with a capital P. The biggest cue is quite possibly not that money is not the issue, but that her family does not own a television. Today that character might also be introduced as not having a smartphone, for several reasons.

People know on several levels that Facebook and smartphones suck the life out of their users. That’s old news. This page is about an alternative.

How I tamed my iPhone

I have what might be called a Holy Grail of iPhone usage. I carry my iPhone but I rule it and it does not rule me. It is often at hand, but I have domineered it well enough that I don’t compulsively check it. I get almost all of the practical benefits with none of the hidden price tags.

How?

Prequel: How I tamed television

Before I became a strict iPhone user, I was a slightly relaxed television non-user. I grew up with limited television, one hour per day during the schoolyear and two hours during summer vacation, and I read Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Show Business and the more book-like Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, and also books like Stephen Covey’s First Things First. And I slowly checked out the rest of the way from television. And as an older child and later a young man, I had the vibrancy one associates with an unhindered imagination: the days before television, or something that as might as well be the days before television:

In the days before television

The irony of the Far Side cartoon is that time before television sucked the life out of everything was much more vibrant, not a family huddled around a vacant spot by a wall.

Prequel: Weston A. Price diet

I’m not specifically interested in converting people to Western A. Price or Paleo diets beyond saying that it is my opinion that your body’s engine merits pure premium fuel, but I wanted to comment on something very specific about Nourishing Traditions. As one friend pointed out, some of the ways food is produced are really gross; most vegetable oils besides olive, avocado, and coconut oils have to be extracted under conditions that goes rancid immediately, like popped popcorn, and are then made yellow and clear and not smelling bad by chemical wizardry, or the artificial phenomenon of getting four gallons of milk from a cow per day and then manipulations to make 2% milk (“No significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rbST-treated and non-rbST-treated cows except for the additional ingredients of blood and pus.“). It overall builds a sense of “This is really gross and unfit for human consumption,” and that’s good.

It is worth your while to read books about how, for instance, standard smartphone use is reprogramming our brains to be bowls of tapioca. I gave, and meant, five stars to Jean-Claude Larchet’s The New Media Epidemic: The Undermining of Society, Family, and Our Own Soul. My own title in the same vein is The Luddite’s Guide to Technology.

Now on to my iPhone

I check my iPhone at intervals: once per hour, or perhaps once per day. That breaks the spine of constant checking, at least eventually. My phone has three games, all of them for my little nephews, and I’ve come to dodge showing them games on my smartphone, because when I show them a real, physical toy, they can wait turns and share, while smartphone games are addictive enough that when I take out my phone and let them play with it, squabbles consistently follow. In good spirit, when they wanted to play pinball games on my phone, I deleted the pinball game and then made a crude pinball machine out of some leftover wood, nails, rubber bands, large ball bearings, and a plastic pipe. They were initially disappointed, but when they had some time to play with it, they began to be imaginative in a way I have never seen with a smartphone video game.

Returning to my smartphone, I use it for utilitarian purposes, including making bottom-liner use of Facebook and Twitter. Bottom-liner use of Facebook can be constructed, but having it fill the hours is depressing to anyone.

Specific suggestions for iPhone and Android smartphones

On this point I would say that there are few things you must do, but many things you might do. Probably the single best advice I know is to work with an Orthodox priest who is comfortable freeing you from your chains to technology. Good advice is to make a small change to start, and then slowly but steadily build up until what you have in place is working for you.

I would also underscore that these are suggestions, that some people have found helpful. I do not use all the rules others have found helpful, and I’ve found benefit in getting stricter with myself as time has passed. However, you don’t owe a duty to make all of these your own.

  1. Learn from Humane Tech. Humane Tech is a movement to mitigate some of turning people’s brains to tapioca, and it is well worth attending. I don’t believe they go far enough; I believe that Orthodox ascesis and fasting provide a good backbone, but knowing which apps make you happy and which apps make you sad is at very least a good start. Three Humane Tech pages you should know about include the following:

    • The homepage, for general orientation.

    • Take control. This gives many concrete suggestions. I’ve thought about all of them and implemented some of them.

    • Familiarize yourself with app ratings. All apps are not created equal in terms of their effect on how you feel. If you want to get your head out of your apps, this is another page I would at least recommend familiarizing yourself with.

  2. Make a conscious adult decision about what you carry. I would recommend choosing between three primary options:

    • Keep a smartphone, but be sure that you are the one in charge. This is the option I go with, but only after not carrying a cell phone when they were becoming common, and have less plugged in days of only checking email once per day. I do more frequent usage, and think that checking it once per hour is also a good baseline, but I only check things more frequently when I have a specific logistical reason. The strongest reason for this may be less the inner logic of dominating your technology, than smartphones being socially mandated.

    • Don’t carry a smartphone. Kings, Emperors, Popes and Patriarchs before the twentieth century lived in great luxury without having any kind of phone access, ever. They weren’t deprived. You most likely don’t need it.

    • Carry alternate gear. What about, instead of carrying a smartphone, you carry a standalone GPS, an old-school handset that only does talk and text with a numeric keypad, a paper planner or a small paper pad for your scheduling, todo, and scratchpad use, and maybe a book or Kindle? That sounds like a lot, but it fits nicely, with room to spare, in my favorite messenger bag. Admittedly these things are not the same convergence device, but it really may be possible to carry everything you want without difficulty. And by the way, their not including social media isn’t a defect; it’s a feature.

  3. Read The New Media Epidemic: The Undermining of Society, Family, and Our Own Soul, and The Luddite’s Guide to Technology. Pay close attention to the rules in The New Media Epidemic as taken from Silicon Valley tech Moms and Dads. Chapter 13 is rich in practical application, mentions a #1 rule of no phones in bedrooms ever, and “Alex Constantinople… said her youngest son, who is 5, is never allowed to use gadgets during the week, and her older children, 10 to 13, are only allowed 30 minutes a day on school nights.” Not an absolutely different rule from what my parents had for me. Other aspects covered include having the network’s router shut off outside of a certain window of time.

  4. Take an attitude of “Everything is permitted… maybe, but not everything is beneficial.” We are tempted to try to get the most use out of our investment, when a better use might be more sparing. As far as TV goes, I have sought out to see one Simpsons episode in the past five or so years. Somewhere along the way, I stopped seeing as much television as I was allowed. Don’t use as much as you will let yourself use, and recognize that the most beneficial uses are sometimes the ones with the lightest touch. A smartphone in “Do Not Disturb” mode is just as much capable of calling 911 in a bad situation as any other cell phone.

  5. Have an attitude of having a life outside of online activity. When I grew up, I was taught to cast a line with a fishing rod. I didn’t end up catching much of anything, but my father taught me the basics, face-to-face, with a genuine fishing rod. Young people today are far more likely to learn to cast a line with the accelerometer on a smartphone, and that was a deprivation. I did my studies through travelling to campuses face-to-face even if I used email as well. This is a human baseline that is a survival from the Middle Ages, for that matter a survival from the animal world where young wolves are not handed tools necessarily but are taught how to interact with their environment to hunt, face-to-face with other wolves. And I would suggest that traveling to a college campus and also using some email is a pretty good baseline for technology use. And in relation to this, we have:

  6. Take up a hobby and give smartphones some competition. It can be hard to just pull back from habitual technology use. It is somewhat easier, even if it is not really easy, to pull back from the draw of technology and engage in something else, such as candle making. Having a constructive hobby can be very helpful as something else to do instead.

    Meetup groups and other local organizations can be great.

  7. Use your phone for a purpose, and never to treat boredom. A practice of reaching for your phone when you need it to do something, and not much else, can be great. Your phone can be genuinely nice when you use it to contact an acquaintance by any means, or to order a pair of shoes. It’s a trap when you use it to just pass time or make boredom easier to deal with. The most miserable use of Facebook, for instance, is when you’re always on.

  8. Use older technologies and fast from technologies. Fasting from technologies is explored in The Luddite’s Guide to Technology, and while it may not be possible, there are times where you can make a phone call instead of sending an email, or drive to see someone face-to-face instead of making a phone call. In general, using older space-conquering technologies instead of newer space-conquering technologies can uncover a forgotten richness. Some have had days of no electricity. A Lead Pencil Society day here and there can produce just a little freedom, or even just write a single hand-written, lead-pencil letter to a loved one, or perhaps buy a single, paper book instead of an ebook.

  9. Treat porn as a real danger, and get help whenever you need it. Porn is the disenchantment of the entire universe; it is our day’s biggest attack on men; it is preparation for committing rape. Take things to a father confessor; use a support group; use xxxchurch.

  10. Don’t look at your phone as a treasure from a magic world. A phone can feel exotic until you’re already hooked, but I think of people in the second world where a smartphone may seem a relic from the wonderland of the first world. In fact the U.S. may have more seeking of escape than Uganda. In fact material treasure may be found much more easily in the U.S.—and with it spiritual poverty. I believe that smartphones have uses, but as an experience they are not really helpful if you’re an American, and not really helpful if you’re a Ugandan friend. There are uses, and you can read ebooks for instance, which is really sweet. However, being sucked into a phone is not really a helpful way of using it. On those grounds I would advise friends both in the U.S. and Uganda to use phones, maybe, but know that God has placed people around you, and a person is infinitely better than a smartphone. Enjoy the real treasures!

All of this may seem like a lot, but it is very simple at heart:

Start walking on the path and put one foot in front of the other.

That is all you need.

Read more of The Luddite’s Guide to Technology on Amazon!

Author: C.J.S. Hayward

C.J.S. Hayward is an Orthodox author and Renaissance man with master's degrees bridging math and computers (UIUC) and theology and philosophy (Cambridge). His most prized work is what he writes in Eastern Orthodox, Christian theology and apologetics. Readers of apologists like C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton and Peter Kreeft, contemporary Orthodox authors such as Met. KALLISTOS Ware, and classic authors like St. John Chrysostom will find much food for spiritual reflection.