Five years ago, people asked me why I didn't have a cellphone. They thought I'd passed some kind of judgment, which, at the time, was not an unreasonable assumption. Grim intellectual hand-wringing over our devices had gone mainstream. Books like Nicholas Carr's The Shallows and Sherry Turkle's Alone Together cautioned that the internet was making us scatterbrained and withdrawn, incapable of living "in the moment." My phonelessness was usually mistaken for tacit agreement with their theses.
That's not me, I would explain. (It still isn't.) I just don't want a cellphone, the same way some people don't want a gaming system. Gadgets have never been my thing, and I'm something of a minimalist — acoustic guitar over electric, jogging over biking. As friends and family continued to acquire phones I failed to see a phone's place in my life, in the same way that I never felt attracted to Facebook and see no reason to monitor myself with a Fitbit. Eventually, having no phone, like my absence from Facebook, began to provoke curiosity, and I'll admit that I've enjoyed feeling like a bit of a rebel without having to take any risks.
But these preferences have nothing to do with living in the moment or being deep. As I see it, history warns against scapegoating modernity for timeless problems. Starting with Socrates — a guy who thought the written word was bad for your brain — Luddites have been needlessly conservative about what it means to think deeply and live well. Not having a phone won't make you better, smarter, or longer-lived. It's like waking up early: Founding Fathers and faulty science aside, there's no good reason to be holier-than-thou about it.
I experience my own life as perfectly normal — hassle-free, fully modern, and no more virtuous than anyone else's
But recently people have started asking me a different question — not why, but how do I live without a phone? It's as if they've met a monk or a child, lost and wandering in the big city. How do I find my way? What about my job, my wife, our 3-year-old daughter, Hazel? Smartphones, it seems, have gone from accessories to necessities, from sunglasses to shoes. Only monks leave home without them. And, as with monks and children, people are romanticizing my phone-free life. I wish I could do that, says one of my students. Good for you, says the incredulous restaurant host.
This is bizarre to me, since I experience my own life as perfectly normal — hassle-free, fully modern, and no more virtuous than anyone else's. There are moments that throw my choice into sharp relief, but not the emergencies or inconveniences that people imagine. Rather, the airplane pilot makes an announcement, the subway doors open, and poof! — all around me smartphones bloom in perfect unison, a fleeting garden in which I am oddly barren.
Then the moment passes, and my decidedly un-monkish day resumes as professor, journalist, husband, father. I check email regularly at home and at work, meet people in agreed-upon locations at scheduled times, pick up my daughter from school, ask my wife about her day during dinner, watch Game of Thrones on Amazon, play a video game, scroll through Twitter. I catch planes without a hitch, get picked up when I arrive no problem, conduct interviews on Skype or my office line. How do I live without a phone? It's hard for me to answer, like it might be if you asked non-coffee drinkers how they live without coffee. "Just like you do," they'd reply, confused, "but minus the coffee."
This is important. It means that for an average person like me, a phone is far from indispensable, even in situations that appear to demand one. I'm rarely lost, for instance, and never for long. I look up directions at home and memorize them or write them down. Occasionally I ask strangers to guide me. On long road trips I use a dedicated Garmin, which I would need even if I had a cellphone, in areas that don't get a good signal.
Then there's texting, which is not a way I communicate. I'll admit this inconveniences members of my morning running group who have to email me separately with updates. (The genius of smartphones is how they magnify such tiny inconveniences into massive setbacks.) But overall I'm not impressed with texting's efficiency. Instead of going back and forth countless times to work out a location and a time to meet, I prefer a short phone call, made ahead of time, live.
There are those, I know, who prefer texting to talking. That's fine, as long as everyone remains aware that texting, like owning a phone, is a preference, not an objectively better way to communicate. The same is true for those who say that texting allows them to stay in touch. I prefer to hear my wife's thoughts and experiences in person, not piecemeal, in texts, during the day. (Bonus: People can't text me to say they're running late, and I can't text them either, which I find makes for timelier meetings.)
As for photographs, my iPod touch takes beautiful ones, and I bring it whenever I anticipate an event worth recording. (With wifi I can also use it to check email in a surprising number of public places.) For very special occasions or a beautiful scenic hike, I'll take my digital camera. Between the two I end up with a seemingly endless number of photographs, and it's hard for me to imagine wanting more. What would I do with them? I can barely justify the ones I've got, given how long they take to organize and how infrequently I revisit them.
Perhaps the most common reason people give for having a phone is safety. But here, too, I'm confused. If safety is really a concern, why do nearly half of all Americans text and drive? Personally I feel safer without a blinking, buzzing distraction. And others are safer too, since distracted driving kills more than 3,000 people per year and injures 400,000 more. (Texting is apparently the worst, but using phones to navigate is also a risk.)
For the vast majority of us there is no empirical foundation to the idea of phones as essential to our security. That myth depends on something psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky call the "availability heuristic." Our minds focus on unusual, dramatic possibilities: the broken-down car on a dark and lonely highway; a health emergency where immediate contact is essential. But in reality those scenarios are extremely rare — rarer, no doubt, than accidents while texting or muggers preying on distracted phone users. Focusing on them leads to biased assessment of risk, which, in turn, contributes to a biased assessment of smartphones' utility.
I'm convinced that the necessity and advantageousness of phones is an illusion
And of course, let's not forget that despite the perks, phones have serious downsides. At least, that's what I gather from the explosion of concern about their use, more often than not from owners themselves. Popular phone addiction apps now allow you to check your phone to see whether you check your phone too much. There are nearly as many phone detoxes as juice cleanses. Experts have even coined a term for phone separation anxiety — nomophobia — and some propose including it in the DSM. That's hardly surprising: The 68 percent of Americans who own smartphones (up a staggering 33 percent over only five years) check them an average of 221 times daily.
My friends confirm the existence of nomophobia. Some of it, they say, comes from the thought of facing big fears — criminals and car breakdowns — without a phone. But I've also been told about subtler anxieties, over "wasted" events that might go unphotographed, uncommunicated, unquantified, as if reality depended on digitization. There's even a pathological aversion to plain old boredom. What if a few minutes waiting for a friend becomes insufferably dull? As one person put it to me: "I mostly use my phone to avoid being alone with my thoughts."
None of this is meant to suggest that phones are bad for you. Owning one, like owning a video game system, has benefits and drawbacks, and I'm convinced there's no clear advantage to being phoneless. It certainly isn't the magical key to wisdom and happiness — trust me on that one — and a substantial minority of people require them to do their job or survive abroad. (I owned my one cellphone in 1999, while living in Spain for a year after high school.)
Nevertheless, I'm also convinced that the necessity and advantageousness of phones is an illusion. I know, firsthand, that living without one doesn't mean constant inefficiency or imminent danger. Whatever time I lose asking strangers to reorient me, I gain back from not spending 4.7 hours per day on my phone. If my friends are running late I may occasionally get bored, but there's also something nice about being alone with my thoughts. Perhaps I did waste $10 at Best Buy because I didn't comparison shop on Amazon; that's nothing compared to spending well over $1,000 a year on an iPhone, not to mention the extra purchases it probably facilitates. It's true that I can't check restaurants on Yelp while wandering a new city, but between instinct and a hotel concierge I do pretty well — and end up in places I might not otherwise visit.
How do I live without a phone? The question, I believe, is inspired by false premises: that life lived with a phone is more convenient, more fulfilling, easier, better; that closeness in marriage might genuinely depend on texting your spouse; that without access to Facebook, friendships will wither. It invokes a strange, pessimistic vision of reality, of broken-down cars and looming health emergencies, unfamiliar streets and unfriendly strangers, all confronted alone. In this terrifying fantasy, the phone becomes an indispensable talisman of safety. But it is just that, a talisman, no more effective at warding off imagined evils than a rabbit's foot or a security blanket.
True, in the absence of pay phones you have to borrow phones once in a while. (These days, establishments and acquaintances are usually more than happy to help out. No phone? Cool! Good for you.) Occasionally you'll be forced to depend on courage, resourcefulness, improvisation, and the kindness of others, and sometimes you'll be waiting around, alone with your thoughts. But these are minor inconveniences — if they are inconveniences at all — not devastating deal-breakers.
If you're suffering from nomophobia or feel uneasy about your phone habit; if, like my students, you want to go without, just give it a try. You'll find, I think, that nightmare scenarios fail to materialize, that reality doesn't depend on digital documentation nor relationships on texting. That is, your choice won't turn you into a monk — just another perfectly normal person, like me, living life without a phone.
Alan Levinovitz is assistant professor of religion at James Madison University in Virginia, where he lives with his wife and daughter. He is the author of The Gluten Lie and writes regularly on the intersection of religion, philosophy, and science. Follow him @alanlevinovitz.