Why I’ve Never Wanted or Owned a Smartphone

Apr 29, 2024 | Culture, Margaret's Musings

It’s January 9, 2007. Our youngest son is skateboarding with a friend in our basement because the driveway is covered in snow. Our 13 year old daughter is in ballet class working on her pirouettes with bun head girls who will become her lifelong friends. Our high school son is outside running with his track team in minus ten degrees with his track team. None of us heard the announcement that day that Apple would launch the iPhone later in the year. We were carrying on conversations during dinner and heading upstairs at night to read books, talk about homework and listen to them practice piano. No one was scrolling or “rotting” under their bed covers, ignoring each other and taking in their 435th Tiktok video of the night.

By June that year the first iPhone released and the world and our family changed forever. Instead of saying, “You’ve got to read this,” our kids routinely stuck a phone in front of each other insisting, “You’ve got to see this video.” Our sons were confronted with touch of the finger accessible pornography. Our daughter sat with us around the winter fire with her phone tucked into the cushion of her chair, surreptitiously scrolling and hoping we didn’t notice. When I went to lunch with my friends to celebrate a birthday, they sat in the restaurant with their phones on the table, receiving the constant ding of family text messages. Snapchat. Facebook. Instagram… all took up residence in blue jean back pockets, car pools and even designated “family nights” with their irresistible, cotton-candy sparkle of faces, personal “stories” and things to buy.

It’s 17 years later and I’m on a flight to San Antonio. The woman next to me is ripping through a combination of three hand-held devices while also attempting to watch a movie on the seat in front of her. I’m reading the manuscript of a fellow writer’s soon-to-be published book of poetry for first time moms. As we taxi to the gate I put my computer away and take out my Kyocera flip phone, for the first time in two hours. The obsessed tech woman next to me yells, “What is that? Is that a flip phone? I didn’t know those still existed.” I hand it to her and she exclaims, “This is incredible! Don’t you have an iphone?” I explain that as a writer the overwhelming amount of content on a smartphone is so distracting that if I had one I’d spend my whole life scrolling and reading Substack and never write anything. She blinks her one inch false eyelashes in awe. The twenty-something woman behind us overhears and says, “Yeah, I get it. A study just came out that Gen Zers* want a landline with a cord because they think talking in one place and twirling a cord sounds cool.” Two rows back from her, another Gen Z gal chimes in, “My friends and I are deleting so much from our phones now. We want to spend more time with our friends. Sometimes we go out and just leave them at home.” Within a six row diameter everyone is listening or participating in this conversation, practically bowing to me as I grab my single bag and exit. Okay, not bowing, but they let me out first so they could stare down this curious luddite who has lived 17 years without a smartphone.

I confess there is one time that I’ve missed having a smartphone and that is when we got rid of our Nissan Juke and it’s gps. Navigating strange cities by an atlas tucked into the back seat pocket is a difficult when you’re driving, especially at night. Sometimes you even need to pull over and ask an actual person for directions. The benefit is that I still have what is called, “a sense of direction.” Our daughter cannot drive anywhere without the gps talking to her. When I tell her how to get somewhere that I’ve been a million times she says, “You don’t need to tell me how to get there, we have a gps.” Basic human knowledge or even wisdom gets you nowhere when every facet of life is checked via a smartphone. This brings me to the real reason why I’ve never wanted a smartphone and that reason is real presence.

Real: actually existing, not imitation or artificial, according to the Oxford Dictionary. I’ve always despised fake ornamental plants. They require nothing of us and they give us nothing in return, besides a thick layer of dust on every leaf. Gardening gives us the smell of the earth, the tactile experience of working our hands into soil and waiting (here’s the kicker) waiting for a result. When we eat a carrot or tomato that we’ve grown we engage all of our senses with a process greater than us. We submit to photosythesis, respiration and transpiration. There is no immediate gratification in gardening. Experiencing creation and committing ourselves to a creative process is the opposite of scrolling a smartphone. Try and sit on an airplane, take out a piece of paper and write something creative by forming letters or draw something. When you land, you have a created work with the possibility of contributing to the beauty of our world or a loved one’s heart. Hopefully, you also nourished yourself, in real time. And real time is something we have little of. According to author Chris Bailey, when you subtract the time the average American spends, sleeping, eating, drinking, working and doing chores you have only 17.5 years to do something else with your precious life of an expected 79.3 years. Yes, basically the same amount of time the Smartphone has existed.

Presence: Mindfulness guru and Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh said, “The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence.” He was not talking about our attention divided by a zillion pixels while sharing a meal. He was talking about listening to others in a way that respects their personal dignity as a created human being. Can we listen and participate without our own agenda involved, without our family members’ needs distracting us, or our professional job experience directing our thoughts? What if you stuck your smartphone in a drawer and spent one day interacting with people by paying attention to how often your mind wanders into territory that isn’t about them and what they are saying? Catch yourself and redirect your mind to focus on the other person and their needs. Ask questions and try to get in sync with them. Meet them with active listening, compassion and empathy. You can’t look at your phone for one second while they’re talking because you left it at home. The gift of our true and real presence is a sacred trust, a trust that if we are treating it like a gift, we are willing to give away. Smartphones have spent the last 17 years disintegrating that trust.

As an extrovert, I derive kinetic energy from being with other people. I love walking into a room where I don’t know a soul and talking to a stranger. People fuel my life, but I also need time alone to think, write, reflect, walk in the woods and listen to what the God of the universe might be saying to me. To listen to the trees. To sing with the bees. To ponder. To create. Catholic doctrine teaches that the real presence of Jesus is present in the communion elements. I’m not Catholic, but I believe real presence is more valuable than ever in our lonely, isolated by technology, life in a box culture. Living a real and present life for the sake of oneself and others is a rich and fertile field to cultivate in the remaining 17.5 years you may have to live fully alive.

* It’s not actually a study but rather an article in the New York Post, Feb. 16, 2024

Margaret Ann Philbrick is the author of the forthcoming novel, House of Honor – The Heist of Caravaggio’s Nativity. Besides writing novels, she spends her time photographing nature and writing poetry which you can discover at https://www.instagram.com/seasonedpoetess/
or www.margaretphilbrick.com