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Why I Do Not Own A Cell Phone
You probably don’t need one either
You probably don’t need one either
Update: This article is now also available in Dutch.
Steve Jobs changed the world, but he didn’t really make it better.
I don’t know anyone who’s happier and healthier and more whole now that we live in the age of addictive social media, push notifications, hardcore porn, hookup culture, bingey streamers, algorithmic trading, fast food delivery, surveillance capitalism, and a 24/7 news cycle that keeps our digital nervous system in a constant state of fight or flight.
My wife and I once backpacked through all seven Central American countries over five months. We decided to take the 100 Things Challenge and simplify our lives for the trip. My Blackberry didn’t make the cut. We had such a good time being cell-free in Costa Rica and Mexico and the Belizian islands that when we got home we decided to not re-activate until we truly needed to.
That was ten years ago, and I still haven’t turned it back on.
Since then, I’ve traveled to 40 countries (including North Korea and the Vatican), produced four films, published four books, written hundreds of articles, road-tripped 100,000 miles through 48 states and 10 Canadian provinces, and spoken in 300+ cities. None of it required the help of the big tech billionaires and their “life-changing” technology.
I love not owning a cell phone. Most people don’t actually need a phone to experience a flourishing human life. In fact, I’m here to say that you, like me, almost certainly don’t need a phone either — I strongly believe your life will be far better without one.
Because an honest cost-benefit analysis says it’s not worth it for at least fourteen reasons:
Phones cost time
When I went through my bank records and actually added up all the phone purchases, activation fees, monthly plans, long-distance rates, roaming charges, upgrades, usage overages, early termination fees, hidden fees, and accessories, my total expenditure was almost $6,000 in less than four years.
And don’t forget, this is after-tax money. Money that takes hundreds of hours to earn. As I intentionally tried to create a margin of time in my life, I realized that my phone wasn’t saving me more time than it was costing me.
Phones are highly distracting
Sadly, for the vast majority of users, phones have become a toxic, anxiety-inducing, privacy-eroding, sleep-robbing, work-distracting, ad-blitzing, time-devouring wormhole to nowhere.
Americans spend over five hours per day on their phones, checking them 58 times. And let’s not pretend this is productive time: Millennials text 48 minutes per day. Facebook’s 1.4 billion daily active users log an average of 58 minutes apiece. Add in all the other social media platforms, plus Youtube and the streamers, plus porn and hooky meme sites, and pretty soon you realize that we should call phones what they really are:
So distracting, in fact, that it’s shortening attention spans, diminishing the user’s ability to truly focus and do deep work.
Even worse, phones keep us from being. Instead of visiting a beautiful place and beholding it, contemplating its history, significance, and meaning, we simply document the false moment, broadcast it to others, and await their feedback. Instead of being moment-makers, we’re mere picture-takers.
Phones are deeply addictive
Having interviewed neurosurgeons while making a documentary on pornography, I have a strong understanding of how truly addictive phones have become.
One brain surgeon told us about how researchers put shiny and bedazzled eggs inside a bird’s nest, and pretty soon, the bird ignored her real eggs. Screens are like bedazzled eggs to humans; we always ignore reality for the shiny digital alternative. It’s why porn is replacing sex. It’s why travel photos on Instagram look better than the real thing. It’s why your avocado toast never looks as pretty as a food blogger’s.
And it’s why you can’t leave home without your phone.
Phones create extremists
Have you noticed that the algorithms that rule the Internet are channeling us all toward extremist viewpoints and identities?
We’ve got extremists on the right who believe in QAnon.
We’ve got extremists on the left who believe whiteness is a disease.
We’ve got extremists who are hardcore anti-vaxxers.
We’ve got extremists who are “free” market capitalists.
We’ve got vegans and carnivores.
We’ve got rabid Bitcoin evangelists.
We’ve got science-deniers on both extremes.
The reason phones are extremist-creating devices is because big tech algorithms are designed to send people spiraling down deeply lucrative click-holes. Once the bots figure out which stream you belong in, they want to make you a true believer, because cult followers are wildly profitable.
Phones are a means of surveillance and control
Yes, of course, they are listening to your every word.
Big Tech and Big Government are building files on everyone, tracking our movements, monitoring our spending, and understanding our habits and motivations. As The Social Dilemma exposed, these algorithms already know us better than our own partners.
While Western countries haven’t started using this growing trove of data to directly control and coerce their citizens like some countries in the East, expect them to start doing so in the future.
Phones manipulate our behavior
What is the smartphone’s primary commercial purpose?
It isn’t a trick question.
Based on total revenues, the answer is clearly to serve advertisements. The phone’s secondary commercial purpose is to sell apps. Its tertiary commercial purpose is to get you to upgrade your phone every few years. But primarily, the smartphone is an ad-delivery device. That’s how the FAANGs became trillion-dollar companies.
The reality is that all tools use us.
A hammer cannot hit a nail without using a human.
A saw cannot cut a board without using a human.
Phones disconnect us from reality
I took a month-long publishing course at Oxford a few years ago, and on our last evening, a bunch of us went out for drinks. As I marched in the direction of a pub, one of the women looked up from the Google Map on her phone. “How do you know where you’re going?”
I realized that most of my classmates, who’d just spent a month in one of the most glorious cities on earth, were completely lost without their phones. By contrast, I know my way around most major European cities — I can step off the plane at Gatwick or Heathrow and find my way to nearly any corner of London, or Edinburgh, Paris, Berlin, or even Jerusalem. I know these places.
Phones kill babies (kidding not kidding)
Cell phones radiate your baby-making parts.
According to Tim Ferriss’s book The 4-Hour Body, the quality and quantity of your potential offspring diminishes by 10–40% if you carry a phone in your pants.
Beware the nethers-zapping pocket robot.
Phones injure our bodies
Phones are seriously compromising the long-term health of our necks, shoulders, backs, wrists, eyes, and especially our brains.
And we’re raising a generation of cross-eyed, carpal-tunneled, craned-neck, sedentary kids. My great-grandfather could carry a Cessna engine and once lifted the back end of a car in his fifties. Our great-grandchildren will be lucky if they can lift a sandwich to the mouth-hole below their VR headset.
Homo sapiens simply and clearly aren’t physically adapted to be on phones all day.
Phones make us accessible
They say that “scarcity breeds desire,” but I’m teetering somewhere between After Earth and Oblivion. I’m okay with it; I like to play hard-to-get.
Because not having a phone and not being 24/7 accessible allows me to really focus on my priority projects: writing books and films and loving my wife and friends and enjoying nature, instead of getting into online arguments about the magnetic powers of Covid vaccines.
Read Cal Newport’s Deep Work.
Phones keep us from real relationships
It drives my wife crazy when she’s chatting with a friend and they say, “I’m listening” while they check their Twitter feed. She usually walks out of the room to see if they even notice.
If I had a phone, my marriage would be in far worse shape. Because I’m easily prone to distraction, and the digital world is almost always more interesting than the physical present. But my wife deserves my truly undistracted attention.
Plus, I can’t count how many relationships I’ve had to real-life repair after a taken-out-of-context digital communique.
And as much as I’d love to live-cast my life via highly-filtered Instagram photos (my wife and I live the “seaside literary life,” after all), we much prefer late-night conversations with real friends around a real fire.
Phones hurt people
You’ve probably heard about blood phones. Cell phones contain coltan and other conflict minerals, and when your wife is African-born, it strikes close to home. I learned that many of my western purchases are hurting people overseas — cell phones included — and I had to choose between my comfort and what I say I believe. People matter more than convenience.
Phones re-orient our loves
Phones make us selfish. Instead of looking out toward others, phones are all about us. They entertain us, pacify us, educate us. They place us at the center of the world. They acclimate us to instant gratification. Phones make us passive consumers instead of active contributors.
As one reader recently emailed me:
I gave up my cell phone over a year ago. As my life got fuller and richer, I became increasingly sad for all the people who felt sorry for me, seemed angry at me, or acted as if I’m asking them to follow. I knew that if I tried my own “experiments in truth”, as Gandhi called his disciplines, I would look crazy pretty quickly, but could go in the opposite direction of the crazy me-me-me consumer world.
Phones aren’t a real need
People own cars and cell phones and drink coffee because that’s what humans do, right? The way I see it, if previous generations were able to beat the Nazis and build skyscrapers and put a man on the moon — all without the use of an iPhone — we, too, can make it through.
We need to be brutally honest: Cell phones aren’t a real need. They’re a potentially highly useful convenience and a highly addictive piece of control technology.
The science is clear: Homo sapiens do not require screen technology to survive and thrive. In fact, I am certain we’d all be far better off with fewer screens in our lives. We’re simply not adapted for digital devices — not physically, mentally, emotionally, or relationally.
But I need it for work!
Then get your company to buy you a work phone that you can use at work and leave locked in your office at night. (Most people have never tracked how truly little productive time is actually spent on a phone.)
“But an iPhone is like a computer and watch and GPS combined!”
So what? All those things still exist.
But how do you stay in contact with people?
Skype, Zoom, Facebook Messenger, email. But the beauty is that when I’m offline, I’m offline. Totally undistracted and present in the moment. Please leave a voicemail at the beep.
What about emergencies?
Real emergencies almost never happen and people seriously overestimate their prevalence. There have only been three occasions in the past ten years where a phone would’ve come in handy (all three were car-related), but we simply did what people did for a century before phones — we flagged down a car or tow truck in about two minutes. And don’t forget: everyone else now owns a phone, and people generally have enough goodwill to help out others in need.
How do you stay up-to-date and informed?
We still have the Internet, but I believe that society’s news addiction is deeply problematic. As I wrote in an article on kicking your tech addiction, the reality is that today’s commercial news is just opinion + commentary. You don’t need either thing pinging your brain all day.
How would I even read Jared A. Brock’s Medium articles?!
As several commenters have pointed out, they can’t even fathom the idea that it’s possible to read this very article on anything but a phone. It’s almost like they’ve forgotten computers and tablets exist or have lost the utter pleasure of purchasing a physical magazine and spending an afternoon in its glorious pages at a beach or park.
There are, of course, many more reasons why I don’t own a phone:
They eliminate presentness.
They replace memory.
They serve as a surrogate for real understanding.
They impede maturity.
They mediate and separate.
They are deeply dehumanizing.
Choose your challenge
When people discover I don’t own a phone, many of them immediately go through the stages of grief — shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression… but they rarely get to acceptance.
They’re too enculturated. They’ve been propagandized and marketed into the belief that they truly need one. Above all, they feel unfoundedly threatened, like I’m going to take their phone away or something. Obviously I won’t, but my challenge is simple: Do your own cost-benefit analysis and make adjustments. We all want to live intentionally, right? Then why do we let phones rule our lives instead of the other way around?
Take an inventory of how you’re currently using your phone. Be brutally honest. Then write a list of your vision for how you’d ideally like to use your phone, computer, and the Internet. The dream scenario. Now compare reality to the dream. Then find a way to bridge the gap. You know what you need to do to get where you need to be. This will be an immensely difficult intentionality exercise, but your future self will thank you for taking control today.
I encourage all my new friends to experiment with each of the following challenges:
Go one year/month/week without a phone. Get others to join you. Make sure you do it for long enough to get through withdrawal to a new and better normal.
Ask your boss/company for a work phone. Leave the work phone at work and the home phone at home or in your car.
Turn your phone off before supper and leave it off until after breakfast every day.
Take a digital sabbath once each week where you go 24 hours without screens.
Or just ditch your phone forever.
I guarantee your life will improve.
Because, instead of being something you’re not —a homo digitalis — you’ll experience more of who you truly are:
A human being.