The Semi-Adventures of a Nomadic Mathematician Rotating Header Image


Six Months without a Phone

This was not planned: I accidentally lived without a phone for the second half of 2015. Accidents like this tend to have a profound impact on my life: I became a vegan accidentally, I became a teetotaller accidentally, and somehow I ended up living in Europe again accidentally. Accidents challenge my assumptions, so when my phone and I were no longer in an operational relationship, I wanted to see what it was like to live without a phone.

Guy without phone

This guy did not have a phone either.

Not having a phone is worse than being vegan. First of all, it is a lot harder to justify. I can always refer to a lofty ethical position to bolster my belief of veganism when the question comes up. On the other hand, I cannot possibly claim that I save the universe by not having a phone. I am concerned about privacy, but not that concerned to provide a decent justification. So after a few months and many annoyed people, I figured that it was not worth explaining not having a phone was a lifestyle experiment and I simply said that I had lost my phone and did not get a new one yet. This obvious lie never failed to stop further questions.

Then being vegan or not drinking is something that only affects me. Not having a phone, however, forces other bipeds around me to adapt. I had to tell them in advance that they were not able to contact me once I left the vicinity of my computer. This was a message that was surprisingly difficult to get across.

How did I end up in this misery? Certainly not by losing my phone. I was emotionally attached to a three-year-old smartphone that I personally hacked in a variety of ways. Due to old age and my hacking activity, some of the original functionality was lost and the phone had some quirks that I got used to. For instance, taking a video was out of question, and I had to reboot it twice every time I disabled the wifi. It was all part of the phone’s character. A more troubling issue was that a laminated layer on the outside of the screen was peeling off: it looked horrible and where the lamination was gone, so was the sensitivity for touch. This was the source of the problems.

A whole bunch of retailers on eBay offered a replacement touch screen for a few dollars. The LCD itself was perfect, I only had to replace the outside touch screen digitizer. I gaily ordered the replacement. When it arrived, I followed the instructions on Youtube about the procedure. When I put the phone together, something was odd. A mysterious layer between the digitizer and the LCD was missing. Without it, it was impossible to discern what the LCD displayed. So I took the phone apart again and put the old digitizer screen back. At this point, only two pixels lighted up on the screen. The phone was as good as dead.

I am a huge fan of the Maker Movement, but my forays into fixing electronics seldom have a happy ending, and hence I’d better steer clear of building anything. The trouble never comes alone: around the time when my phone died, the screen of my laptop also passed away, aided by my dexterous attempts to fix it. The laptop has a few surviving pixel in a distinct blue tint, allowing me to write an email if I really must, but otherwise I can only use the machine with an external screen.

My camera also died around the same time. For a refreshing change, its screen was and still is in an impeccable condition. Nothing else works, though, and it is positively impossible to take a picture with it, which I consider a major disadvantage in a camera. I carry it around because I have no other way of telling the time.

So I lived the last six months the way I did some sixteen years ago. No camera, no phone, no laptop. Instead, I always carried a book to read. Productivity on the go was out of question. I travelled an awful lot, but I hauled around a VGA cable to connect my laptop to the hotel TVs, so I still managed to work.

I had to rethink getting around cities. I have a decent sense of direction, and I ended up drawing small maps off the screen before I set off to a new place. Unfortunately I am unable to read my handwriting, so this methodology lead to much cursing. Tourist maps came to the rescue: I can’t remember the last time I used one, but their old-school low-tech charm is unbeatable.

I did not miss having a number. My number used to change so often that it was of no practical use anyway. Telcos usually have one shot to piss me off and I change carrier. For this reason, I had at least eight numbers in Spain alone, and I moved here barely a year and a half ago. I never knew which number was registered with which bank, so I avoided making transactions online that sent a one-time-password in SMS.

Not being able to access my email anywhere was a far bigger problem. This cut me off the world and made it challenging to meet me. Tiny misunderstanding in the spatiotemporal arrangement of a meeting lead to missed encounters. I got around the problem by changing the way I met others: I dragged someone along who was connected. This was not a sustainable way of organizing my life.

It was also weird to go for a run without listening to music, but I got used to it. Now I don’t understand why I listened to music while running in the first place. It was more difficult to figure out the distance I ran, especially when I ran in a new place. I ended up measuring the approximate distance on an offline map on my laptop, provided I had an external screen.

Getting up on time was another frontier that had to be reconquered. I spent over two months of the last six in hotels, so I could always ask for wake-up calls. Out of hotels, it was more complicated. Eventually I settled with a solution that was not particularly energy-saving. I used a one-liner script on my laptop to start playing a salsa song after a given time, which also meant my laptop had to be on for the whole night. It consumes 10W of energy with the screen off, so truckloads of electricity were wasted on waking me up on time.

I never used apps much, so on that front, there was nothing I missed. A dictionary would have been handy every now and then, but that was it. Give me an email client and a GPS, a way to obfuscate my real IP address, and I am a complete human being. At least as far as technology can augment me to be complete, which, of course, is not much.

Was there any benefit of a much reduced use of contemporary information technology? Well, I thought I would have more time to think. This was true, but I was not thinking about anything productive. I don’t think I had the slightest intellectual breakthrough because I stared at fellow passengers on the subway instead of a 4.2-inch screen. My attention span also remained as bad as it has always been. I came to believe that the claimed disadvantages of the frequent use of smartphones are empty falsehoods. The claims are rooted in the blind belief that if people had more time, they would be awesome: they would use their intelligence to the full capacity to create wonderful things, let that be art, science, or any other marvel of human endeavour. This is rubbish. Most of the time we just want to stare at anything and not think at all.

Analogue joys

Analogue joys

So after six months, I figured I pushed this experiment far enough. I ordered a new phone today. The successor of my six-year-old laptop has also been identified. But I will certainly never buy a camera again. I am a bit disappointed: I was hoping I would discover something life-changing, but I did not. The phone won.