Love and Dumb Phones

Glued to my dumb phone.
Glued to my dumb phone.

I’m in my mid-twenties and I still have a dumb phone. It’s the same phone I’ve had since high school. Call me cheap, call me sentimental—but I like my phone. I recently dropped it in the washing machine but it revived after a week of soaking in a pot of dry rice.

I was especially thrilled about this, because it meant that I didn’t lose my saved voicemails, including the ones that document the period of time when my husband and I were dating. I love teasing my husband about them—like about how his voice sounds squeaky nervous in the first call he ever made to me (an invitation to study with him on a Friday night). Or about how romantic he was—like the time he called and left me three long messages, all of him playing rousing piano renditions of Pachelbel’s Canon in D (a year later I was walking down the aisle to the song).

But back to the subject of my old, dumb phone. It’s not that I don’t believe in smart phones—it’s just that I want to be in control of the way I use technology instead of having it control me. I know myself, and if I had a smart phone, I think it might be harder for me to keep the boundaries between work and family, Facebook and real relationships, my children and online distractions. It’s not that it’d be impossible, but it’s just that I already have enough challenge balancing those things. Why make it harder on myself?

For example, at one point in our marriage David and I got into the habit of spending the evenings after dinner on our computers, sometimes going to bed at different times. I remember one time when David told me he was going to bed, I told him that I was too, but then I proceeded to spend another half hour on Facebook and he was already asleep. Those kinds of evenings meant that we didn’t have any time at the end of the day to reconnect to each other.

But with work and kids and everything else that makes us busy, we’ve found that it is important to have some technology-free time built into our schedule, time when the two of us can find each other again after a long day. It’s not perfect and it doesn’t always happen, but lately we’ve been trying to spend the quiet moments after the kids are asleep sitting together on our couch reading and talking. David might lean over to share a passage he’s highlighted, or I might think of something I wanted to tell him about earlier in the day. We also try to crawl into bed at the same time, because there’s something about that kind of togetherness that keeps us close, forces us to talk about anything bothering us, seals any subsequent exchange of forgiveness with a physical closeness.

An article at the New York Times last week, “Steve Jobs Was a Low-Tech Parent,” suggests that we’re not crazy to impose such limits on our tech time. Author Nick Bilton explains that he imagined Steve Jobs’ household to be “a nerd’s paradise: that the walls were giant touch screens, the dining table was made from tiles of iPads and that iPods were handed out to guests like chocolates on a pillow.” “Nope,” Mr. Jobs told him. “Not even close.” Jobs, like many technology chief executives strictly limited his children’s screen time. Bilton suggests that perhaps tech C.E.O.’s “know something that the rest of us don’t.” Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired and now C.E.O. of 3D Robotics explained that he and others in the same field have strict time limits on devices in the home “because we have seen the dangers of technology firsthand. I’ve seen it in myself, I don’t want to see that happen to my kids.”

Though the Times article focuses on parents imposing limits on their children’s screen time, it has implications for all of us. And if even the most tech-savvy C.E.O.’s fear that overusing devices can have downsides for family life, I’m happy to stick with my dumb phone a little longer.

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