Students
Photo by Reyer Boxem

Life without a smartphone

Boris has no apps

Photo by Reyer Boxem
3.8 million people all over the world use a smartphone. But Boris Berg, who is studying to be a history teacher, is stubbornly holding on to the Samsung flip phone his grandfather gave him. He’s an SWS: a Student Without a Smartphone.
22 September om 9:26 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 22 September 2021
om 9:26 uur.
September 22 at 9:26 AM.
Last modified on September 22, 2021
at 9:26 AM.
Avatar photo

Door Boris Berg

22 September om 9:26 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 22 September 2021
om 9:26 uur.
Avatar photo

By Boris Berg

September 22 at 9:26 AM.
Last modified on September 22, 2021
at 9:26 AM.
Avatar photo

Boris Berg

‘Can I get a beer, please?’ I ask.

‘You’ll have to scan the QR code’, says a guy my age wearing a KEI week jacket.

‘I don’t have a smartphone’, I tell him.

He kind of laughs sheepishly at me and I just know that he thinks I’m a weirdo. 

He goes to confer with his colleagues. I wait. Various employees get together to figure out how to solve this unexpected problem. Finally, a girl shows up. She leads me to a small bar in the back of the pub, where I can pay for my beer by card.

Five minutes after ordering, I finally get my beer.

‘What a hill to die on’, the first guy says as he hands it to me.

Phone for the elderly

Four years ago, I left my iPhone 5S behind for good. Ever since, the cell phone specifically designed for the elderly my granddad gave me hasn’t left my side. I can use it to make phone calls, text people, and it even has sudoku, although I’ve never played it. 

My iPhone was a beautiful piece of hardware, given to me by my father when I turned twenty-one. But I realised it took up all my time, as I was constantly being distracted by Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, WhatsApp, and, for some weird reason, my banking app. I spent hours switching between apps, endlessly scrolling through Facebook. At the end of the day, I felt lonely and empty. 

I can easily sit on the couch staring at nothing for an hour

That is, until I read Hans Schnitzler’s book, about an experiment he did with his students where they experienced ‘digital abstinence’. The students became more focused, experienced reality more intensely, and had more ‘authentic’ experiences. 

That did it for me. I gave my iPhone back.

More focused

It worked: I’m more focused than I used to be, I have more time to read, to take walks, to meet up with friends, or call them on the phone. But I also have more time to relax: I can easily sit on the couch for an hour, just staring at nothing.

I’m not entirely cut off from the world: I have a laptop, so I can still get online. I use Spotify to listen to music, Google Maps is really nifty, and I enjoy the ability to quickly contact people – by email. But I love that I’m not constantly being distracted by a digital world where I’m always expected to shine and show everyone how great my life is.

It’s just that it gets harder and harder to keep up. Almost everyone I know has a smartphone and expects me to have one, too. I’m not a part of the family group chat or the UKrant freelancer group, and I’m excluded from the group chat my fellow students use to warn each other of deadlines and help each other study. I miss party invitations on Facebook.

The lack of a smartphone has implications outside my social circle, too. Logging on to Nestor requires an identification code on my smartphone. I have to scan a QR code to order beer, with my smartphone. I can’t use the corona check app, because I’d need a smartphone.

WhatsApp

However, I wouldn’t dream of changing my mind. There are too many drawbacks. And I’m not the only one who’s worried.

I often grab my phone without realising it

Take Gerard Ritsema van Eck, who got his PhD at the UG last week for his research into how smartphones collect data about public spaces. ‘Smartphones know exactly where you are’, he says. Apps like WhatsApp, Facebook, and Instagram also exchange your data for more targeted ads in an attempt to engage your attention for as long as possible, exposing you to those ads. All to make as much money as they can.

And that impacts our ability to focus, says Ritsema van Eck: ‘We’re always distracted by that need to check our phone.’ He feels that need himself. ‘When my phone is on the table, I often grab it without even realising it.’

Dopamine hit

Philosopher Cees Zweistra with the Erasmus University in Rotterdam is also concerned. ‘I used to teach at a high school. After class, the students would grab their phones and sit down against the wall in the hallway. Ready for a hit of dopamine.’

As far as he’s concerned, smartphones are as dangerous as smoking and should be legislated as such. ‘Children under sixteen should only get a smartphone with limited functionality. A special children’s phone.’

I know I’ve displayed some of that compulsive behaviour in the past. However, UG cognitive modelling researcher Marieke van Vugt doesn’t think the lack of focus is all that bad. Her research has shown that people only switch tasks when they actually can, she says. She found out that when they’re truly in need of their cognitive capabilities, people stick to their main task. ‘People can come up with ways to restrict their access to the internet, for example through an app.’

Lonelier

But the tricks I came up with myself, like deleting my Facebook app, would only work for a day, if that. Without the app, I just looked at Facebook using my internet browser.

Smartphones are as dangerous as smoking and should be legislated as such 

According to Zweistra, smartphones and their social media also make us lonelier. All that technology ‘anticipate our need for control’, he says. ‘But because we can hide behind technology, we aren’t as exposed, which means the connections we create aren’t as meaningful.’ 

‘A true connection’, says Zweistra, ‘is where you don’t have as much control and you genuinely communicate with other people.’

I understand this feeling. I maintained a lot of contacts through Facebook and WhatsApp when I still had a smartphone, but it left me feeling empty. I may have less contact with people now, but it’s more authentic. 

Radicalisation

Ritsema van Eck and Zweistra also observed something that hadn’t even crossed my mind yet. The distance between people that digital contact creates is a feeding ground for radicalisation and polarisation: ‘Because we no longer no how to talk to each other, the foundation of our society is disappearing’, says Zweistra.

‘Fake news spreads so quickly through social media; the algorithms don’t know the information they’re sending’, Ritseman van Eck adds. He suspects this is why far-right political parties like the PVV, the FvD, and JA21 were able to gain popularity.  It turns out that content that scores well often has ‘slightly racist overtones’. 

Let’s not forget how smartphones affect our privacy. 

Every time we click ‘I agree’, we give more of our personal information away. That’s not smart, says UG privacy expert Jonida Milaj-Weishaar. ‘Then again, how many people read the privacy policy before clicking through to the next step? How many people even understand it?’

Facial recognition

In the wrong hands, all that data could do a lot of harm. ‘Like the facial recognition pictures the Americans took in Afghanistan’, says Ritsema van Eck. ‘The day after the Taliban seized power, they were out on the street using their facial recognition technology. It’s an insane tool of repression.’

‘So why don’t you have a smartphone?’ asks the KEI guy when I come back for a second beer.

I explain. He nods. ‘I get it’, he says. ‘Sometimes I wish I could get rid of mine, too.’

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