Life without a smartphone in 2021: Roam if you want to!

Empty pedestrian bridge

Like many of us, I went on an extended-weekend getaway for the 4th of July. Unlike many of us, I left my smartphone at home. As part of my experiment, ‘Life without a smartphone in 2021’ I promised to put my smartphone down for a couple of months and reflect on my new experiences. After work on Friday, my partner drove me to the UMN campus, where I hopped on the Badger Bus bound for Madison. I brought my backpack, laptop, pillow, snacks, some clothes, and my trusty flip phone.

AAA predicted that this year would produce a record number of travelers for the 4th of July weekend. I would say their prediction was correct. The roads were packed vehicles traveling to their family cabins, lake houses, or relatives in other towns. The reason for the spike: pent up demand to travel after the COVID-19 pandemic. The Pandemic has all of us searching for something new. The crisis encouraged us to reflect on our lives, and it motivated us to look for new jobs, go back to school, get outside more, and spend more time with loved ones. For me, the Pandemic encouraged me to do this experiment, to live life without my smartphone.

I really wondered if it could be done! Smartphones are so ubiquitous in our culture, and they are required for many experiences. I’ve owned a smartphone for my entire adult life. I got my first smartphone in high school when I was 16 years old. It was a BlackBerry Curve. I was so impressed by its full QWERTY keyboard, operating system with apps like Pandora, Facebook, and Twitter. It played my MP3’s so seamlessly with its dedicated music buttons on the top of the phone.

Blackberry curve
Photo Credit: PC Mag

I have lived my entire adult life with a smartphone, which means I’ve never been on a trip out of town without a smartphone. I wanted to know what it feels like to navigate a new city, eat at different restaurants, drink at different bars, and explore the world without immediate access to the internet in my pocket. I was ambitious to try something new, but I was quite nervous to leave town without my iPhone.

Nomophobia is a clinical term that describes the psychological distress that occurs when people are separated from their phone. It is possible that the condition will be included in the next DSM. I certainly experienced Nomophobia before leaving for my trip. I thought to myself, “What if I need to look something up? What if I get stranded somewhere and need to call a Lyft? What if I go someplace that only has a digital menu?” It took a lot of positive affirmations and self-talk for me to leave the house, and all of those fears disappeared once I got on the bus. I was going to be okay.

Madison is a city very familiar to me, so in all honesty, the pressure wasn’t very high. Yet, the city looked and felt different this time. I suspect it was a combination of things. Civilization was at the tail end of the pandemic, it was one of the hottest summers on record, many things were still uncertain. There was this feeling of exhausted optimism in the air. The streets were crowded with people flocking to bars and restaurants, stripped of their pandemic era precautions. This idea of “The Roaring 2020s” was reflected on the marquee at the Majestic. And, I personally felt different without my smartphone. I felt more confident, focused, and intentional. It’s extraordinary how commonplace items can influence your feelings and behaviors.

Majestic Theater Marquee: We're back roaring 2020's dance party

I met my brother at his apartment downtown, right next to the University of Wisconsin campus. We greeted each other in the awkward way that brothers do, a way that is friendly yet routine. We went out to a series of bars, including a trendy arcade bar, a classic cigar bar, a modern Mexican cantina, a midwestern gay bar, and Ian’s Pizza (of course). I didn’t miss my smartphone while out drinking and eating. In fact, I felt a sense of freedom. I didn’t worry about checking social media or drunk texting a friend. I paid more attention to the people around me, rather than the people on my social media feeds. My brother still had his smartphone. We occasionally looked at his social media feeds and mapped directions to a new destination. Technology was still all around us. Restaurants used mobile card readers when I paid my tab. I put a physical dollar bills into TouchTunes. However, I didn’t have access to my personal smartphone in my pocket. I was able to exist in a technological ecosystem while still taking a break from being directly connected.

The next day, my brother and I hopped on the city bus and traveled up the Isthmus for breakfast. I looked up the bus schedule on my laptop before leaving the house. I made sure that the breakfast café was open before we left. This was an example of how life without a smartphone required more planning than usual. I had to memorize bus schedules and routes. I had to arrange plans with friends in advance, rather than choosing a new place to meet on the fly. I had to rely on others who had a smartphone for directions and digital menus. Although it required additional effort, I was able to connect with friends and experience new places just as before. My connections felt more intense than usual. I felt more present in conversations. There was less of an urge to look something up on Google or check my calendar when discussing future plans.

On the 4th of July, my brother and I woke up hungry and still tired from the night before. He saw on Snapchat that my mom was out with her friends at a restaurant down the street. So, we walked over to say hello and score a free meal. I would have missed this entire experience if my brother wasn’t connected to Snap via his smart phone. I considered the impact of social media on fostering connections with others. There is so much research on the negative impact of social media, but there’s also a lot of evidence that shows social media’s positive impact on relationships. I have several strong friendships in several different cities across the country. Social media provides an opportunity for me to connect with those who are physically distant from me. Social media also connects me to the LGBTQ community, where I can keep up with the events and trends of my people.

Later in the week, my mother drove me back to Minneapolis and we spent a few days together. We talked about her experience with mobile technology. She explained how she use to carry around a cell phone, Palm Pilot, and iPod in her purse. Sometimes she would also carry a digital camera. Her smartphone now combines all of those technologies into one vessel. In fact, her phone case also doubles as a wallet, so now she rarely carries a purse. I agreed with her, that her smartphone has built conveniences into her life, but I also pondered what we have lost in the making of those conveniences. Are we better at navigating new places because google maps makes exploration easier? Are we more aware of different opinions because social media created a global town square? I’m not sure of the answer to questions like these. I suspect the truth is in the middle, somewhere between yes and no.

Overall, my smartphone-free vacation was an excellent experience. It is something that I would suggest everyone try. It’s not as scary as it may seem. It does require a little more effort with planning. But, the rewards were unique and experienced by very few in today’s modern world. If you haven’t already, follow my blog and learn about my journey without a smartphone.

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