No Mobile Phone Revisited

Two years after giving mine up for a month, I still don’t like mobile phones. I find phones extremely distracting, not necessarily because of the notifications, ringtones and vibrations, but because of the way we use them and expect others to use them.

Mobile phones as social media

Perhaps it’s just me, but I feel like people treat phones like an umbilical cord to your brain, ready to receive their stream-of-consciousness commentary on life. Phones have become a social media technology. The way we use social media has, I believe, changed the way we use other features of our phones, particularly messaging, whether the old SMS or new forms like Whatsapp.

With my ancient Nokia, I’m well aware that I’m seriously out of touch of modern telephony, but I’ve noticed a precipitous rise in serial text messaging. Instead of one concisely crafted message, I’ll recieve five messages with information dripped through in thoughts and after-thoughts. This tells me two things: senders are putting less time into considering their communication, and recievers are forced to put more time into decoding the message.

This is a consequence of the near-zero cost of sending a message. Back when it cost 35p to send a text, no one wasted a single letter. How that’s changed! Unfortunately, the cost to the receiver hasn’t changed: we all still must pay attention, and with the cost of sending so low, receivers pay with their attention more and more often.

As data costs plummet, there is a new development in this regard: voice notes, short audio messages sent in lieu of text. This is even better for the sender. It takes even less time and attention to speak into your phone than it does to formulate and tap out even the most rambling of text messages. For the receiver, however, the opposite is true: a text message can be scanned in a fraction of a second. A voice note cannot: the sender holds your attention for as long as they want as you wait for the information to come across.

It seems unfair to me that the burden of cost is shifting more and more away from the sender towards the receiver. But, if you think about it, this makes total sense for those profiting from our communication. Phone networks, manufacturers, software designers and advertisers all want sending to be cheap because the more traffic there is on the network, the more interactions everybody makes with their business models.

Asynchronous vs synchronous messaging

Over the last two years, I’ve also noticed that asynchronous messaging systems are increasingly favoured over synchronous messaging systems – at least among my friends and colleagues.

Asynchronous messaging systems don’t need the attention of both (or all) parties at the same time. Email, SMS and Whatsapp are examples of asynchronous messaging systems. Synchronous messaging systems demand the attention of both parties at the same time, a phone call for instance.

It seems that phone calls are now seen as an inefficient form of communication, demanding attention from both parties at the convenience of neither. Asynchronous communication, on the other hand, means that the sender can send when they wish and the receiver can read when they wish. Ideal!

Or perhaps not. Asynchronous messaging seems to massively increase the total message frequency. Instead of one five minute phone conversation in which information is exchanged and decisions are made, it seems that asynchronous communication can unfold over dozens of messages, spanning hours, days or even weeks.

Some people are perhaps comfortable with this; I’m still not. Whenever there is an open conversation on my phone, an unanswered text, I feel very slightly anxious. A tiny part of my brain is continuously aware of this task I have to complete. What’s more, these conversations never seem to die. Another message (or five) soon pops up to replace the one you’ve answered in an infinite loop of communication.

Again, this is all great news for business, but a worrying trend for humans who depend on deep work to make their days productive and satisfying.

The meta-message

When we use our phones, we’re actually sending two messages: there’s the one we send by using our phones, and there’s the one we send by using our phones. You can think of this as the meta-message – the message about the message. What are you saying to the world by tapping out a message while walking along the street? When you pick up your phone while having dinner with family or friends? Or while driving?

One of the lessons I have tried to implement from my No Mobile Phone experiment is to focus on one thing at a time. If I am using my phone, I am not also walking down the street, having dinner, using the computer – and certainly not driving. When you’re on the phone, you’re in the zone. We can’t split our attention without paying a cognitive penalty. I want to write quality messages and I want quality phone conversations. For that to happen, I need to focus on the recipient, not on anything else.

A synchronous phone call sends a meta-message that the receiver is worthy of your attention in real-time. A phone call can be a minor inconvenience, introducing the friction of humanity to our communication. On the phone, you can easily throw me off-track with irrelevant chit-chat or awkward questions.

It seems like we like to use asynchronous messaging to relieve ourselves of the cognitive burden of real-time communication – but that sends a meta-message too. It can even feel disrespectful.

The wrong side of society

When I completed my No Phone experiment, I tried to cut down on my text messaging. I have, to a certain extent, been successful in this regard. I send far fewer “fishing” messages, messages that do nothing other than start an asynchronous message loop because I’m bored. Even so, I am struggling to break free of asynchronous messaging conversations, whether discussing work with colleagues, or arranging dinner plans with friends.

I’m struggling because I’m on the wrong side of society. I know this and I don’t know what to do about it. I could simply join in – I already have a (contractless) smartphone that I use as a camera and for the internet when I have wifi. I could easily start paying £10 a month – exactly the same as I pay for my old Nokia – and eliminate the laborious irritation of opening five separate messages instead of glancing at the spooling conversation. I could start using voice notes myself and engage in the back-and-forth play of modern social media-like phone communication. I could.

But something tells me that if I did, then my communication load would increase significantly and that would have a real impact on my ability to work deeply with focus. When I look around at my friends, I often see them on their phones. A part of me thinks, Wow, I wish I was that popular! But then I wonder whether a part of them feels trapped by the communication treadmill that their smartphones not only enable, but actively accelerate. It seems like people with smartphones do an awful lot of admin. Maybe it’s worth it, maybe it’s not. I don’t know.

Faith in friction

Ultimately, I still have faith in the friction that my old Nokia adds to my communication. My clunky Nokia cuts down the amount of communication I can be bothered to send by introducing laborious irritatants like opening multiple messages, and tapping out responses in T9 (remember that?). I am far more likely to call someone, or send a message that follows the One and Done philosophy. I genuinely hope that this constraint makes me a more considerate communicator.

Secondly, my Nokia severely reduces the amount of communication I can recieve by eliminating certain channels like Whatsapp altogether. I strongly believe that this helps me spend less time on admin and more time focussing on my work, free of distraction.

I concede that I’m on the wrong side of society at the moment, but I do also believe that we need to learn how to use our technology a bit better – for our sake and for the sakes of our friends and colleagues. If I could magically change three things about the way we use our phones – smart or dumb – I would wish for these:

  1. Prioritise your recipient, not yourself. Do they need to know this now? Do I need an answer to this question now? Is asynchronous communication really the more efficient method if it means the conversation will drag out over the course of hours and days? If asynchronous messaging is the best method, how can I craft this message so that the recipient has all the information they need to respond in full with just one response? Think One and Done.
  2. Stop multitasking. When you’re on the phone, you’re in the zone. If, while walking down the street, I suddenly remember I need to send so-and-so an urgent message, then I should stop, lean against a wall, concentrate on the recipient and send that message. If I can’t stop and send that message – if I’m at dinner with friends, for example – then I should make a note to send it later. If I can’t make a note, then I must trust that if the message is urgent enough, then I will remember later.
  3. If in doubt, put it away. By default, I’d like to see no phones. No phones on the dinner table, no phones on the desk, no phones in the bedroom, no phones on the bus, no phones at stop lights, no phones lying idly in the hand. If in doubt, put it away and keep it away. Look up, and have faith that you and your world are even more interesting than whatever is buzzing away in your pocket.

And, yes, I am currently breaking at least one of those – we’re all human 🙂

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

What do you think?