Remember what life was like before the whole thing fit in your pocket? Uhhh… not really. Stepping into the fog of nostalgia, millennial being Charlotte Swan ditches apps for the day and studies her way through the history of smartphones and their companions, mobile apps.
What if your phone were just a phone? How would life change if the only thing we could do with our phone was call people? Apps are part of our daily lives now, and it’s a little weird remembering what it was like when my cellphone had a number pad, not a home screen—heck, it’s even a little weird remembering the days we even called them “cellphones.”
But today I’m feeling nostalgic, so I’m going to spend an entire day using my phone as a phone. What that really means is that I’m basically not going to use it at all. Let’s be real, I’m practically allergic to phone calls. I probably wouldn’t even call 911 if my foot were ensnared in a bear trap.
Signing off from apps for the day is a little like signing out of life.
Don’t get me wrong, my life is not all about my phone. I’m not exactly app-addicted—I don’t even particularly enjoy social media. But signing off from Facebook, Whatsapp, Gmail, Reddit, Trello, Slack, Google Meet, Maps, Spotify, Messenger, and Uber Eats feels just a little bit like mentally checking out.
It’s not exactly life-changing, given I’ve been working from home since the pandemic started, rarely more than a few steps from my computer, but it feels stranger than expected.
The phone has gone from being something one grabbed on their way out the door in 2006 to being a familiar weight in the hand, the heft and balance of which most of us know as intimately as if it were one of our own limbs. We’re not exactly bionic beings in 2020, but humanity isn’t far off from being physically linked to its technology. How close is your phone to you now? If you aren’t already reading this on a phone, chances are it’s at least within arm’s reach.
So how did we get to this point?
If you’re in my generation, you’ve probably had a mobile phone since at least the latter half of the 00s, when the iPhone was launched and the market exploded. They’ve been evolving over the years, with extra functionality and features steadily creeping into our lives. I can’t remember the exact moment my phone became indispensable but at some point, it became nearly impossible to leave home without it.
The app revolution started as far back as 1983, long before “smartphones” were even on the radar. Steve Jobs discussed the future of software distribution as being analogous to a record store, where systems could be bought over the phone. It would be at least twenty years before what Jobs predicted had come to pass, but it did, and Apple would be leading the charge with the App Store.
There was a brief stint in the late 90s and early aughts when Palm Pilots made an appearance; for as little as they are thought of or remembered today, they are in some ways the predecessors to today’s app experience. Home pages, icons, downloadable software. They were marketed as business tools. Being a teenage girl at the time, I used mine as a diary and sunk more than a few hours into playing Snake. But you could coax a lot of functionality out of a Palm Pilot. For the price of a digital Bluetooth receiver ($80) and third-party navigation software ($150), you could even get maps and real-time GPS. Groundbreaking! The Palm Pilot would quickly be replaced by mobile phones, but the foundation for the app explosion had already been laid.
In early 2003, Apple started selling songs online in the iTunes music store, a model that would end up being successful for apps as well. By the time iPhones were launched in ‘07, the idea of third-party apps on phones was already inevitable, and the App Store opened in 2008 with over 500 apps in it. Within days, there were millions of downloads. The app market has only grown since.
An hour in
In my own little corner of the world, I’ve been app-free for exactly an hour. I think about what I’m going to do with all the time I’ve saved myself by skipping my morning scroll through memes and political debates on Facebook.
A recent study from Stanford highlights the benefits of unplugging from Facebook: more face-to-face social interaction (not exactly advisable given current events), improvements in mood and life satisfaction, and an extra hour or two of free time a day. It’s no surprise that abstention from Facebook improves psychological well-being for some, given that its usage has a visibly measurable impact on the brain. Smug with this knowledge, I leave the phone on my bedside table and head over to my desk where I can feel smug on my computer instead.
At my desk, I get to work. Time flies even though I’m not clicking cookies on my phone. I think about the few games I play. I really don’t care that Cookie Clicker exists literally just to waste my time — there’s something about those virtual cookies that bring me satisfaction, no matter how trivial it may be. I don’t feel guilty about that, even though I’ve sworn off cookies for the day. After all, a little frivolity isn’t entirely a waste of time if it’s enjoyable.
I don’t feel lost without mobile games, but I’ll have to get my small moments of satisfaction from something other than my phone today. My cats are already spoiled, but I spend an extra few minutes entertaining them whenever I take a break from my desk. They are quite obviously pleased with the distance between my phone and me, so I resolve to sacrifice more cookies for quality time in the future.
Back to work
The steady sounds of my tap, tap, tapping on the keyboard fill the void left by the absence of popping push notifications.
No more work notifications on my phone? Oh boy! No more email notifications, either. Ugh, that means I’m going to have to open yet another browser tab to keep an eye on my account. The great thing about not picking up my phone to check my personal messages is that I don’t feel obligated to respond to anything instantly, and I can stick to my own rhythm and stay in focus as I work.
It has been over ten years since “there’s an app for that” first got stuck in our heads. Since our screens were first pummelled by Angry Birds. Since “app” was voted Word of the Year. Since “mobile app developer” became a real job. Since apps became ubiquitous.
Apps are a part of daily life now. Even for activities that sound low-tech, like reading a book. Outside, dusk falls. Part of my usual routine is to sit in the oversized chair by the window and read for an hour. Unfortunately, the sci-fi novel I’m currently reading just happens to be on the Kindle app. Since ebooks are banned today, I’ll have to pull an analog book off the shelf.
There is something quite nice about having the weight of a book in my hands, the smell of the paper rising to greet me as I open it. I immerse myself in The Camel. It’s got fewer space stations in it than my last book, but it’s a pleasant read nonetheless, and I appreciate the photos more than I would have on a digital screen. Sunken into my big comfy chair under a lamp with a book in hand and a cat in my lap, it’s hard to miss the app experience.
That being said
I’ll be happy to return to my normal appy, happy life. Ditching apps for a day is easy when you’re working from home, but it’s not something I’d enjoy on a busy day outside. After all, apps are how I stay connected to the world, whether it’s texting, GPS, or even just following up on the news. Apps are now part of the framework we use to interact with the environment and each other… a life without them would be isolated and dreary.
Did my little experiment change anything about the way I think about apps?
Well, I wouldn’t say it revolutionized anything—I probably won’t be making any major lifestyle changes. I’ve frequently got my phone in my hand, and that’s okay. Apps are part of my life and routine. But I have learned a few minor lessons.
First, that it’s okay not to be glued to your phone. Notifications can become a little maddening if you pay too much attention to them. Today’s world is all about urgency and immediate gratification, but will anything truly terrible happen if I wait a few hours to check my texts? Probably not.
Second, even though apps are supposed to make life more convenient, that doesn’t mean you have to choose the easy way. Is it easier to pull your phone out of your pocket and start reading than it is to get up and walk over to the bookshelf and get a real book? Sure, but reading a paper book is so much more satisfying—and a lot less distracting. I want to make more room in my life (and my purse) for books. I learn a lot more when I fill life’s occasional empty moments with books rather than my phone.
Last, but most importantly, put the phone down and pet the darn cat. My cats think my phone is boring, but I’m awesome. Whatever I’m doing with my phone, it can wait until after I’ve entertained the cats. After all, apps don’t run my life… but my cats do.