How I Stopped Using A Smartphone and Started Using The Phone

Sometimes the most instant message is your voice

Telephone by Oleg on FreePik, which I pay for

When I got rid of my smartphone, I started losing touch with people. No WhatsApp, no “what’s up?”. And I actually like being social, I just don’t like social networks. So I tried something else. I picked up the phone.

Now that we have smartphones it seems almost antiquated using the phone-phone. The dialer is probably one of our least used apps. Instead we send a message, or schedule a video call, or — more often than not — just lurk about and don’t get in touch at all.

For me, however, the phone is the only app on this shitbox Nokia that works. Even finding a contact is hard. So I think about it, flail through my T9 keyboard, and call someone up. Their usual reaction is surprise.

People ask “what’s up?” like something’s wrong. Calls are usually when you need something, or from jail. “Nothing,” I’d say. “I just called to talk.” After people get over the vestigial weirdness of the situation it’s fine, they know how to talk. And you know what? It’s really nice.

On a phone call you’re actually there, in sync. Messages are asynchronous, they’re a line from a dead letter, a thought from a mind that’s not there. You write something and you wait, or you get a message in the middle of something else, when you’ve forgotten. With a phone call it’s an immediate voice, playing a transient drum-beat on your inner ear. You have to be in rhythm, you have to be in sync. You have to be there.

If I call someone the conversation doesn’t stop in the middle for hours, and it never unceremoniously disappears. We say hello and good-bye, we respond to every remark immediately, and if we’re busy we cut the line. After years of making everything a message or a scheduled meeting, it’s refreshing to just interrupt someone completely; to get all of their attention, and give them mine.

The Phone

When I was a teenager, this was all we did. I had a phone jack and a school directory and we’d call each other to chat. That was chat. I used to sit under my desk, thumb through the directory and imagine who I could and couldn’t call (I had a very keen sense of the hierarchy of popularity, I would just imagine the popular kids talking to each other). The phone book was The Facebook, back in the day.

We used to spend hours on the phone. I try to remember what we talked about but I just can’t. I talked mostly to girls, but not in a romantic sense. At least not on their part. We just talked.

I grew up before cell phones and this was it. We started to get instant messenger in high school, but to use that you had to unplug the phone. Nobody had AIM on all the time. We used to literally gather around one computer to watch someone chat, then we’d go back to lighting stuff on fire.

The Smartphone

In college I had one of the first smartphones. I remember sitting in a baseball game typing to someone in England and my friends thought it was so weird. Now everyone in any stadium would be on their phones. Actually, we can’t even go to stadiums anymore. It’s just the phones.

And ‘the phone’ is probably the least used app on a smartphone. Phones lost SMS to WhatsApp and then phone calls to FaceTime/Zoom/whatever. Today we use SMS mainly to login to the apps we actually use. Phone calls are for directing that online delivery rider down the stubborn last mile. Calling them smartphones is like calling a computer a smart-calculator. It’s hardly how we use them anymore.

It’s not that smartphones ate the phone. Smartphones ate the world.

Back To The Phone

I had one. You can’t not have one. But then I fell into the pool. During lockdown rich people had to clean their own pools, and I was doing that when I slipped and fell in. This fried my old iPhone SE and, not wanting to do research and spend hundreds of dollars, I just bought an old Nokia. It sucked but I could call my wife and I had a computer and after a week I just got used to it. Then I quit WhatsApp, after which all hell broke loose, but after about a month everyone got used to my digital demise.

Being dead was nice. I literally never get a message that bothers me or requires a furiously thumbed response. I don’t get messages at all. Just OTPs and marketing really, including a good 12-day run where the fishmonger sent me fish-themed ‘days of Christmas’ messages. Being dead, however, gets boring after a while. I kinda missed the connection so I used the only app that worked on this thing. The phone.

When I walk the dog (whose idea of a social network is smelling all the shits in the neighborhood) I just think of a person I miss and just call them. I don’t send them a message asking if it’s OK to call, I just call. If they’re busy they don’t answer and I call someone else. If they do we talk. Sometimes for a long time. And it’s actually wonderful. I was so used to calling for something that I forgot how nice it is to just call. And how much that can mean.

There’s something very different in having someone’s attention versus their distraction. There’s something different about hearing a laugh versus seeing ‘lol’. I’m not saying that messaging isn’t good for many things, but it’s definitely not good for everything. There’s still this latent power in a call.

Today we live in a world where everything is asynchronous and if we want a conversation we make an appointment, but then this basically never happens. I’ve spent weeks trying to schedule calls, and it’s exhausting. If the call ever materializes, it’s a chore.

I think we’re so preoccupied with not taking up people’s time that we don’t take time with each other. These are my friends and family, not colleagues. What is intimacy if it doesn’t interrupt?

Today we communicate so much that it’s a burden, but so superficially that it’s rarely a relief. And that’s what a phone call can do. It’s a relief to hear an old friend’s voice, to sense how they feel without pondering what portents an emoji holds. To tell a joke and hear if it lands, or apologize if it’s gone terribly wrong. And it’s also just nice to show that you care. That this person merits more time than a line, here and there.

Phone calls are good for that. They’re not good for everything — try explaining a meme for example — but it is good for sharing voices in our heads, for banging on the old temporal timpani, sending literal vibes down your middle ear straight to your brain. How magical that we can do this, connect our brains in realtime, and this magic didn’t disappear with the smartphone. It’s still there. The original app still works, give it a try. 867-5309.