The Tech-Savvy Luddite: Living Without a Cell Phone for 23 Years

EDIT 08/05/2018: You know what I did with all that time I wasn’t staring at my phone? I was writing a novel–and you can check it out at the Shale Project, alongside all the other neat art I’ve created over the years. Just goes to show all those seconds add up. Put down your cell phone; pick up your life.

*credit goes to Emilie Wapnick of Puttylike for her delightful self-description as a “tech-savvy Luddite”, which I identified with immediately!

You’ve probably seen them at some point. Articles on your Facebook feed, or popping up in internet searches. “How to Live Without a Cell Phone”, “Life Without a Smartphone”, “I Survived Without a Cell Phone for 100 Days/1 Year/4 Years/etc”. In the last five or six years, plenty of people have started extolling the virtues of “unplugging” from their phones. Usually they talk of breaking an old phone and simply not replacing it, or else making the conscious decision to get rid of it while traveling or something similar. On occasion they don’t mean “unplug” so much as “downgrade”, in which case the topic isn’t cell phones so much as smartphones–the point there is usually about curbing an addiction to social media or an overdependence on apps. It’s not a hugely popular trend, but there are people out there who are testing a brief period of life without a cell phone and finding that there are indeed benefits to be appreciated.

Well guess what, friends? I’ve “survived” without a cell phone of any kind for my entire life.

A Rare Specimen: The Phoneless Twentysomething

Now of course, the only reason why this is remarkable is because it goes against so much of the way we live in the world nowadays. “You don’t have a phone? How do you text people/contact your family/get anywhere/do anything?” I’ve heard endless variations on this question–in fact, it usually sparks a quite long and interesting conversation about society and technology. I often hear people say things in response like “I can’t even imagine life without my phone.”

The thing is, I can imagine my life without a phone. Super-easily. I spent my childhood without one–I was part of one of the last generations to grow up where it wasn’t normal to give children phones (or tablets or computers for that matter)–and then I had the family landline, so it didn’t matter as long as I lived at home. Then I had a computer that provided me with email, Messenger, and eventually Skype and Google Talk, so even when I moved out of my family’s house I had ways to contact and be contacted. (And get this–for the first two years of my time at Glendon, they had landlines connected in all of the residence rooms!)

If I ever went out with friends and needed to phone home, I’d use their phones; if I wanted to listen to music, well, I have an mp3 player for that. If I wanted to figure out where I was going, I would either check the directions before leaving the house (and WRITE THEM DOWN ON PAPER!), or I’d just get to the general area and ask around. (On the point of the wayfinder thing, I’m convinced that the reason everybody’s sense of direction is crap these days is because there’s a GPS there to do it for you.)

For the first, long stretch of my life, not owning a cell phone had nothing to do with deep philosophical values or a desire to go against the grain or anything like that. It just wasn’t necessary. I never needed one badly enough to overcome the lifestyle I had built.

It was later, after the umpteenth person told me I “need a phone” (my best friend literally bought one for me, trying to pressgang me into going and getting it set up), and I realized how hopelessly they pervade our culture, that I decided to consciously resist getting a phone for as long as I possibly could. Because regardless of needing or not needing one, I didn’t want a cell phone.

  • I don’t want to be available 24/7. It’s exhausting, feeling like you need to always be on-call, that if you don’t respond a few hours or minutes or even (for real) seconds later, you’re ignoring someone. I value my solitude. I value long stretches of unbroken, uninterrupted time alone.
  • It’s a timesink. Tech addiction is real and severe and its ramifications are terrifying if you think on them long enough. I know people who literally spend hours at a time scrolling listlessly through their social feeds or playing games just because their phone happens to be in their hand. In case anyone ever wondered how I get so much done, this is a big help.
  • It’s a distraction. Not just from things you need to get done, but from the world around you. It really does bug me when I go out for tea with friends and they keep their phones on the table. And to be honest, the whole ‘pay attention to the world’ thing is true. There’s so much inspiration you miss when you’re constantly looking down.
  • It’s expensive as heck. This reason existed mostly before I found out ‘dumbphones’ were indeed still an option in today’s world, but still, I’m paying you how much money per month to be a nuisance in my life? (If anyone wondered how on earth I managed 2-3 flights to Boston per year on a student budget, not having this expense was useful in saving cash.)

If this sounds hindsight-y, it’s because it is. About two weeks ago, with graduation looming (and subsequent Real People Job-ing on the horizon), and a solo trip to Europe in the summer plans, and being poised to likely take over the lease of the apartment–well, I finally conceded that it was more practical to have a phone than not to have one. But I’m convinced that, by living without this gadget for so long, I’ve cemented a lot of personality traits and lifestyle quirks that will serve me far into the future.

What a Whole Life Without a Phone Teaches You

  1. How to be self-sufficient. I’ve never had the luxury of just calling a friend or a family member to pick me up from school or work or whathaveyou. I’ve never had Siri or Google a key away to tell me what I needed to know. Without that security blanket, I’ve grown up completely used to tackling problems with nothing but my own wits and the resources around me. I traveled solo to Japan without a phone, had a ridiculous adventure in the middle of Tokyo in the dead of night trying to find my hotel, and didn’t even freak out a little bit. I’m just too used to problem-solving on-the-go.
  2. How to be creative. There’s a quote someone said when talking about modern technology and how it affects our psychology: “Inconvenience breeds resourcefulness.” By nature, we take the path of least resistance. But if that path suddenly becomes unavailable (I have seen people get to the edge of true meltdowns because their phones have run out of charge), we’re at a loss for how to proceed. I’ve lived over two decades basically making life more difficult for myself than it has to be–and I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. It’s given me the ability to fully account for all the resources I have available to me, to see opportunity where others might see none.
  3. How to focus. The body of research that currently exists has a lot to say about the ways technology is shaping our abilities to think, learn, memorize, and pay attention. You can go search it up if you’re interested. I have a pretty lengthy attention span from the get-go, but I believe a life without the constant distraction of a phone has elongated it further still. I don’t get restless after the first ten minutes, half hour, or even full hour of focusing on something. I need breaks–all brains do–but I’m not plagued by the attention deficit that so many of my peers complain of.
  4. How to be bored. There’s also a body of research that suggests boredom is good for your brain. It causes you to find ways to entertain yourself. It makes you more imaginative. It acts as a motivator, and also as an important resting state. It allows the mind to do the absolutely vital work of processing–emotions, facts, ideas, whatever. Lots of people despise their commutes to work or school, but I honestly love them. They give me anywhere between 30-60 minutes to just sit and stare out the window, or else close my eyes entirely, and let my thoughts shift and settle. The ideas that come out of these little rest periods are some of the best I’ve ever had.
  5. How to be alone. This is The Lesson, in my opinion. It’s the kicker. It’s the single most important thing I’ve learned out of all of these. In an age of constant oversharing and overstimulation, I am comfortable with stillness and silence and with being all alone. Sure, the yoga training probably helped. So did the natural tendency towards introversion. But even my introverted friends will do a lot of things to avoid just sitting in their own company. We need the time and the space to self-reflect, and because it’s so important, self-reflection is scary. For most, there’s an easy escape from that daunting prospect: fiddle with the phone. For me, there’s been no way around it. I just learned to be with myself instead–and to enjoy being with myself. That positive relationship with self is something I wish everyone would build–but it takes work to do it. And you gotta unplug to do the work.

Do I miss my life without a phone? Not sure yet. It’s only been a fortnight, and I purposefully did all I could to minimize the impact it has on my life (no data, no apps, nothing–it’s basically a glorified landline). I’m a bit miffed that an extra $50 or so will be leaving my bank account per month, but I suppose that’ll be balanced out by the money to be made in a Real People Job. And as for my freedom and solitude, well, all I have to do is turn the thing off. The point is that, after living through all of my formative growth periods without this tool, I’m able to view it as a tool, and not as an appendage. Which means with any luck at all, the phone will work for me, and not the other way around.

How do you feel about your own phone/tech usage? Have you ever considered downgrading to a “dumbphone”? Are you curious about anything I didn’t cover? Let me know!

Love and EM radiation,





8 thoughts on “The Tech-Savvy Luddite: Living Without a Cell Phone for 23 Years

  1. Interesting insight; made me realize that I have likely forgot how it feels to be bored. I am a pretty stimulus craving person and tech (the internets) has allowed me to constantly scratch my itch. Although I feel it has improved my overall productivity, sometimes I wonder if the high levels of stimulus I am taking in is unhealthy on some level.


    1. Thanks for reading! It’s true that some people can handle a larger-than-average load of stimuli before becoming overwhelmed. But that said, every brain needs time to just slow down and mull over the things it’s trying to process or encode.
      And as for productivity, the thing I’m trying to teach myself now (after a whole life convinced otherwise) is that something doesn’t need to be productive to be meaningful. It’s good to create value in this world, but the concept of value differs greatly depending on who and where you are. I think most of us are scared to death of being ‘unproductive’ (or, to be pointed, ‘useless’) and that fear is fueled by how our current social climate worships productivity. Here’s an interesting article that speaks to these topics far better than I can:


  2. LOVE this article!!! It says everything I feel and so well. Read it just after spending literally hours trying to troubleshoot why my cell phone was eating up data as if it had been on a starvation diet for weeks; cutting off text messages; and doing its own settings. The makers of all these gadgets are laughing all the way to the bank at OUR inconvenience!


    1. Thanks Mary! I absolutely agree – and the level of infantilization that goes on with each passing wave of technology is appalling. You wouldn’t believe the number of things a computer does without its owner’s permission, or the lengths you have to go through in order to make changes! In fact it makes me quite sad that being ‘plugged in’ is basically a fundamental requirement to function in society these days.


  3. Great read! Just swapped my iPhone for a Nokia 3310 and I already notice the benefits in terms of ability to concentrate and those necessary moments of boredom breeding creativity. Tried to explain my reasons to some friends the other day but all justifications were met with resistance. I´m struggling to see how I´ll ever go back now. Looking forward to my next solo trip without a smartphone! How did your first phoneless solo trip go?


    1. Hey there Sonny! 🙂 Whoa, that’s great to hear the change is so noticeable. It’s a relief to know that those skills (concentration, patience, resilience to boredom, etc) can be re/learned! It’s a shame that nobody’s supportive of your choice though. Hopefully in time a few of them will come around, but if not, don’t sweat it. You made the change for yourself, and it’s working out for you–that’s what matters!

      Also, my solo trip was AMAZING. Holy goodnight. I was in Marseille for five days and I remember each one of them crystal clear. I brought a sketchbook to just draw the things and people I encountered, and I ended up making some friends (and earning some meals!) that way. It was a more fully immersive experience than I think I ever could have had if I’d been tied to a phone/tablet of some kind.


      1. I can absolutely imagine! That´s what I´m looking forward to. Not having to rely on technology and being fully present in each moment. Not to mention just reconnecting with people in general. I forgot how simple yet satisfying it was to just ask people for directions! : D


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