Cause One: The Increase in Speed, Switching, and Filtering
I don’t understand what you’re asking for,” the man in Target in Boston kept saying to me. “These are the cheapest phones we got. They have super-slow internet. That’s what you want, right?” No, I said. I want a phone that can’t access the internet at all. He studied the back of the box, looking confused. “This would be really slow. You could probably get your email but you wouldn’t—” Email is still the internet, I said. I am going away for three months, specifically so I can be totally offline.
My friend Imtiaz had already given me his old, broken laptop, one that had lost the ability to get online years before. It looked like it came from the set of the original Star Trek, a remnant from some aborted vision of the future. I was going to use it, I had resolved, to finally write the novel I had been planning for years. Now what I needed was a phone where I could be called in emergencies by the six people I was going to give the number to. I needed it to have no internet option of any kind, so that if I woke up at 3 a.m. and my resolve cracked and I tried to get online, I wouldn’t be able to do it, no matter how hard I tried.
When I explained to people what I was planning, I would get one of three responses. The first was just like that of this man in Target: they couldn’t seem to process what I was saying. They thought I was saying that I was going to cut back on my internet use. The idea of going offline completely seemed to them so bizarre that I had to explain it again and again. “So you want a phone that can’t go online at all?” he said. “Why would you want that?”
The second response—which this man offered next—was a kind of low-level panic on my behalf. “What will you do in an emergency?” he asked. “It doesn’t seem right.” I asked—what emergency will require me to get online? What’s going to happen? I’m not the president of the United States—I don’t have to issue orders if Russia invades Ukraine. “Anything,” he said. “Anything could happen.” I kept explaining to the people my age—I was thirty-nine at the time—that we had spent half our lives without phones, so it shouldn’t be so hard to picture returning to the way we had lived for so long. Nobody seemed to find this persuasive.
And the third response was envy. People began to fantasize about what they would do with all the time they spent on their phones if it was all suddenly freed up. They started by listing the number of hours that Apple’s Screen Time option told them they spent on their phones every day. For the average American, it’s three hours and fifteen minutes. We touch our phones 2,617 times every twenty-four hours. Sometimes they would wistfully mention something they loved and had abandoned—playing the piano, say—and stare off into the distance.
Target had nothing for me. Ironically, I had to go online to order what seemed to be the last remaining cellphone in the United States that can’t access the web. It’s called the Jitterbug. It’s designed for extremely old people, and it doubles as a medical emergency device. I opened the box and smiled at its giant buttons and told myself that there’s an added bonus: if I fall over, it will automatically connect me to the nearest hospital.
I laid out on the hotel bed everything I was taking with me. I had gone through all the routine things I normally use my iPhone for, and bought objects to replace each one. So for the first time since I was a teenager, I bought a watch. I got an alarm clock. I dug out my old iPod and loaded it with audiobooks and podcasts, and I ran my finger along its screen, thinking about how futuristic this gadget seemed to me when I bought it twelve years ago; now it looked like something that Noah might have carried onto the Ark. I had Imtiaz’s broken laptop—now rendered, effectively, into a 1990s-style word processor—and next to it I had a pile of classic novels I had been meaning to read for decades, with War and Peace at the top.
I took an Uber so I could hand over my iPhone and my MacBook to a friend who lived in Boston. I hesitated before putting them on the table in her house. Quickly, I pushed a button on my phone to summon a car to take me to the ferry terminal, and then I switched it off and walked away from it fast, like it might come running after me. I felt a twinge of panic. I’m not ready for this, I thought. Then somewhere, from the back of my mind, I remembered something the Spanish writer José Ortega y Gasset said: “We cannot put off living until we are ready . . . Life is fired at us point-blank.” If you don’t do this now, I told myself, you’ll never do it, and you’ll be lying on your deathbed seeing how many likes you got on Instagram. I climbed into the car and refused to look back.
I had learned years before from social scientists that when it comes to beating any kind of destructive habit, one of the most effective tools we have is called “pre-commitment.” It’s right there in one of the oldest surviving human stories, Homer’s Odyssey. Homer tells of how there was once a patch of sea that sailors would always die in, for a strange reason: living in the ocean, there were two sirens—a uniquely hot blend of woman and fish—who would sing to the sailors to join them in the ocean. Then, when they clambered in for some sexy fish-based action, they’d drown. But then, one day, the hero of the story—Ulysses—figured out how to beat these temptresses. Before the ship approached the sirens’ stretch of sea, he got his crew members to tie him to the mast, hard, hand and foot. He couldn’t move. When he heard the sirens, no matter how much Ulysses yearned to dive in, he couldn’t.
I had used this technique before when I was trying to lose weight. I used to buy loads of carbs and tell myself I would be strong enough to eat them slowly and in moderation, but then I would guzzle them at 2 a.m. So I stopped buying them. At 2 a.m., I wasn’t going to haul myself to a store to buy Pringles. The you that exists in the present—right now—wants to pursue your deeper goals, and wants to be a better person. But you know you’re fallible and likely to crack in the face of temptation. So you bind the future version of you. You narrow your choices. You tie yourself to the mast.
There has been a small range of scientific experiments to see if this really works, at least in the short term. For example, in 2013 a professor of psychology named Molly Crockett—who I interviewed at Yale—got a bunch of men into a lab and split them into two groups. All of them were going to face a challenge. They were told that they could see a slightly sexy picture right away if they wanted to, but if they were able to wait and do nothing for a little while, they would get to see a super-sexy picture. The first group was told to use their willpower, and discipline themselves in the moment. But the second group was given a chance, before they went into the lab, to “pre-commit”—to resolve, out loud, that they were going to stop and wait so they could see the sexier picture. The scientists wanted to know—would the men who made a pre-commitment hold out more often, and longer, than the men who didn’t? It turned out pre-commitment was strikingly successful—resolving clearly to do something, and making a pledge that they’d stick to it, made the men significantly better at holding out. In the years since, scientists have shown the same effect in a broad range of experiments.