Ditching the mobile phone for 3 months – why today it’s as difficult as breaking out of prison!

Ditching the mobile phone for 3 months – why today it’s as difficult as breaking out of prison!
20 September 2018

Another quarter, another experiment. I have decided to “retire” my mobile phone from now until Christmas.

What I had not quite expected, was just how difficult the practicalities of preparing this experiment were going to be. Little did I know that the large tech firms have created some formidable barriers aimed at preventing you from going without a mobile phone.

Nowadays, ditching your mobile is literally like turning yourself into an unperson.

How to deal with it?

Here is what I have learned so far!

The perspective I gained by doing the same back in 2005

Believe it or not, this is the second time I am getting rid of my mobile phone. The first time was 13 years ago.

Back in 2005, we had neither social media nor smartphones – hence no virtual record exists of the first time I ditched my then mobile phone.

Nowadays, ditching your mobile is literally like turning yourself into an unperson.

Up to that point, it had been part of my life for nine years. When I first bought a ridiculously expensive mobile phone back in 1996, it felt exciting and special. However, over the years it had become somewhat annoying that anyone who had my number could chase me at any time, anywhere, for any reason.

So I decided to get rid of it.

In those days, leaving the mobile phone world was reasonably easy. You pointed everyone to your landline number, dealt with a handful of surprised comments, and that was it. Two years before the arrival of Facebook and iPhones, there was no public virtue signalling, no online discussion of your decision, and barely a ruffled feather of people who felt rejected or were worried about your mental health.

I rejoined the world of mobile connectivity in 2006 when I met a cute girl who insisted that she’d have to be able to reach me easily. She was well worth it.

Two years later, the girlfriend left, but the mobile stayed. Ever since I’ve been back to being “on call” for anyone who has got my number. Though not as a preference, more as a nuisance that I wasn’t able to shake off. There were always a handful of good reasons to keep it, or so I thought. To be honest, until relatively recently, I never made much of an effort to analyse the subject since I had other pressing priorities.

Fast-forward to 2018, and taking a break from mobile phones – which are now almost always smartphones rather than just a device you can call – has become a trendy thing. Not that I’d consider doing something solely because it has become fashionable. However, regularly coming across articles, podcasts and videos of people who did the unthinkable made me consider doing the same – once more!

Little did I know how damn-near-impossible this has become.

If you try to extricate yourself from the world of mobile phone slaves, you’ll face much more severe challenges than I did back in 2005.

To ID, or not to ID

Are you using services like PayPal, Apple’s App Store, Skype, eBay, or Coingate? Or any of the other significant Internet services?

If you do, chances are you will have received ID verification numbers by SMS. Most of these services require you to have a mobile phone number that they can use for identification purposes.

Those services that don’t yet require it are quite likely to catch up soon. E.g., I recently registered for a new Skype account using their option to register with just an email address, only to be blocked from the entire service a few weeks later because Skype switched to requiring a mobile number. Unblocking my Skype account required me to have a mobile phone that they could send a text message to. Oh the irony – the reason I had joined Skype was part of my effort to ditch the mobile phone!

Some of my more privacy-minded friends have long switched to calling mobile phones “tracking devices.” Indeed, the devices we carry in our pockets are increasingly fulfilling functions such as providing a form of ID for you. Why do we still refer to them as phones?

The challenge of requiring a mobile phone to identify yourself vis-a-vis vital web services is one that is anything but easy to overcome. No doubt, the big players of the tech sector are working together to keep you in line.

Why I decided to quit for the 2nd time

In case you wonder, I am neither a Luddite, nor an obsessive retro man, nor a reality-removed hippie.

As a reader of this blog, you will already know that I base my decisions on careful analysis and self-reflection, aimed at wanting to live a productive, healthy and happy life.

Mobiles have brought many a good thing to us, and I’d be the last person to poo-poo them entirely. This remained the case after normal mobiles morphed into smartphones. However, in recent years the balance between positives and negatives has started to shift.

To me, smartphone messaging services like WhatsApp have led to a general dumbing down of large parts of the population.

Here are the negatives I will deal with by ditching it altogether, some of them with a degree of overlap to other areas and for practical purposes always equating mobile phones with smartphones:

  • My primary concern in all this is my concentration level. The giant tech companies have made many mobile phone features superbly addictive. The scrolling mechanism of social media feeds was based on slot machines, i.e., it activates the same addictive mechanisms that you experience if you fall for gambling. There is by now an entire documented history how these companies aim to get you hooked, and as a result, most anyone is checking their mobile phone dozens or even hundreds of times per day. According to a recent study, “the average person struggles to go little more than 10 minutes without checking their phone.” I am only human and will fall for some of that for as long as I have one of these devices. I wonder how many times I have scrolled mindlessly through some news websites or social media feeds when instead I should have used the time to contemplate something far more important – or even simply gaze at the sky to let me mind take a break. I detest the fact that someone else has managed to have some form of addictive power over me. What’s more, this is costing me time, productivity, and concentration. This is the invisible cost of having a mobile.
  • Over the years, I have come to the conclusion that dealing with messages based on your own timing is much more productive and healthy than to deal with messages at a time of someone else’s choosing. Hence it’s now only emails to a laptop that I decide to sit down in front of at my own timing, rather than phone calls or other messages delivered to a phone that I carry with me at all times.
  • To me, smartphone messaging services like WhatsApp have led to a general dumbing down of large parts of the population. Ever more people are incapable of explaining or understanding complex issues, as they are increasingly used to communicating via mini bursts of simplistic thinking. Value is primarily created through deep, focused work; not by firing off poorly spelled short messages (accompanied by annoying message notification sounds).
  • We all have way too many communication channels. You are forced to have several email accounts to keep different companies apart. Social media services add yet more inboxes, i.e., in my case inboxes for LinkedIn, Facebook, and Minds. Countless people are mad enough to send business messages via Facebook, which in Europe is even illegal and which in any case makes it horrendously challenging to keep an archive. Not having a mobile isn’t a complete solution for this problem, but it helps to reign in the madness and limit the damage.
  • Carrying Google Maps in my pocket has led to me not making the same effort anymore when it comes to exploring, understanding and getting to know a new city. I genuinely prefer getting out a map, memorising street names, and putting a bit of effort into finding my way. If I carry around a mobile with a map application, I fall into the laziness trap and end up using it.
  • It’s proven that reading text that is printed on paper makes us absorb the content in a much more effective, deeper way. Digital screens automatically lead to skimming and superficial understanding. I have always had a preference for reading physical books, and the two Kindles I bought both ended up on eBay without getting unwrapped. Given how much time I spend in front of my laptop, I prefer not to have yet another digital screen to gaze at.
  • I prefer to have written evidence of everything. A good number of times did my well-organised email archive save me from hairy situations or legal problems. Doing business over the phone leaves you without reliable evidence unless you have a separate system for creating such a backup. At the risk of generalising and being unfair to some people, I also feel that anecdotally, people who do business over the phone are less trustworthy than those who naturally put everything into writing.
  • Since I can read faster than people can talk, I save time by running my businesses on email rather than by phone conversation.

With all that in mind, I decided now was a good time to make the switch and go back to not carrying a mobile with me anymore for an initial period of three months.

It’s easier for me in the sense that I am habitually spending large parts of the day on my laptop, i.e., I can still be reached, only through other means.

Since I can read faster than people can talk, I save time by running my businesses on email rather than by phone conversation.

I view this step as focusing the best and most useful digital applications on one machine that I actively sit down in front of and walk away from, instead of always carrying a  plethora of wanted and unwanted digital functionalities on my body.

Leaving the mobile phone world – one step at a time

Finding these devices more annoying than anything else, I already took some steps towards cutting that umbilical cord.

Facebook app and Messenger on my phone – they were the first to go over a year ago.

WhatsApp – deleted months ago and never missed.

Apps for the likes of British Airways, Heathrow Express, and Gatwick Express – it’s much nicer holding a physical ticket in your hand.

I do, however, need some kind of possibility for people to call me occasionally and for me to make the very occasional phone call. If you travel as much as I do, the landline at home isn’t going to make that happen. Re-routing the home number to a mobile phone… Isn’t gonna work if you don’t have a mobile phone!

I solved this tricky question by having a virtual phone number that comes out on my laptop.

Skype offers the useful service of virtual landline numbers. You can buy a virtual landline number for a small monthly fee and that way, make and receive phone calls as well as receive voice messages through your laptop. By logging in and out of Skype, you determine whether you actually have a call appearing on your computer or whether it goes to voicemail (guess which one I am using most of the time). I bought myself an old-school London number: 0207 ….

What turned into quite a challenge was to overcome the issue of ID’ing via your phone.

“Virtual trash phones” won’t serve as ID

Dealing with the challenge of having to receive SMS with ID numbers to be able to use the services of big tech companies has proven the most difficult challenge.

The obvious idea of buying yourself a virtual mobile phone number, as you can easily do via any number of web-based service providers, isn’t going to cut it. I found out, via trying it out, that number sequences assigned to the virtual mobile phone providers are mostly blocked for ID purposes. Put another way, if you try to identify yourself vis-a-vis large Internet companies by using a virtual mobile number, chances are that they’ll recognise what you are up to and your attempt will be blocked. There are still loopholes, but I am under the impression these will be closed gradually.

I’ve experimented with possible solutions for several weeks. None of them worked.

In the end, I conceded that FOR NOW, I cannot entirely leave the world of mobile phones yet. The big tech companies, collaborating with the big phone companies, are well and truly on your way to forcing everyone to carry a “tracking device.”

However, I took another step forward by purchasing a Pay-as-You-Go SIM card and sticking that into an old iPhone so that I can use it as my “physical trash phone”. That number will only be used for ID purposes; the phone will be switched off unless I need to receive an SMS, and that’s that.

The big tech companies, collaborating with the big phone companies, are well and truly on your way to forcing everyone to carry a “tracking device.”

Given the plethora of services I am registered with for one reason or another it’ll take me a few months to gradually find and switch all the memberships that I need to register the new number with. I could have done that faster if I kept a proper register of everywhere that I have a user account, but who does? If you do, I salute you. In the months coming, I am planning to finally create the same for myself. Not having it puts you even more at the mercy of all these large companies. Anything you don’t have clear records about leaves someone else in control over you.

What I expect between now and Christmas

During the past three weeks, I took a further step towards a mobile-free life by regularly leaving my phone at home whenever I went out.

Not carrying this thing with me was nicely reminiscent of a time when life was good without continually being attached to an electronic device. I didn’t get lost, my friends did turn up, and no one died. Phew! Since I carry a pocket camera with me, I still get to shoot photos and at a quality that beats any camera you can buy inside a mobile.

Following all this preparation, I am going to semi-retire my mobile between now and Christmas.

For this initial period I have set myself a few clear rules to make sure I progress while being realistic about how difficult all this is:

  • My voice message will give my virtual landline number for people to ring instead.
  • I won’t cancel my mobile phone contract just yet. After 12 years on the same number, I have no idea what services the phone is registered with, or who might send an SMS to that number. I’ll switch it on once a week or so to check if anything else needs to be transitioned.
  • No silly cheating like using someone else’s phone.

Along the way, I’ll take notes and work out further improvements. I’ll continue researching the ID problem, and I’ll see if there are any other cunnings tricks, angles and aspects that I hadn’t previously thought about.

At the end of it, as you’d expect, I’ll write a summary of it all.

I’ll write that on my laptop, sitting in a cafe somewhere in the world, without calls or other distractions keeping me from writing it down with maximum focus and concentration. Peace and quiet combined with maximum concentration and productivity- life will be good!

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