I don’t own a smartphone.
Well, that’s not quite true. I have an old phone that could technically access the internet, but I have never set it up to do so.
I use it to call my wife when I am traveling and, very occasionally, to text. I have taken a small handful of pictures with it that I don’t know how to transfer to another device. And it functions as an alarm clock when I am sleeping somewhere other than my own bed.
I use it rarely enough that I often go weeks at a time without knowing whether it is charged. Perhaps it is fairer to say, “I don’t use a smartphone.”
This leads to inconveniences. I am expected to use a smartphone to track (and interact with) my kids’ baseball and soccer schedules. Different groups I belong to want to message using this or that app. When I go to band practice, I have to catch up on all the conversations I missed between the rest of the members since our last practice or gig.
This is annoying, but it is rarely consequential. For me, it is a price worth paying.
It might be for you, too.
When people ask me to do something that I can’t do without a smartphone and I tell them why I can’t do it, the most common response I get is not irritation but longing. A wistful, “How do you do it?” or “I wish I could do that,” is typical.
My question is the reverse. People wonder how I live without a smartphone; I don’t understand how people live with theirs.
I recall a commercial in which a woman sitting on a couch at home keeps rejecting the Christmas trees her partner in the woods is sending pictures of for her approval. This was not, it seemed to me, an ad for buying a smartphone but an argument for getting rid of the darn thing.
And the burdening of everyday tasks with layers of unnecessary and often unhelpful communication is just one small inconvenience smartphones have brought into our lives.
For every time my wife and I are frustrated because I did not have certain information I could have gotten from a smartphone, there are dozens or hundreds of other interactions that are much more streamlined and simple. I was capable of going to the grocery store without a smartphone in the 1990s, and I remain capable of it today.
But the convenience I find in not using a smartphone is actually just the tip of the iceberg. The real reason I choose not to use one is because I know that using one will make it much harder to be the kind of person I want to be.
My desktop presents me with enough trouble. I don’t need those problems in my pocket. I remember when my daughter, Daisy, was 2, and she literally pushed me backward away from our family computer where I was engaged in a debate on social media.
It takes me sincere effort to work against the fragmentation of my consciousness that the current information ecosystem engenders. And I fail regularly.
When I see statistics describing how some people are on smartphones for four or five or six hours a day and more, I don’t know how they can even function in their basic tasks and relationships.
It breaks my heart to see kids at their siblings’ sporting events or in waiting rooms at the doctor’s office pacified with tech so that their parents can attend to whatever is going on on their own phones.
I understand the temptation entirely. Kids can be exhausting. And I can offer no guarantee that, if I had a phone with those capacities, I would not do the same thing.
And all of this is to say nothing of the particular content of the internet. When people are looking to make money from your attention, they will produce content to appeal to your basest desires.
Stoking and feeding anger and lust and jealousy is a reliable business model. And today, it is done with a kind of psychological precision that is terrifying. Unscrupulous merchants know how to get and keep eyes on the screen.
Our Catholic moral tradition understands that having values and living by those values are two different things. Relying on willpower alone to do what we think is best is never a good strategy and is only ever successful in the very short term. That is why the tradition speaks of “avoiding occasions of sin.”
If we are honest with ourselves, we know that certain situations are going to get us in trouble.
I am not able to avoid computers and social media altogether. But my experience of their power over my attention and my time when I use them sitting at a desk in a room with other people in it gives me enough data about them and me to know that I am not virtuous enough to use a smartphone.
There are, thank God, people much more virtuous than I am. It would be surprising if that number included every Catholic with a smartphone.
Brett Salkeld, Ph.D., is a Catholic theologian, speaker and author. He serves as archdiocesan theologian for the Archdiocese of Regina, Saskatchewan.