Earlier this week, Apple began a clearance sale on the iPhone SE, its nearly three-year-old, 4-inch smartphone modeled after the iPhone 5S, at a $100 discount. It was the second round of recent sales after an initial batch sold out the previous weekend. And like any budget-adverse tech journalist with an impulse buying compulsion, I felt this was the appropriate moment to hop on the backup phone bandwagon. So I bought one. (Unfortunately, it sold out quick, again.)
I’ve always appreciated the classic 5S design, with its overtly rounded corners and its sturdy, not-so-delicate dimensions. It never felt like it really required a case, and its smaller screen and more comfortable, one-handed use is something I’ve thought far too much about as I’ve ferried around an iPhone X and now an XS over the past year and a half. Plus, it’s got a headphone jack.
I purchased a space grey model, with 32GB of storage, purely because I want to pop my nano SIM into it on nights and weekends when I don’t want the full, 5.8-inch iPhone XS screen taunting me to open Instagram and Twitter two dozen times in an any given hour. I plan to keep Spotify, Google Maps, and maybe a few reading, podcasting, and news apps on it, but nothing else. No Slack, no Twitter, no Instagram… none of that. I want the phone to function mostly as a phone, instead of as the always half-open window into a digital life I’d rather leave behind when I shut my laptop down every evening.
Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge
More broadly, I’m trying to figure out if the problem is mostly me, or mostly my device and the apps I use. (Or equal amounts of both.) Because no matter how well-meaning Apple and Google’s approaches to mindfulness can seem, both companies profit in one way or another from your continued and never-ending smartphone use, be it through ads on a Google Search window or the persistent, nagging feeling that you might as well upgrade to the newest iPhone for fear of being left behind.
The inspiration here is not a novel one. Since renders of the original Light Phone hit Kickstarter way back in 2015, the minimalist phone movement has cycled through various stages of nostalgia for the pre-smartphone era, when flip phones reigned supreme and the BlackBerry was about as featured a device as you could buy.
The most recent collective yearning to dial back our complex relationship with technology was around the new Palm phone, a tiny 3.3-inch phone that piggybacks off your Verizon number. Almost everyone I’ve talked to about the device seems to agree that they’d buy it in a heartbeat if it were widely available beyond Verizon (and perhaps a little cheaper than its current $349.99 price). The immense interest in the device was yet another sign that the minimalist phone movement is here to stay.
Can a smaller, less capable phone help you live a more fulfilling life?
Granted, many of these companies are just trying to sell you a second phone to keep you away from your main phone. But the core philosophy still revolves around the same tantalizing question: Can a smaller, less capable smartphone help you live a more fulfilling life?
Probably not, but it seems worth trying. The average American opened their phone on average of 52 times a day last year, up from 47 the year before, according to the US edition of the 2018 Global Mobile Consumer Survey from Deloitte. More than 60 percent of people polled between the ages of 18 and 34 admit to using their phone too much. Although the science on the subject remains inconclusively, due to how hard it is to draw conclusions from largely self-reported data, it does certainly feel like we live in a society that continues to glorify and reward always-on behavior while simultaneously wallowing in the fear of what it might be doing to our mental and emotional states.
As for me, I’m much worse than your average person. According to Apple’s Screen Time dashboard, I open my phone on average 94 times a day. Twitter is my most used app after pickup, with the stock Messages app, Messenger, and Chrome in the next top spots. I spend on average of 2.5 hours per day on my phone, with a vast majority of that usage labelled under “social networking.”
Personal habits aside, nearly every website and mobile app and operating system maker out there is incentivized to absorb as much of your attention as possible. Whether it’s Netflix or Twitch measuring their success in minutes watched or Twitter and Instagram touting how many of their monthly users now open the app every day, the ad-fueled attention economy can pretend to care about your digital wellbeing and responsible use of screen time as much as their marketing department seems fit. But at the end of the day, the more we use and rely on our phones, the more successful these phone and app makers declare themselves.
Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge
So how does the SE fit in here? Well, the SE is first and foremost going to be my second phone. It will be an object with a tightly controlled experience centered on a singular notion of unplugging, as best as someone can unplug in 2019. It won’t have my work email, it won’t have Fortnite or Holedown, and it most certainly will not have Twitter. (I’m more partial to Instagram for the sole reason that it is a more pleasant place to spend time than any of the other popular digital spaces available to me.)
On top of that, the phone is just not as good. It’s smaller and more compact, with a worse screen, battery life, and camera. I’m hoping that helps me resist the urge to pop open a Twitch stream, or watch a few YouTube videos, or photograph scenes I’ll never really feel the need to remember and won’t look fondly back on anyway. As an AT&T customer, it’s my own version of the Palm phone.
The iPhone SE can be the mini Palm phone for iOS users
I don’t have high hopes that it will work all that well. I still need to be wired into Slack and Twitter for work most days of the week, and I doubt I’ll want to go through the hassle of SIM swapping every night just for the chance at more peace of mind. I also think I’ll worry too much about leaving my more better camera-equipped XS at home if I go on a particularly scenic weekend trip, or that I might feel like I’m not caught up on the news if I’m not using Twitter, to truly commit to using the SE from the moment I sign off on Friday evening to when I wake up on Monday morning.
But it’ll be an experiment. If anything, Apple’s Screen Time can now serve a new and more vital role: telling me whether I really need the best and most expensive iPhone, and all the most eyeball-grabbing mobile apps, to feel fulfilled and informed and up to date. My guess is that even if I slip up and use my SE less than I’d like, it’ll still be comforting to know I can turn the volume down on my digital life whenever I like.