Dumbing Down the Smartphone
(2023 Phone Setup)

Published: 2023-01-02
Updated: 2023-04-10

My view on smartphones have shifted quite dramatically over the past 5 years. I had once been the "early adopter" consumer-type that purchased the latest and greatest smartphone and gadgets, and even provided digital marketing for a major smartphone OEM (at the time) and later a mobile SoC designer. Over time, I became concerned about digital privacy, freedom, and e-waste, gradually trying to keep my phone for as long as feasibly possible, using only FOSS apps and mobile OSes, avoiding locked down devices, and avoiding new gadgets all together. These issues aside, I think smartphones have evolved into complex advertisement delivery systems and distraction machines. For instance, I'm constantly seeing people using their smartphone while their blasting down the freeway at 75mph. An occasional bus ride gives you the top down perspective where you can see what exactly people are doing on their smartphone while driving a 2 ton metal box - often it's scrolling their social media feed or responding to a message, and distracted driving car accidents have been on the rise. At the risk of sounding like an insufferable hipster luddite, modern smartphones create far more problems than they attempt solve. I've done a lot of tweaking to my phone over the past year that has made it as close to a dumb phone as possible while keeping it's most useful features. This will not be a "smartphones are bad" post because I also think smartphones are an incredibly valuable tool if you remove all the distraction-inducing nonsense and cruft (and make it difficult for yourself to add them back).

To address more of the "why", I don't want my phone to be such a central/important object in my life, following me around wherever I go and constantly pulling at my attention. I've come to the realization that most of the things that I typically would do on my phone could easily be done on a traditional computer. I have far more control over my laptop, there aren't notifications pulling at my attention, and it's easier to walk away from it. With a smartphone, there's always the temptation to pull my phone out of my pocket at times I shouldn't, such as when I'm bored or anxious.

At the same time I don't want to dismiss the usefulness of the smartphone entirely. Initially, I thought I wanted just a simple "dumb" feature phone that would also function as a music/podcast player. I've probably collectively spent 6 hours or more on eBay looking at flip phones and bar-shaped feature phones only to be disappointed at what's available, and many of which come preinstalled with Facebook and Google Assistant. I wanted to find a feature phone with USB-C and a headphone jack, but this seems incredibly rare. I had strongly considered the Punkt M02 phone primarily because I find it's minimal design cool, but opted not to because of the price, lack of a headphone jack (something even my current phone also lacks), and reports of the awful battery life (apparently it runs Android for some reason). I also came across the Light Phone which has an e-ink display that intrigued me but was turned off by it's clunky look and feel, and the outdated micro USB port.

At the end of my research, I realized that there are two primary features of a smartphone that are absolutely crucial (at least to me) which are either non-existent or offer a terrible experience on a feature phone: the ability to GPS navigation and having a decent camera. Two other secondary features, though not essential, is the ability to have a WiFi hotspot for my laptop, and being able to read ebooks via Koreader when I don't have my ereader with me.

I could get these things separately like buying a separate GPS Nav for my car, a point and shoot digital camera, a standalone WiFi hotspot, and bringing my ereader everywhere, but damn I really don't want to bring all that shit with me ever place I go. Having a dozen gadgets to do the tasks a single device could only makes my life more complicated, and considering the costs and increased potential for e-waste, I decided to continue to to use my 5+ year old Pixel 2 XL OnePlus N200 with LineageOS and just modify it a bit.

Current Setup

My current setup is very similar to the previous iteration, but there are now fewer apps most notably Signal, an app store, and a web browser.

Swiping right opens SMS. Swiping left opens contacts/dialer. Swiping up opens the file manager. Tapping the clock opens the clock app for alarms. Tapping the calendar opens the calculator. Here's a quick video demonstrating this. I've intentionally disabled the web browser and removed the F-Droid (app store), mostly because I have a tendency to use the browser almost like a fidget spinner. I also removed Signal because for the most part I would be distract myself with superficial engagement, and now just send and receive messages via the app on my laptop. I also feel that Signal more and more is turning into a social media app, especially with the recent launch of stories.

The only "extra" things my phone does outside of phone calls and SMS is handling music, podcasts, navigation, reading books, taking notes, calculating, and managing local files. I've found that Tibor Kaputa's Simple Mobile Tools have been useful in that they're minimal, and I can keep a simple white text on a black background theme, making the look and feel identical across all the apps. I recently sent a donation to the dev and encourage others to do so as well if you find their work valuable.

This isn't to say that my current phone setup is fixed for eternity, as it will likely change in specific life scenarios such as when I'm traveling and where apps like a web browser and Signal become more useful. Since I've implemented these changes, I've observed that over the past several months I use my phone far less than I used to and I don't pull my phone out of my pocket at the slightest hint of boredom. Living in the 21st century means taking steps to protecting our attention and knowing what to ignore have become essential skills.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to send comments, questions, or recommendations to hey@chuck.is.