A Week Without Data

Jemma Howlett goes back to the Stone Ages.

A Week Without Data

By Jemma Howlett

It’s hard to imagine the modern world without smart phones, which have taken over the tasks of dozens of other objects and services that used to be completely separate entities. Your phone is now your calculator, computer, address book, calendar, camera, video camera, photo album, Gameboy, map, GPS, newspaper, pedometer, thermostat, iPod, watch, stopwatch, compass, TV, scanner, credit card, flashlight, recorder, book, notebook, personal trainer, cab, bank, and blind date.

But it hasn’t always been this way, and at times I can’t help but wonder if the dependence has become too much. So I decided to try to do without all the luxuries that smart phones allow for one week.

First, a little bit about me: I don’t think of myself as a completely social media-obsessed person. But I do have all the major platforms: Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook (Snapchat is my favorite). I check these fairly often but I wouldn’t say constantly. Going into this project I assumed that I would miss social media and my phone, but that it would be annoying at worst to not have access to these conveniences.

The Challenge

Not only would I use no cellular data this week, but I would also refrain from using anything that was not available on a mobile phone circa early 2000s. That means pretty much just texting and calling. I wanted to switch to a flip phone, but my 2006 purple razor’s charger was missing so this wasn’t a possibility. I would also abstain from using social media on my computer at home, although I would check my email, the news, and browse the rest of the internet while connected to Wi-Fi. I would do this for five days—not a proper week, but I figured this was going to be pretty inconvenient and five days would give me enough of a taste. Along the way I would document my experiences and revelations in a diary, which I share with you now.

Day 1: Friday

This happened to be the Friday after Donald Trump accepted the nomination for president. Thursday night after watching the speech, I switched over to The Daily Show. As the clock struck midnight I dutifully shut off my Wi-Fi and data and transported myself to the days when Nickelback was a hot new band.

I quickly got my first taste of just how much I actually use my phone: I really wanted to use it to surf social media or play a game while I was watching. Troublingly, watching TV didn’t seem like enough stimulation for me, and I felt like I needed to be doing something else with my hands. I eventually got a piece of paper to doodle on, but I was surprised by how much not being able to use my phone for such a meaningless task frustrated me.

In the morning I biked to a physical therapy appointment in town this morning and it was HOT. But I had no idea how hot? How did people figure out the temperature without the weather app? I could neither check the temperature in the weather app or Snapchat it to my friends. Starving for this information, usually a few swipes away, I ended up going into a Starbucks to find a newspaper to look at the temperature. It said high of 94 degrees, but this seemed unreliable.

My mom was wearing two pairs of sunglasses on top of each other in the grocery store and I really wanted to Snapchat it…

I sat down to do some work on my computer and while I was checking emails and doing surfing the web, I kept opening a new tab and then typing in “f” so it would automatically bring up Facebook. It seemed like whenever I hit a roadblock or my mind wandered my automatic response was to open up Facebook in another tab. This wasn’t even a conscious thought that I was aware of; it was almost just muscle memory. Disturbing.

Battery Life! Your phone has INSANE battery life when you only use it every once in a while to text and call. By the end of the day I was still at 81%! I find remembering to charge electronics to be such a daily annoyance, so not having to charge my phone as much will be at least be one positive outcome of this experience.

Day 2: Saturday

Today my friend and I went to the MoPop music festival in Detroit. This was a challenge. I felt like the only person to have ever gone to a music festival or concert and not posted about it on social media. Scrawling madly in my tiny notebook (which I bought the day before so I wouldn’t have to use my “Notes” app), I looked like a complete nut job in a sea of young people talking, frolicking, and looking at their phones.

We had to walk a couple miles instead of Ubering because I couldn’t use my data to call one and my friend was out of data for the month, so we were basically living in the dark ages.

MoPo music festival

I cheated! I took this photo with my phone, but I needed proof that we were there… right? As they say, if you go to a concert and you don’t put it on social media it were you really there?


Day 3: Sunday

Woke up and looked at my phone, but of course there were no notifications. Only the barren landscape of my background.

I went to the gym in the morning but didn’t think through the whole no-phone thing. I usually listen to music on my phone because who still has an iPod? So instead when I ran on the treadmill I was forced to choose between watching the Tour de France or Fox News, the only two channels playing on the TVs overhead. Adding salt to the wound, the headphone socket on my machine didn’t work so I had to watch with subtitles. I then tried to read a book while running, which did not go so well.

Today was the second day of MoPop and while the novelty of not using social media at the event had worn off, it still felt weird to not be one of the masses holding up their phones at the act performing. But this weirdness was not bad. It was actually very refreshing. I found that I noticed a lot more because every second of free time or unoccupied time was not taken up with my nose in my phone. This was only freeing, though, once I let it be—otherwise it was just annoying.

Day 4: Monday

Today I had to drive to East Lansing to work at a lab. I had only visited this location once before and couldn’t quite remember where I was going, so I drew myself a little map before I left. This was a pretty ugly-looking map, and I came dangerously close to having to break out trusty Google maps. Without it I couldn’t see the fastest way home or if there was traffic, so I just had to go home the way I knew—how old-fashioned.

I bought 5 pounds of blueberries and I really wanted to Snapchat this extravaganza.

It was my friend who lives in Scotland’s birthday. I did not know this at the time however, because my trusty birthday book, better known as Facebook, couldn’t tell me. I figured it out once I got back on social media scouring through notifications I missed. It occurred to me that even if I had known it was her birthday I wouldn’t have had a way to contact her. WhatsApp, iMessage, Facetime, and Skype all take data that my flip phone couldn’t handle. I suppose I could have emailed her…

Day 5: Tuesday

By this point I’ve learned the ropes. I’m avoiding the gym and only running outside even if it is blisteringly hot because I cannot deal with subtitled Fox News again. I am planning out my routes on Google maps before I leave the house. I’ve stopped thinking in Snapchats and tweets, and my notebook is becoming lovingly worn. I’m adapting.

But I wasn’t the only one who had to adapt. Throughout the week, people haven’t able to figure out how to contact me. Even though they can still text or call, friends who are used to iMessaging me seem to not understand that they will have to send it as a text message for it to come through. I got a lot of these messages once my phone turned back on. In this way, my not using data inconvenienced others, too.

Just after midnight I turned my phone back on, and felt surprisingly anxious about checking social media—something I had wanted to do the whole week. For whatever reason, those red, numbered bubbles were stressful and I didn’t want to open them right away. It was like I was hoarding my notifications. I didn’t find myself rushing back to my old friends, Facebook, Snapchat, etc.

Final Reflections

The most remarkable thing that I learned about myself through this experiment was how much social media drives my thoughts. A lot of my thoughts about experiences I was having, even mundane things, were packaged in terms of how best to share these moments with my virtual network. For example, if I saw something that was funny or reminded me of someone I would think about how I would Snapchat or Tweet it and what caption I would use. These social media platforms allow us to share parts of our lives that you would not otherwise be able to share and they bring out creativity in unexpected ways. I noticed later on in the week, however, that I stopped filtering my thoughts through social media profiles, as though a previously unnoticed burden had been lifted, allowing me to think more openly and creatively in general.

This isn’t something I would do long-term. The main issue with not having a smart phone was extreme inconvenience. Having a mini computer in your hand just makes logistics and planning so much easier. The world isn’t equipped for people to not have smart phones anymore. People aren’t friendly when you stop and ask for directions, cabs aren’t waiting outside events, and billboards don’t tell you the temperature.

Taking a few days off was refreshing, but if anything mainly reinforced for me how much our everyday lives are intertwined with and managed by technology that has been around for just about a decade.

Jemma HowlettJemma Howlett is a writer, runner, traveller, college student and carb-enthusiast. Check out her coffee blog, thecoffeetravels.wordpress.com, and follow her on Twitter and Instagram @jemmahow