Living without a smartphone in a smartphone world.

By Christopher Schaberg

In the recent Netflix film Leave the World Behind, smartphones have been rendered practically useless by a mysterious cyberattack. The characters still pull out their phones from time to time, to take pictures or reference past messages; but the phones have lost their communicative powers. Toward the end of the film a father, G.H., and daughter, Ruth (played by Mahershala Ali and Myha’la), worried that they will not see each other again, set their two phones on synchronized hour-long timers. G.H. and Ruth hold the phone screens together to show that they are in unison. They promise: when the alarms go off, they will be reunited. G.H. and Ruth can count on this simple part of their phones to function, even while little else does in this newly glitched world. Indeed time does elapse, and the alarms go off in the final scene. The phones did their job.


Smartphone addiction is in the news. The yogurt company siggi’s recently announced a “Digital Detox Program,” and selected participants win a flip phone (among other prizes). Writing for The Guardian, Ben Goldfarb announced “For five years, my flip phone has changed my life for the better.” Jonathan Haidt’s new book The Anxious Generation sounds an alarm about the effects of smartphones on young people.

I’ve been feeling this vibe, too. A year and a half ago, I got rid of my iPhone. I switched to a Light Phone—a very basic, small device with a black & white E Ink screen that can text and make calls. According to the company, it is “designed to be used as little as possible.” Light Phone has added new optional features since I started using the device, but mine remains just a phone with the ability to send text messages.

It is jarring to stop using a smartphone. All the convenient applications that have become normal, even natural-feeling—they suddenly disappear. Internet, photos, social media, rides, food delivery, maps, music, notes, shows, health monitors, and so many more…just gone. Or at least they disappear from your direct view; you notice everyone around you tapping away, engrossed. This has been one of the most chilling aspects of living without a smartphone: realizing how everyone else is on them, all the time. It is especially harrowing to realize this when driving on a highway.

People email me from time to time asking if I’m still using the Light Phone, implying the question of whether I returned to using a smartphone. But I haven’t. I continue to use the Light Phone exclusively, and while it makes me feel like something of an alien just barely blending in, the device has improved my life in so many ways—mostly by giving me back hours and hours of time that I would have spent staring, scrolling, searching, and working in the seconds and minutes syphoned out of daily life by the alluring ease of the phone’s capabilities.

A few caveats are in order: My partner still has an iPhone, and she would be the first to point out that I often ask to look at her phone in the mornings to see the weather forecast (and maybe sneak a quick peek at the New York Times homepage). And I occasionally call her for emergency directions, if I get lost on an unfamiliar road in our new home city of St. Louis. I am hardly self-reliant, no purist. But most of my days are spent without a smartphone, a stark contrast from the years of living with ever updating forms of this ubiquitous technology.

Now, when I walk to work or wait for an appointment, I don’t have that rectangular portal of distraction. It’s not always burning in my pocket, begging to be illuminated. It’s been surreal, sometimes even sublime—almost like a new kind of freedom.

But not having a smartphone has also exposed strange residues and echoes of that other life, life with a smartphone.

The biggest adjustment is not always having a camera. What an amazing technology to have our fingertips, the marvel of a high-definition digital photography, anytime, all the time! I quickly realized that I was missing this, as countless times each day I reflexively try to grab my iPhone in my pocket to take a picture of something…only to remember I do not have the ability to do so any longer.

But there is something weirder than that, as far as pictures go. All those images on my old phone, thousands taken over the years: I thought they were on my phone. But it dawned on me as I went without my smartphone that the pictures were not just hogging my phone’s memory. The images were also swirling around madly in my head. I was carrying the vast album of images (and videos) around with me in my brain each day, as I toted around the magical device that let me capture and catalog all these files. Sorting, remembering, strategizing how and when I could use them, for social media or in a text conversation…these images were constantly imprinting on my psyche.

Once I didn’t have that repository available, it gradually faded from my mind. Don’t get me wrong: I missed taking pictures of things, and I still do. Just this morning as I was drafting this essay, I was walking to my office when I saw a red-tailed hawk with its fluffy pantaloons standing proudly in front of me, having just taken down a male cardinal, its splayed red feathers sullied in the dirt. I wanted to take a picture of it, and I even reached for my phantom phone. But I couldn’t. I just had to admire the scene and watch the hawk soar gracefully off across campus, wrecked crimson carcass in its talons.


The release from the iPhone’s capacious slide reel has been psychologically freeing. I am not always holding all those images in my mind. I know it sounds conspiratorial, but I don’t mean it that way. It’s just that the proximity of all those images and videos on your phone also cause them to gyrate constantly in your head. At least, this was my experience of it.


As I alluded to earlier, last spring my family decided to move—from New Orleans to St. Louis. One weekend I flew up to our new city to look at houses, a mad-dash overnight trip to look at eight properties in a few hours, and hopefully find a new home. This is when interest rates were climbing and the housing market was extremely skittish; properties would come on the market one day and be gone the next.

Arriving in my new city, I rented a car and pulled out a crumpled paper with directions on it; I no longer had my Maps app to kindly direct me. I spent the next 24 hours learning how the patchwork municipalities were arranged and figuring out how to get to different neighborhoods by reading road signs and looking for landmarks.

I couldn’t recall the last time I had done this, driving around without the aid of GPS. It was thrilling, if often intimidating. But it worked out. I found my way and eventually even discovered a house we could afford that was near my workplace and our kids’ schools. Navigating St. Louis sans smartphone seemed to reactivate a part of my brain that had been dormant for some time.

I’d visited St. Louis for nearly two decades, as my in-laws live here. I was used to the Lyft-from-the-airport, navigation by the maps and directions on my phone, that friendly (if sometimes cryptically variable) voice piped into the car speakers.

Getting to know St. Louis without my iPhone was a different kind of adventure. When I describe it to most people it sounds just dumb, but the whole experience was invigorating. It confirmed my decision to stay detached from smartphone life, even in this new city. I walk the unfamiliar streets and drive to unexplored grocery stores with a phantom phone in my pocket.


We had moved to St. Louis in part for a job. I was hired by Washington University to launch and direct a new Program in Public Scholarship—basically helping the faculty and graduate students translate their academic research for general audiences. The work has been thrilling and exhausting, building a new program from the ground up while the university tries to position itself as an innovative campus in the middle of the country. Amid the swells and currents in higher education writ large, this institution is attempting to position itself as a uniquely relevant and attuned place. I’m doing my part to make it real.

And if I had a smartphone, I think my new job would be even more consuming. I would be roped into peripheral conversations and backchannel chatter on Teams or Slack. A lot of this still happens on my computer—I’m still plugged-in and networked during my workhours. But just by severing the pocket-constant-convenience of the smartphone, I am pretty sure that I have stemmed a lot of the extra work that would have flooded in, otherwise. (In fact, when I’m actually working, I’m more focused now without a smartphone to distract me.)

When I went to my new employee orientation, a full-day schedule of events and presentations on the med campus, I was stymied by the entry protocol: there was a QR code on the big screen, which we were supposed to scan to sign in. I couldn’t do it, and had to find the person in charge and ask, embarrassed, how I should sign in.

“You don’t have an iPhone?!?”

“Sorry, I just have this thing…” I held out my thoroughly unimpressive Light Phone, as if evidence of something.

She signed me in to the day-long orientation manually, shaking her head in slight disapproval. (Or maybe I was imagining her grimace.) The rest of the new employee training was actually one of the best versions of these sorts of things I’ve ever been a part of: Useful information relayed in appropriately sized units. But as I sat there learning, I felt vaguely out of place due to my initial misstep.

It happens more and more often at restaurants, too. Sit down; scan the QR code on the table to place an order. Or, in my case, wait awkwardly to make eye contact with a waitperson who might notice my incompetence.

At my new Subaru place, there to get a small part repaired, the attendant told me to click a link on my phone to see the technician’s video of what things looked like under my hood.

Walking on my new campus, trying to find my way to the Chemistry building where I was to present at a faculty meeting, I got lost—no quick interactive guide or map to help me. I just barely made it on time, after asking a few people for directions (which included them pulling out their phones to consult the internet).

My thirteen-year-old son is embarrassed for me when I pull the Light Phone out of my pocket. He nags me relentlessly to get a “real” phone. He notes each occasion when I could use a smartphone to do something more efficiently or seamlessly, and instead I fumble.

All these daily blips add up, making me acutely aware of a collective form of life that both works brilliantly yet is also a bit terrifying in its tacit dominance. Lately I’ve been having anxiety dreams in which I can’t text my partner in time for something urgent (it takes longer to text on a Light Phone), or in which the E Ink screen doesn’t illuminate at night when I need it to. These minor nightmares point once more to just how entangled the iPhone’s utilitarian aspects had become with my everyday impulses. Now it’s like my phantom phone is redoubling the home sickness I sometimes have for our past life in New Orleans: Am I nostalgic for that beautiful if broken city on the Dirty Coast, or maybe just for the quotidian life that Apple had made so…easy?


In one of the penultimate scenes of Leave the World Behind, Ethan Hawke’s character Clay (coincidentally, a professor of media studies) faces down an existential threat with the following confession: “I can barely do anything without my cell phone and my GPS; I am a useless man.” The lines are not sarcastic or merely self-deprecating; they are delivered deadpan, deadly serious. It is a curious moment of stark self-awareness: Clay is utterly lost without his phone.

There’s a word that gets trotted out as a pejorative, often to attack places of learning when they seem skewed in a political direction: Ideology. Educational institutions get blamed for being too ideological, often when powerful individuals don’t like the general drift of social norms or language patterns.

But this is a misunderstanding of that term. Ideology isn’t necessarily what we think, but what we do. Smartphone life is our ideology, no matter how individuals think of themselves politically.

Leave the World Behind makes it plain: Once the phones are inoperable, the dominos fall. The characters political attitudes can’t affect the material reality of the disruption.

The 2020 novel by Rumaan Alam, from which the film is adapted, establishes this tension by the second page of the story, as the main characters are leaving on their ill-fated trip:

“I have to take this.” Amanda held the telephone aloft, warning them, even though no one was saying anything. Archie was texting with his friend Dillon […]. Rose had already posted multiple photographs of the trip, though they’d only just crossed the county line.

“Hey Jocelyn—” That telephones knew who was calling obviated nicety.

This brief snapshot, mundane and familiar, presages the social fabric that is about to be forcibly ripped apart.

I still live with smartphones, even if I have given up my own. And my own less-connected phone uses the same network, of course. But being without a smartphone daily has still been a profound shift in perception and experience.

I don’t think anyone really wants a full-blown apocalypse, such as depicted in Leave the World Behind. Live through a few hurricanes, in New Orleans, and you may find yourself deciding to leave the coast behind. But for a minor apocalypse, going without a smartphone is worth considering. You see things differently, being a little more useless in the world, especially, or perhaps just coincidentally, in St. Louis. Here, the apocalypses come in the sound of air raid sirens, when tornados are on the prowl. I don’t know what the severe weather alerts on smartphone look like when the alarms are wailing, but they are probably terrifying.

Christopher Schaberg is Director of Public Scholarship at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of ten books, including most recently Adventure: An Argument for Limits (Bloomsbury, 2023) and, with Mark Yakich, Little Data (Red Flag Press, 2024).