Earlier this week, Apple
began selling refurbished versions of 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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.