What a bunch of A-list celebs taught me about how to use my phone


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Nobody has to think more carefully about their technological lives than celebrities. And a few of them have figured out the answer.

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Celebrity Sightings In Los Angeles - October 07, 2021

If Justin Bieber can figure out how to leave his phone behind, so can I.
Photo by Bellocqimages / Bauer-Griffin / GC Images

It was, of all people, Justin Bieber who first opened my eyes to a new way of thinking about my phone. See, Bieber isn’t into phones. He ditched his a while back and became an iPad guy. According to a 2021 Billboard article, he wakes up in the morning, grabs his tablet, and checks in with his management to see what’s going on for the day. The idea was to “limit who can reach him.” This is something you hear a lot from phone-free celebs: they’re not trying to disconnect from everyone, but they are trying to get away from that feeling of being tapped constantly on the shoulder by all the calls, texts, and emails.

I’ve been obsessed with celebrity technology usage, or lack thereof, for years. In so many cases, it seems that once you become sufficiently famous — with millions of people hanging on your every word, millions of others talking about you all the time, and countless people in your life scrambling for your time, energy, and money — the only sane way to manage it all is to sever as much as possible. So many celebrities ditch their phone, disconnect from their social media, log off entirely. Everyone from Tom Cruise to Elton John to Sarah Jessica Parker to Michael Cera to Dolly Parton to George Clooney has extolled the virtues of a phone-free life. The internet practically revolves around A-list celebrities, and they often don’t even know.

For most of us, ditching our phones and moving into the woods or whatever is a fantasy. We don’t have managers and personal assistants and accountants to handle all of our calls; we have family members and bosses who need to reach us. Plus, phones are useful and cool and fun! Even some of these celebrities end up going back — a few recent pictures of Bieber indicate he might once again be a phone-haver. But I’ve still found myself looking for lessons from the celebrities, wondering what they’ve discovered about the internet and themselves by disconnecting a bit. I’ve also been looking for tips on how to do the same. And I think I might have figured it out.

A few years ago, Ed Sheeran shared a strategy that sounded a lot like Bieber’s. He hasn’t had a phone since 2015, he told Hodinkee, because “I got really overwhelmed and sad with a phone.” Being phoneless hadn’t cut his contact to the world, Sheeran said, just reduced it — and that was the point. “I have friends email and people email, and every few days I’ll sit down and open up my laptop, and I’ll answer 10 emails at a time,” he said. “I’ll send them off, and I close my laptop, and then that’ll be it. And then I’ll go back to living my life, and I don’t feel overwhelmed by it.”

Simon Cowell told Entertainment Tonight in 2020 that he’d ditched his phone for an iPad, too. “It means you don’t wake up to, like, 50 text messages you can’t reply to,” he said at the time. Shailene Woodley shared a different version of the same strategy with Jimmy Kimmel: she still had an iPhone, but she didn’t have a data plan. If she wanted to do stuff, she had to go somewhere where there was Wi-Fi. (She basically reverse engineered an iPod touch, which Apple should absolutely bring back, please and thank you.) 

Read and watch enough celebrity interviews, and the lesson becomes obvious: that the most powerful and connected device in your life shouldn’t be within arm’s reach at all times. All that does is invite distraction and makes it too easy to disengage from your life every time you get bored or sad or curious even for a second. Anything you can do to move that stuff a little farther away and make it a little harder to get to is a small victory over the always-on allure of your devices.

It sounds a little like I’m advocating for the return of the ’90s, when the computer was a giant box that lived in a central room of your home and the only way to use it was to go to it. And to some extent, I am! I’m increasingly convinced that my primary computer should be a device I use on purpose — that I sit down at, operate, and then extract myself from until the next time. Whether it’s a laptop on a desk or an iPad on your nightstand, your computer should be a place as much as it is a device. And when you’re not in that place, you’re somewhere else. The computer doesn’t come along.

Over the last few weeks, as an experiment, I’ve moved as many apps as possible — the obviously distracting social media stuff but also anything I can live without on a minute-to-minute basis — off my phone and onto my tablet and my laptop. All my social media apps now live on my iPad. Banking apps, streaming services, and most of my games are all now banished from my phone. If I want to so much as watch TikTok, I have to get up off the couch and go find my tablet.

So far, it’s been great. I’m realizing how much of a crutch my phone really has become: I would open up TikTok just to keep me company on the walk to the kitchen or scroll through Threads while I waited for the microwave to finish. Now, I’m not sure I’m doing any less of those things in aggregate, but at least I’m doing them on purpose. I’ve turned time-wasting into a deliberate activity — I sit in my scrolling chair and scroll away, then I get up, and the scrolling stays put. And best of all, when I leave the house, there’s nothing to scroll at all.

I think I finally understand what Christopher Nolan meant, in an interview with People a few years ago: “I’m easily distractible so I don’t really want to have access to the internet every time when I’m bored.” Last year, talking to The Hollywood Reporter, he said he still doesn’t have a phone — though sometimes he buys a burner, which is a truly badass phone strategy — but he doesn’t think he’s a Luddite. “I think technology and what it can provide is amazing,” he said. “My personal choice is about how involved I get. It’s about the level of distraction.” (Nolan also famously refuses to use email, but that’s a bridge too far for me.)

There has always been talk in tech about removing friction: the obsessive corporate desire to make everything easier, faster, fewer clicks, fewer chances for you to decide not to click that ad or buy that thing or like that post or upload that photo. All the tech-free celebs seem to be looking for is a little more friction. It should be a little harder for someone to distract me while I’m eating dinner with my wife or hanging out with my kid. I should have to think, “I want to look at TikTok now,” then walk across my living room, before I can actually scroll TikTok. 

It’s not about ditching technology, just about doing technology on purpose.

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