technological disobedience

i’ve been thinking a lot lately about civil disobedience. actually, about civil disobedience and smart phones.
defined by websters as, “the refusal to comply with certain laws as a peaceful form of political protest,” civil disobedience is a polarizing topic. in many ways it fits right up there with religion and politics on the list of things not to bring up on dates or in interviews or, really, in general. we all like to be polite. to go with the flow. to keep the peace. when we do venture into discussions about this idea we like to discuss times when history tells us the disobedience was worth it and worked. since we know that justice was eventually brought about in these instances, we see a tidy past. we don’t always like to look deeply, however, at the risks taken, the fear experienced by the “disobedient,” and the ugly truth that without the benefit of hind sight we might not condone the participant’s behaviors when they were engaging in them. 
this matters to me because i am working hard to be technologically disobedient. 
defined by me, technological disobedience is the refusal to comply with certain unconsciously derived social and communication based norms as a peaceful form of social and economic protest.
if you’ve spent more than 20 minutes with me in the past 18 months you likely know that i am living with a (very) broken phone. it turns on and off at will and yet won’t let me power it off without removing the battery. it will not silence or vibrate and when i remove the battery to keep it from ringing, it takes up to 6 hours for any messages sent during the time it was out of commission to register. it has added it’s own feature, actually stating the name of the caller over the ring tone. since i use this phone in both my personal and professional life i don’t feel comfortable having it completely un-powered and so, it interrupts my life much more than it would if i could simple mute the ringer.
the only positive thing i have found about this situation is that it has given me ample opportunities to share my technology disobedience.
at first i didn’t want to buy a new phone just for the simple fact that everyone assumed i would. “what? you can’t turn it on or off! are you crazy? get a new one.” “why?” i wondered. i was used to this one. it sent and received calls and texts and that is all i really needed. people, however, seemed incensed at this, however, and their complete lack of understanding baffled me. it made me want to move further into the resistance to see what i could learn.
a secondary motivator was that i knew that if i bought a new phone i would be forced to renew my contract. i also knew that my carrier no longer offered phones like mine without a data package attached. i am angry that this choice no longer really belongs to the purchaser. i am also discouraged that so few people make the switch to internet enabled phones without first making a conscious choice to do so. i know myself and understand the temptation to check email frequently, to fill any moment that presents itself with being productive and marking things off my to-do list. an internet enabled phone could easily serve to increase my productivity. it could also, however, serve to distract me from moments of quiet, of learning to wait, of important opportunities to tolerate boredom. i was choosing to be in control of this temptation for myself and wanted my voice to matter to those who had taken this choice away.
the problem is, they didn’t seem to care. i emailed customer support to see if i could have the same plan, with no data package, if i bought a new phone. “no way.” i called and talked, at length, to curt who literally laughed when i told him i was trying to stay in control of my own interaction with screens, therefore wanting my phone to be just a phone. when he laughed, i hung up. next, i thought i’d try the in-person approach, confident of my ability to communicate face to face. “you don’t need to be worried. it’s really easy to navigate. you’ll love it. you can do everything you could do on your computer right here on your phone. it won’t change your price that much and you’ll love it. it’ll make everything so much easier. seriously, no one doesn’t have it anymore,” the sales associate told me, assuming that i was simply intimidated by having my phone turn into a computer before my eyes. when i tried again to say that i actually was making a conscious choice not to have my life be easier and that it was not fear of technology that was driving my choice but rather a desire to live counter culturally, she stared at me blankly. she, literally, could not wrap her mind around wanting a high quality phone but not wanting it internet enabled. she offered to get her manager. i thanked her, told her i didn’t need to talk to anyone, and left. discouraged.
my frustration at this point was that my deliberate act of defiance was simply shrugged off as technophobia. many thought i didn’t understand how “easy” a smart phone would be to get used to. i told them that this was exactly my concern. that we had all become far too easy with technology’s grasp on our lives. others assumed i “must not really need a cell phone.” they quipped that, perhaps, i was having a hard time joining the 21st century or that i must live a life where no one needed to get in touch with me. when i would try to engage them i kept track of how long it took before their eyes glazed over and they checked their own phones for the time. few people really cared.
i waited a few more months and began, reluctantly, to research phones and carriers to see if i could give my business to someone who shared even a shred of my conviction (i guess i am a little bit crazy). what i learned in this stage of my disobedience stopped me short. some of the materials used in the production of our portable technologies are mined solely in mafia controlled areas of africa. their sale contributes to horrible persecution of the disadvantaged at the hands of corrupt and money hungry mobs. by not buying a new phone right away i was able to share this information with others when my phone rang in times that it would normally have been silent. protesting the majority culture’s tendency to buy new(er), better products in quick succession and at mind numbingly short spans of time, became my focus in this part of my disobedience. if it meant that one violent act might be avoided by waiting to purchase a new phone it was worth it to me and time moved on.
almost a year has passed and recently my phone has begun dropping calls indiscriminately. i frequently can’t hear callers well and they hear my voice as far away. my disobedience is preventing me from  maintaining some of my responsibilities and is costing more than i can afford relationally. my desire to challenge social norms in peaceful ways is not diminished and yet my ability to do so in the way i have been is beginning to hurt more than help.
so, it is now reluctantly time for me to switch gears. to find a way of speaking up and speaking out that does not include a broken phone. in the coming weeks i will be buying a new one.
this is not, however, without great sadness. it is also not without great anger that i won’t have the choice to disable the supposedly “smart” part of my device. it will hurt me to walk out of a store where i’m celebrated for “finally joining the rest of the world” with an attention getting phone i do not, really, want. i am sad to appear to the world as though i have a computer in my pocket and to have that world think that i actively wanted it that way. i hope they will watch long enough to see me still sit silently, be bored, and not be entertained by the screen i possess. 
and so, when you do NOT hear my phone ring or when you see me fighting with a touch screen that i despise, please do not ask me how excited i am. resist the urge to tell me that i’ll wonder why i didn’t do this long ago. and, please, remember that i was disobedient in this particular way on purpose and as long as i could be and it was worth it.


  1. You can definitely opt out of the "smart" part. If you renew a contract with your carrier online, you can pick out your "dumb" phone (or even a "smart" phone), and layer on the features you need.

    Another alternative: Pick up a used phone on Craigslist or Goodwill, then have your carrier activate it. This route takes a little forethought because there are a couple different wireless networks (GSM and CDMA), so you need to pair the phone with the right carrier. Also ask around with friends...chances are someone has an old phone they'll give you.

    Alternative #2: Pick up a prepaid phone at the carrier of your choice. Prepaid plans have lots of "dumb" phones to choose from. Just send/receive calls + txt.

    Check out CredoMobile for a (relatively) socially conscious wireless provider (credomobile.com)

    I absolutely understand why you'd want to avoid a smartphone, and I think you're asking the right questions. Don't be bullied into a contract you don't need with features you don't want. Contracts are only useful for getting a *new* phone (regardless of features). You can get a used phone and have it activated without a contract.

    It really is still possible to just have a simple cell phone without all the "features" or long term contract.

  2. I've got a pay-as-you-go phone via Virgin... just voice and text, not even a camera (gasp!). Like you, I've noticed that people don't watch the countryside pass by their commuter-train windows or watch the sidewalks and fields as they drive. People don't talk at bus stations or even make eye contact as they wait at crosswalks. Given a silent moment, they are turning to their phones...even if they are faking it. It feels like we are now LIVING in the discomfort of the elevator, where it isn't polite to acknowledge the others around you. We are bypassing the *awkwardness* of social interaction and the spaciousness of nature by filling it with noise and distraction.

    I got laughed at today for having a phone that didn't take photos. Maybe I should consider it a badge of civil disobedience.