He’s got his whole world in his hands

A quality I’ve often admired in my housemates is how they build their own worlds. Living together is seeing their life up close, in relatively high resolution. I see the content they consume, the habits they form, the physical environment they shape, and how these reflect in what they put out into the world. What I admire most is perhaps the fact these worlds don’t just happen by themselves - they make deliberate choices, often away from the default choices, to build distinctive day-to-day experiences. Just as you walk from room to room, the sense of individuality is palpable.

I admire this in part because I feel a lack of that in me. For reasons deeper than this post can go, I sometimes feel like too much of a sponge, unconsciously soaking up and reacting to what happens around me. Too much of a consumer, not enough of a creator.

I fear that all too often, this void I perceive in me is filled by my digital world, especially my phone. Aside from being inside their heads and hearing their thoughts, this is probably the part of my housemates’ worlds which I see least. So the comparison is unfair. They too may feel sucked in by their phone. I’m probably blind to some of the choices which I’ve made which shape my world.

But in perceiving intention in their world-building, and a lack in my own, my first thought is the time I spend on my phone. It’s often what I turn to first when I’m newly alone. It offers my first meaningful interaction with the world in the morning, and my last before I go to bed. At a juncture between tasks, between events, between conversations, I pick it up, my fingerprint unlocks it, and I’m away.

Multiple - even countless - times a day, I loop between messaging app, BBC news, LinkedIn, emails, YouTube, messaging app, emails, messaging app, LinkedIn. Putting the phone down is imperceivable before I’ve made sure to check everything. It’s usually fairly passive, in that I just see what’s arrived in my digital world, and tend not to act on it there and then.

There are times when what goes on in my phone world is significant for my wider world, so time on-screen is time well spent. Most recently, I’m thinking of when I last moved house. We needed comms to be snappy amongst housemates, with the old agent and landlord, with the new agent and landlord. It always made sense to check the latest. That period has passed, though unfortunately the phone-checking habit has not. The relevance of my phone to my life has waned, but its presence has not. This is often how it goes.

I’m most struck by how lost I feel without it. I feel twitchy without knowing who might have been messaging me, or how the news may have developed over the past few hours. It’s a relief to return to it after a few hours away. I feel so disconnected from the world without it, so disconnected from my world.

It is noticing this which has led to the scary thought - my phone has become my world, my world has become my phone.

Ultimately, I’m never satisfied by my time on my phone. It’s in no way fulfilling or enriching in any meaningful sense to loop between apps. My attention remains shallow and engagement weak. In its capacity as the everything machine, I am pulled in too many directions. I notice a message I haven’t responded to in a while, I’m reminded of a plan I haven’t quite solidified, a thing I meant to buy. The micro-stresses pile up on top of each other. It’s easier to cruise above it all and never swoop in.

And so, it’s not my productivity I’m directly concerned with here. It’s my relaxation. I don’t switch off when I’m scrolling through my phone, even though that is often what I’m trying to do. As a result, my time with myself, away from the world, other people and the like, is saturated with the noise of the world, other people and the like. My internal world, my processing of the day’s events, my connection to self is weakened. I lose direction, and don’t build and maintain that rich world of my own to retreat into, like those I perceive in my housemates around me.

How do I get my phone out of my minute-to-minute life, in order to make room for something more fulfilling? As I put that question to myself, I think of all the practicalities of a phone which hold me back from cutting loose. I like the ease of access my phone gives me to Spotify, I need my phone for two-factor authentication. I’m not about to start using paper maps. I would also like my phone to remain useful as a phone, a way of talking to people.

But this piece articulates my greatest motivation for controlling my phone use. In seeking more intention in my life, a greater sense of me and a better relationship to myself, I would never pick my phone as my primary companion. So why treat it like that?

June 3, 2024