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Smartphones Are Toys First, Tools Second

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If you time-traveled to the 1960s, or even the 1980s, and tried to describe smartphones to the people you met, they wouldn’t believe you.

It would simply seem too good to be true—an affordable, pocket-sized device that provides:

  • instant telegrams or phone calls, from anywhere to anywhere, usually free
  • maps of virtually every city or rural area, even showing current traffic conditions
  • searchable encyclopedias
  • up-to-the-minute news about anything in the world
  • step-by-step instructions for doing virtually anything
  • quick translations between dozens of languages
  • endless articles, courses, movies and TV shows
  • a camera that takes stills and video, and can transmit them to anyone instantly
  • the means for anyone to create their own regular column or newsletter, or audio or video broadcasts
  • the ability to adopt new functions at any time, usually for free

These are just a few basic smartphone functions, but to your new friends, they would all sound like life-changing superpowers. Their imaginations would run wild at how much easier such powers could make their lives.

They might assume that due to these devices alone, people of the 21st century will be achieving their most important goals at multiplied speed. It would be hard for them to believe that even one of those superpowers—the ability to find decent instructions for virtually any task, for example—wouldn’t make a person vastly more capable and fulfilled. Imagine what would they pay for those powers.

They certainly wouldn’t guess that a growing number of 21st century people find these devices barely worth the trouble, and frequently consider getting rid of them.

Yet here we are. If you Google “getting rid of your smartphone,” you’ll find countless personal stories, especially from the last three years, mostly with few regrets.

The smartphone should be, and perhaps still could be, the most personally empowering device ever invented, yet many people are now trying to reduce or eliminate their role in their lives.

I’m one of those people, and I still wonder: why is it such a close tradeoff? Why do these superpowers outweigh the downsides by such a small margin that anyone would consider giving them up? The downsides must be pretty bad.

Our phones are in many ways empowering. They can help us do more of what makes us happier and more capable. They can (theoretically) save us a lot of time and trouble, making more space for family, friendship, creative work, study, or whatever else we find truly fulfilling.

They are also disempowering. For most of us, they easily soak up far more time than they save, capturing our attention dozens of times daily, and directing it to gratifying but mostly forgettable activities, usually infused with advertising. They get us repeatedly doing things we didn’t know we needed to do, such as perusing dozens of our acquaintances’ random photos several times a day.

It’s hard to separate the empowering functions from the disempowering ones. For me, Instagram (for example) seems pleasurable enough and relatively harmless. I can scroll through the new posts in a minute or so. This still makes me smile once or twice a day, and helps me feel a little more in touch with certain people. But I scroll through my feed not once or twice a day, but five or ten times, and more out of a lab-mouse-like pleasure-seeking habit than a conscious desire to connect.

And each of these seemingly harmless sessions may lead to an indefinite period of further low-level pleasure-seeking—flipping through screens for similar apps I haven’t checked in a while.  

Even when I unlock my phone for a decidedly empowering use—looking up a fact, entering something in my calendar—it’s unlikely I won’t also tap on Instagram, and maybe Pocket, Yahoo Sports, or whatever other icons pull the eye in that moment.

It’s this reflexiveness, this hyper-conditioned way I’ve come to use the device, that concerns me most. I’ve spent most of my adult life, including ten years writing on this blog, learning to be more conscious, more present, more intentional, and less reactive, which has all been very empowering.

But my phone, at least the way I currently use it, works against all that. It’s so strangely resistant to conscious, intentional use.

Why is this thing so compelling?

It’s not because of its unprecedented usefulness. It’s because of its unprecedented salience. The smartphone is utterly magnetic to the mind and hands. It might be the most compelling object ever created (at least outside of a Tolkien story) and not because of its value as a tool, but because of its value as a toy.

I’m all for “play,” as a concept and a virtue. But I don’t think I want playthings mixed in hopelessly with my tools. If I’m going to play, I’d rather do it with some paper and drawing pencils, or a Frisbee and some friends in the park, than repeat the same engineered swipe-and-reward patterns another hundred thousand times.

We don’t play with tape measures, envelopes, maps, dictionaries, or calculators. We don’t go to staple something and end up watching a movie review.

We don’t play with our keys or debit cards when we’re waiting for the bus—but we do play with our telephones, because they are now 90% toy.

Our phones remain as powerful as ever, but every utilitarian function they have is compromised by the presence of these weirdly magnetic recreational functions. I can appreciate a slick, portable multi-tool, but I no longer want to carry in my pocket the most compelling toy ever created.

Separating Tool From Toy

Here’s my plan. I’m going to see if I can make my phone into the empowering digital supertool it would sound like to a 20th-century person.

I want it to be as useful, and as boring, as I can make it. I want it to be attractive for intentional, practical uses, but not for a reflexive diversions—a Swiss Army knife, not a carnival, in my pocket.

This is my latest lifestyle experiment. I will make my phone as utilitarian as possible, for 30 days, and see what I learn.

Aside from freeing up some hitherto poorly invested time and attention, and beginning to de-condition some of my information-age habits, I’m interested to see how hard this actually is.

Is it even possible to separate tool from toy? In the “attention economy,” app makers have every reason to mix addictiveness in with the usefulness—is some degree of mind-control always going to come with these digital superpowers?

Or perhaps I am personally too far gone to train myself out of reflexively cycling through my apps for sporadic lab-mouse treats. Seven years of daily conditioning will be hard to uproot in a month.

There will surely be moments of frustration, neediness, and FOMO. I expect to not know what to do with myself in certain situations, and that’s probably good. I’ll interpret these moments as simply what it feels like to re-adjust to living without a pocket supertoy (which is how I lived most of my life).

This experiment begins today. I’ll report my discoveries periodically in the experiment log, along with more details of how I’m actually doing this. As usual, you’re welcome to join me, and report your discoveries in the comments too.

The more unexpected difficulties this experiment entails, the more worthwhile it probably is to do. We don’t know how deep the hooks go until we try to pull away.


Photo by Andrew Neel

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Obarth May 25, 2019 at 12:32 am

I’d say smartphones are handbags first. A lot of people seem to be buying them not for what they can do, but for the message (no pun intended) they send about their owners.

PJ Blue May 25, 2019 at 1:36 am

I hear stories like this all the time and wonder what all the fuss is about. I don’t have any social media on my phone and therefore don’t feel the need to constantly check to see if I got a “like” or a “follow” or whatever. So, in my case I would say my phone is more tool than toy.

Steve Bennett May 25, 2019 at 2:21 am

A gentle way to start might be by having two separate phones. One that is serious, one that is fun. Maybe the fun one is pink. Be disciplined about when and how you use the fun one.

R June 15, 2019 at 5:13 am

horrible idea to have a second phone – think about the environment and how buying pointless phones just adds to the destruction of our planet.

When you discard the useless second phone, when you throw it ‘away’, there is no away – that goes in someone’s back yard.

Karen Trefzger June 17, 2019 at 5:54 am

So absolutely true. One phone, not a toy. I don’t have social media or games on my phone either, so I’m not constantly enticed to waste time on it. I actually usually use it as a PHONE (or to text). I know, shocking!

efinr May 25, 2019 at 5:03 am

I have never understood how adults can almost unconsciously install the 23rd game on the phone and I have always thought of my phone as primarily a tool.
But a few months ago I realized: Even the RSS-App that I use to get updates to specific topics and a selection of news that I specifically chose for being boring and simple. Even I open that app around 3-5 times a day.

Does anyone have a recommendation for a parental-app-kind-of-thing to control the time spent in apps that is suited for adults?

Tor May 25, 2019 at 6:09 am

8 billion people on Earth.
1 billion using Internet.
“Countless” stories about every shit.
This article doesn’t have numbers, any references, just an opinion.
Nothing interesting.

Peter May 25, 2019 at 6:29 am

I hope this article hits home for many people, the same way it hits home for me. Coincidentally, I had resolved to make my phone more utilitarian and less exciting to use each time I pick it up. Just a few days ago, I removed color from my phone. There isn’t a single app, website, or advertisement that “pops” the way it used to when I had color on my phone. So far, so good!

David Cain May 25, 2019 at 12:33 pm

I had done the “greyscale” thing before, and it does work. But I ended up removing it because I realized I couldn’t tell quite how the pictures looked that I was posting to instagram. But now that instagram is gone, I’ve put it back on.

NickD May 26, 2019 at 3:51 pm

With something like MacroDroid you might be able to enable and disable greyscale when you enter and leave apps.

Jim May 25, 2019 at 10:44 am

You hit the front page of Hacker News.
Some good comments over there.

David Cain May 25, 2019 at 12:31 pm

Thanks Jim. Heh… I can always tell when one of my articles hits hacker news or something similar, because I get an unusual number of dismissive/snarky comments here. So I’ve learned to see it as a good thing :)

Shane MCLEAN May 25, 2019 at 11:38 am

I agree with this. Separate the tool and the toy.

However, if you lack self control the phone can and will rule your life and be something you can’t do without.

Personally, i have blocks in my day where I don’t check my phone. I tell myself ‘is there anything important’ and if the answer is no. I leave it alone.

Susan McLeod May 26, 2019 at 11:20 pm

I have a similar, but not identical, problem. My phone is a tool, so it’s not that compelling for me. However, I have been almost literally addicted to an on-line game for about 8 years, which consumed at least a couple of hours of my day, every day. A week ago, I went cold turkey. It’s the hardest thing I’ve done since I quit smoking, but I WANTED MY LIFE BACK. Since I didn’t have the self-discipline to moderate my habit, I just had to give it up.

Michele Kendzie May 27, 2019 at 2:19 pm

I wonder if it’s personality or age that makes some people feel like they have no control over the use of their phone. I am 47 and identify strongly with the 20th Century people in your time travel scenario. I haven’t used the phrase “superpower” to describe my phone, but I call it my external brain. I switched completely to the digital calendar a couple of years ago, I make extensive use of Reminders and Notepad apps, I connect with other people on social media (homeschool groups, photographers, etc), listen to podcasts on my daily walks, keep a digital journal (Day One) which automatically records several metadata items, making journaling so simple, etc.

I am compelled by my phone, sure, and may sometimes scroll or play longer instead of moving on to something more productive, but I am finding the organizational and communication benefits far outweigh the playtime. I definitely consider the phone a tool first. By the way, back in the 80s and 90s when I was young, I DID play with calculators, envelopes, keys, and dictionaries. I think we make use of what we have. And I like that if I have a short wait I can choose from many ways to pass the time, including reading a book, checking social media, making a photo and journal entry, or playing Word Wow (my current favorite word game).

david smith May 28, 2019 at 11:23 am

Seems like an easy start would be to define what the tools are…phone, contacts, email, sms, maps. Any others? An authenticator? A note taker? A web browser?Are you sure? Camera? How many pictures do you take that qualify as “tool output”? Lots? Some? Almost none?

Having done that, delete/disable all the other apps that your master, er, service provider will allow you to. Cut down on the remaining features that can interrupt you…phone? SMS? Any others? Can emails wait for you to check on them now and again?

Sara May 29, 2019 at 2:10 pm

I finally unhooked myself from Facebook and almost instantly got addicted to Twitter. I knew that I wanted to get off of all social websites and I knew that Cal Newport’s book “Deep Work” was anti-social websites so I went cold turkey on the day that I started reading it. Reading a couple of pages a day kept me on the straight and narrow and by the time I was done the book I no longer had impulses to check my feeds. I’ve been off Twitter for three months. I have my smart phone on me all the time and I only use it for utilitarian functions for the past 3 months. I go to plug my phone in at the end of the day and it is still 70% charged. My life is much better in many ways.

Peter Clark May 30, 2019 at 12:24 am

The post you submitted here is very informative. A toy is an item that is used in play, especially one designed for such use. Playing with toys can be an enjoyable means of training young children for life in society. Different materials like wood, clay, paper, and plastic are used to make toys. Many items are designed to serve as toys, but goods produced for other purposes can also be used.

Steven May 31, 2019 at 3:20 am

I’ve been growing in this direction for a few years although I hadn’t yet considered the explicit toy/tool angle you present here. I must say that I like where I am at now. At present I have no social media apps or games on my phone, and I have turned off all sounds and vibrations. I have messaging apps installed (facebook messenger, whatsapp, signal) but they can’t interrupt anything I’m doing. I’ll check every few hours (3 to 4 ish) if anyone has specifically tried to reach me (most of the time no one has) and will respond then. All group conversations are muted in addition, so that even if I turn my sound on because I am expecting a call/text that I want to know about they won’t make any noise. I now only pull my phone out when I need it as a tool, not as a distraction.

I found that eliminating the sounds really helped in fighting the conditioned response. An especially egregious example was Tinder. Three years ago I was on there for around 4 months and I could actually feel the dopamine hit when the match sound played from my pocket, it was electrifying in the most literal sense of the word. Even now, if I hear that specific bell sound somewhere my heart skips a beat before I realise that it’s not for me.

JR June 5, 2019 at 8:15 am

Oh boy, you’re hitting on a biggy here. I couldn’t agree more with the toy first tool second concept. There’s so much computing power, such incredible technology in these little devices, yet most use it for angry birds (or insert something). I try to be willfully ignorant of apps, unless they truly bring more utility and value to my life. I try to use it as little as possible (except for music, podcasts and audio books which are nearly constant, haha!) The biggest trade-off is the occasional: “Why didn’t you answer my text for four hours?” from my girlfriend. Copious apologies and a decently cooked dinner usually get me squared up here.

izzy June 5, 2019 at 2:06 pm

Smartphones are the current ultimate expression, but the entire project of digitizing and connecting every function and aspect of life gained its original traction from the popular computer revolution of the 70s & 80s. The technology has simply exceeded the human scale, a real thing, and beyond the limits of which we become overwhelmed. Content, now so cheaply and conveniently created, has in many cases been reduced to distracting junk. An entire industry, with little or no redeeming value. In pre-online days gone by, life moved a little slower, but things generally worked better and made a bit more sense.

Kaila Searl June 12, 2019 at 5:21 pm

I’m sure there are many stories like mine – about three years ago, almost exclusively because of the election, I unplugged Facebook. I promptly replaced that with Reddit. I eventually realized that and took it off as well so now only a tool. The absolute hardest part for me were those little moments, like waiting for the bus, waiting in the elevator, waiting for my partner to come out of the bathroom. I had to train my muscles to stop that reflexive action of reaching for my phone, and once I had done that, everything was easier.

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Katherine Polhamus June 18, 2019 at 7:44 am

I like the way you referenced the cell phone as having a magnetic force in our lives. When I’m waiting in line somewhere, I never pick up my phone. I leave it in my bag and prefer to people watch everyone on their phone or make eye contact with someone not on their phone. I also prefer to be alone with my thoughts during those moments of waiting. Those are my Zen moments.

Many people are spiritually empty so they’re always looking for that next thing online to fill the void, the time they see as empty space to be filled by technology rather than alone in our head.

Sarah June 18, 2019 at 1:46 pm

Loved the article! I’ve had the same concerns and recently went through a similar experiment.

I deleted all my social media accounts and switched to this phone: https://www.amazon.com/Unihertz-Smallest-Smartphone-Android-Unlocked/dp/B0752BYRHM

It’s still a smartphone (runs on Android) but it has a 2.5 inch screen. I realized I still needed a lot of the tools smartphones have to offer as you mentioned ie. GPS, Spotify, rideshare, mobile banking, etc. I just wanted to take away some of the convenience that leads to mindless and nonessential screen time.

So far it’s been great, I love my tiny phone and have gotten comments from close family and friends that I seem a lot happier. The method might not work for everyone but I think our relationship to our smartphones (and the digital world in general) is something we all need to reflect on and address for ourselves.

Thanks for writing!!

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