It seems like nearly everyone, from early Facebook insiders, to economists, to tech luminaries like Bill Gates, is worried about tech addiction these days. We’re so attached to our devices, many folks warn, that it’s doing our brains, our kids, our economy, and even our democracy no good. 

If you haven’t been living under a rock the last few years, you’ve no doubt heard these concerns. But let me guess, you personally haven’t given up your smartphone.

Despite all the hand wringing, most of us still feel incapable of leaving our gadgets behind. Won’t we miss critical information and be less productive? Won’t our careers suffer?

If you explain your constant smartphone attachment with any of these arguments, I have two names for you: Warren Buffett and Chris Pine. What do the world’s most revered investor and the A-list Star Trek actor have in common? Both are among the many highly successful people on record for sticking with flip phones.

They prove you don’t need a smartphone to be successful. In fact, according to one computer science professor, you probably don’t need a smartphone at all these days.

Are smartphones a necessity anymore?

Buffett’s company Berkshire Hathaway is also one of the biggest Apple shareholders, so Buffett clearly doesn’t see many folks going back to dumb phones any time soon. In fact, he’s commented that consumers' "psychological attachment" to their phones is one of the reasons he’s so optimistic about Apple’s prospects.

That ability to cause obsession makes Apple a great investment, but it is also a good reason to think critically about whether the price of your device -- in distraction and mental noise -- is worth whatever usefulness you get out of it. Especially seeing as Georgetown computer scientists and author of Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport, claims the usefulness of smartphones is declining rapidly compared to just a few years ago.

Recall "the early smartphone era; a time when laptops were large, bulky affairs and accessible WiFi connections scarce," he wrote on his blog recently. "In this context, a 'smart' phone that might allow you to send an email or perform rudimentary document edits could significantly improve your productivity when away from the office."

These days, however, "there are now many other affordable, portable, connected devices that offer much better productivity experiences than even the largest phone," he continues

If you really need to get online, in other words, there are super-light tablets and coffee shops offering fast internet on nearly every corner. And it’s possible to access these when (occasionally) necessary without the huge costs to peace of mind and productivity that come from having a constantly pinging distraction machine in your pocket. (Full disclosure: this is my personal approach to devices: dumb phone and iPad + WiFi for genuine necessities.)

Do you want to show off or get stuff done?

If Newport is right and, as the example of Buffett and Pine suggests, we could be happier and more productive without our smartphones, why are we so reluctant to give them up? Newport puts it down to, essentially, showing off. We like iPhones because they’re pretty and shiny and signal success.

Or as NYU marketing professor Scott Galway bluntly put it, owning an iPhone is the "No. 1 signal of wealth, the No. 1 signal of power… An iPhone is saying to the opposite sex, or a potential mate, 'I have good genes. You should mate with me.'"

Your smartphone might be sexy then, but it probably isn’t necessary to accomplish great work. In fact, it’s probably getting less and less useful every year, even as its negative impacts grow.

So is it time to finally admit to yourself that life would be better if you just joined Buffett, Pine and other smartphone dissenters and switched back to a dumber setup?

Published on: Feb 13, 2019