Smartphones are synonymous with convenience. But when some of the apps that bring ease started offering irrelevant services — such as food delivery apps peddling loans and a bike-sharing site featuring matchmaking options — Leon realized it was time to take a step back.
The 29-year-old from the central city of Wuhan switched off his iPhone and decided to ditch the smartphone in March 2021. The creative consultant then bought a simple Light Phone 2 and later a Punkt MP02 minimalist phone and armed himself with a notebook, ID card, public transportation cards, a torch, and bank cards — otherwise all incorporated into a smartphone.
What started as a one-month experiment has now turned into a lifestyle.
“Smartphones are supposed to bring us convenience, but it’s like eating rice with sand mixed in it when using them,” Leon, using a nickname, told Sixth Tone. “The point of a ‘digital declutter’ is to figure out what technologies I really need after getting rid of all of them.”
Leon’s one-and-a-half-year hiatus from his smartphone has become a growing trend among many Chinese wanting to pursue “digital minimalism,” a term coined in 2019 by American writer and computer science professor Cal Newport. In his book of the same name, he wrote about the philosophy of using technology that allows people to focus on a few carefully selected online activities, while optimizing their time on things they deem valuable.
In China, as smartphone addiction becomes common — the country has the highest smartphone use among 24 countries researched for a 2021 study — several “digital minimalism” forums on social platforms such as Douban suggest that tens of thousands of people have joined the movement. There, they share anecdotes about their social media fasting and other activities, from limiting hours they spend online to uninstalling apps, or switching to digital devices that are simpler to use.
“I no longer scroll through my social feed every day like I used to, and no longer feel I’m missing out if I don’t check it,” wrote a Douban user who turned off the feature on messaging app WeChat nearly two years ago. “The world went on as usual when I wasn’t looking at the feed. Everyone is busy with their own business.”
Minimalist phones Leon uses. Courtesy of Leon
But Leon is not just minimizing the time he spends on his smartphone but among the rare few to entirely give up the technology. He has been using a minimalist phone that only allows him to make calls, send messages, or set an alarm for the past 20 months, becoming an outlier in China’s digital revolution that integrates almost every aspect of daily life, at least for now.
This means he is more or less resorting to things of the past. He uses cash or bank cards instead of digital payments like WeChat and Alipay in a country where eight out of 10 adults made online transactions last year; he uses information boards with a call button at designated locations to hail cabs; and he makes trips to grocery stores to get his supplies — all everyday activities that can usually be done with a tap on a phone screen.
“Using tools with a simple function can make me more intentional and aware of the purpose of my behavior,” he said. “If I want to do something, I’ll just use the tool designed for such a task.”
But he admitted it’s been a “tiring” experience in a video shared on Bilibili in May — he uses a camera to record the videos and laptop to post them on the site but rarely watches other content. Without online distractions, he said he was more aware of his surroundings.
“At first, I did not intend to stop using a smartphone for more than a year, but planned to try for a month nevertheless,” he said, adding that, instead of fiddling on his phone, he now uses his newfound time to do “boring” activities like feeding birds on his windowsill, fixing a film camera or a second-hand typewriter, or just relaxing.
“It’s a shift in mentality from fearing missing out to enjoying missing out — I’ve become less concerned about achievements and efficiency,” he said. “I miss some messages or take longer to deal with messages, but it is not really important to my personal well-being.”
However, China’s highly digitized virus prevention system to track and trace COVID-19 infections poses additional challenges for those without smartphones. Almost everyone needs the traffic light-like digital health codes to enter public spaces, use public transport, and even take PCR tests, while a separate code logs their travel history.
A screenshot shows Leon’s plan for replacing his smartphone. From @leon_ye on Bilibili, reedited by Sixth Tone
Leon said he mostly works around this by using his ID cards for PCR tests and a printed version of his health code. He has also converted an iPod touch — an outmoded Apple product — that he uses to connect to the Wi-Fi and display his health code, which is mandatory while traveling through airports and train stations.
“The pandemic has made it more difficult to live without a smartphone,” he said. “An iPod gives me a sense of security when faced with uncertainties during business trips to different cities and provinces with different virus control measures.”
For now, Leon has no plans to switch back to his smartphone. He is still going to extra lengths in circumventing almost every feature the modern devices have to offer — and it’s been a blessing in disguise.
“I won’t get distracted and trapped by the addictive design of a smartphone anymore,” Leon said. “Digital minimalism itself is not important. What is important is to face yourself and get to know what technologies are really necessary for you.”
Editor: Bibek Bhandari.
(Header image: A screenshot shows Leon’s daily necessities. From @leon_ye on Bilibili, reedited by Sixth Tone)