In the heart of the most tech-obsessed corner of the planet, Steve Hilton hasnt had a phone in years. Hes relaxed, carefree, happier. His spouse on the other hand…
Before you read on, I want to make one thing clear: Im not trying to convert you. Im not trying to lecturing you or judge you. Candidly, Im not. It may come over like that here and there, but believe me, thats not my intent. In this piece, Im just trying to … explain.
Person who knew me in a previous life as a policy adviser to the British “ministers ” are mildly surprised that Im now the co-founder and CEO of a tech startup. And those who know that Ive scarcely read a book since school are astounded that I have now actually written one.
But the single thing that no one seems able to believe the thing that apparently demands explain is the fact that I am phone-free. Thats right: I do not own a cellphone; I do not use a cellphone. I do not have a phone. No. Phone. Not even an old-fashioned dumb one. Nothing. You cant call me unless “youre using” my landline yes, landline! Can you imagine? At home. Or call someone else that I happen to be with( more on that afterward ).
When people discover this fact about my life, they could not be more astonished than if I had let slip that I was actually born with a chickens brain. But how do you live ? they exclaim. And then: How does your wife been thinking about it? More on that too, afterwards.
As awareness has grown about my phone-free status( and its longevity: this is no happen fad, people I havent had a phone for over three years ), I have received numerous requests to tell my narrative. People seem to be genuinely interested in how someone living and working in the heart of the most tech-obsessed corner of the planet, Silicon Valley, can possibly exist on a day-to-day basis without a smartphone.
So here we go. Look, I know its not exactly Caitlyn Jenner, but still: here I am, and heres my story.
In the springtime of 2012, I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area with my wife and two young sons. Rachel was then a senior executive at Google, which involved a penalize schedule to take account of the eight-hour time change. I had completed two years at 10 Downing Street as senior adviser to David Cameron lets simply put it diplomatically and say that I and the governmental forces machine had had quite enough of each other. To build both of our lives easier, we moved to California.
I took with me my old phone, which had been paid for by the taxpayer. It was an old Nokia phone I always hated touch-screens and refused to have a smartphone; neither did I want a BlackBerry or any other device on which the vast, endless cloudburst of government emails could follow me around. Once we moved to the US my government phone account was of course stopped and telephonically speaking, I was on my own.
I tried to get hold of one of my beloved old Nokia handsets, but they were no longer available. Madly, for a couple of months I employed old ones procured through eBay, with a pay-as-you-go scheme from a UK provider. The handsets maintained breaking and the whole thing expense a luck. Eventually, I had enough when the charging outlet got blocked by sand after a trip-up to the beach. Im done with this, I believed, and just left it.
I recollect the exact moment when I realise something important had happened. I was on my bike, cycling to Stanford, and it struck me that a week had gone by without my having a phone. And everything was just fine. Better than fine, actually. I felt more relaxed, carefree, happier. Of course a lot of that were required to do with moving to California. But this was different. I felt this incredibly strong sense of just thinking about things during the day. Being able to organize those thoughts in my intellect. Noticing things.
I recollect reasoning: of course Ill have to get a phone eventually, but lets only maintain this going for a bit. Assure how it feels. That was in September 2012. I have been phone-free since then.
Here are the most common questions people ask when they find out. How do people get hold of you? Er, they email me. I havent become a hermit. I still have a laptop, and use it most days. It even works when Im away from my house, or office. On aircrafts! In Starbucks! Ive done full days of back-to-back meetings in New York, Washington DC, and other places I need to travel on business with all the last-minute changes and operating a few minutes late alerts that entails without a phone and without any problems.
What if something happened to your children? This one always strikes me as being the most ridiculous. My children are eight and four. They are with a responsible adult at all times. I love them more than I could ever say and love spending time with them but truly, why do I need to keep tabs on them every minute of the day? If something happens, theres always person there to take care of them. When people ask me this question, I feel like devoting them a slap and screaming whats the matter with you? but usually respond: What do you imagine your parents did? And parents for all of human history before the last 20 years?
Then theres my startup: How can you be a tech CEO and not have a phone? I do always borrow telephones to see how our new products and features work on mobile. And, well, there was one meeting I was late for and couldnt let the person or persons know. I wont pretend that aimed well but it was one session. In three years.
There are some practical issues of course. Without a phone, I cant check things. People with phones seem to spend their life checking things: messages, email, the news, the climate, some random celebritys Instagram I dont know what it is exactly, but you all seem to be checking things the whole hour. And I cant do that, patently. Tragically. Somehow, though, I cope.
Heres another practical consequence of being phone-free: I cant use Uber. Around here, thats like telling I cant utilize I dont know, water or something. But since my wife now works at Uber, its probably just as well I cant use it. Most of the time, I get around perfectly well on my motorcycle and public transportation, even in spite of the Bay Areas almost comically shambolic system.
Although, having said that, I do actually end up using Uber every now and again( yes, yes, OK, Lyft as well ). And here arrives the first chink of vulnerability in my tale. There have been occasions when I say to a friend at the end of a night out, for example in a somewhat embarrassed voice, could you, yknow, order me an Uber? Ill pay you for it obviously
This is where my wife, if she were co-author of this piece, would chime in: You ensure, hes a phony! He doesnt have a phone but he relies on other people having a phone. And this whole not having a phone thing isnt some cool rejection of tech addiction. Its the ultimate selfishness. It means the whole world has to revolve around him. If you make a plan to meet, you cant change it because you cant let him know. It drives me completely mad etc, etc.
Fair point? I dont think so.( You can see that this argument gets quite heated in our household .) Asking to borrow someones telephone to order an Uber, or send a message, or call someone or whatever could indeed be described as me being a free rider enjoying the added benefit of being phone-free but allowing others to suffer the costs. But I would say: it happens maybe four or five times a month. Thats the sum total of the times I find I really require a phones functionality and ask to borrow someone elses. Im aware of the choice that Ive made and accept that sometimes it can inconvenience me. Except that it hardly ever does.
The more important question, however, is whether my option inconveniences others. Here too, I find the argument less than compelling. Whats wrong with sticking to schemes and making an effort to do what you say you will do? Why is it a good thing for personal arrangements to be permanently fluid? Isnt that more disrespectful to others? In the past three years, I have literally had only one real social screw-up as a result of not having a phone.( I stood person up at a hotel bar because I was waiting at the incorrect bar ). In any case , no one ever answers their telephone these days anyway. Ask someone to actually call rather than message or email person and they look at you as if youre completely insane.
But only in terms of our basic humanity, I find the idea that we should all be connected and contactable all the time not just bizarre but menacing. We used to think of electronic tags as a way of restricting criminals liberty we can keep them out of incarcerate but still keep track of them. It seems that now, everyone is acquiescent, through their phone, in electronically tagging themselves; incarcerating themselves in a digital jail where there is no such thing as true freedom or independence or solitude or privacy.
This is where you may think Im getting a little preachy, but Im genuinely trying to avoid that. Im just trying to explain that for me , not having a phone is, in the end, about my personal freedom. After that meeting I was late for a couple of months ago, my co-founder at Crowdpac sat me down and told, honestly, you really need to get a phone. We talked it over, and the conversation brought me to tears. The notion of having a phone actually built me shout. I think it was because it reminded me, in so many different ways, of a life that I have happily left behind: a life of stress and tension and anxiety, fuelled by the device in my pocket. And although I have tried to set out as candidly as I can the things that people say when they hear I have no telephone, Ive left out the most common reaction: How fantastic that must be. God I wish I could do that.
Well you can. Anyone can. And it seems to me that lots of people want to hence the beyond-parody preposterousness of mindfulness apps and apps for digital detoxing. I genuinely dont have a point of view on whether you should stop having a phone. But if you want to try; if you want to just see if you can live without a phone, then my advice is to merely do it properly, for a week.. See if you can coping. If you cant, then fine, go back to your telephone. I dont care – see, Im not trying to convert you, honest. But if it does work for you, Id love to know.
You can reach me on Twitter @ stevehiltonx. Or call my landline.
Steve Hilton is CEO of Crowdpac. His book, More Human, will be published in the US by PublicAffairs on 26 April .
Read more: www.theguardian.com