'Goodbye Phone, Hello World' (Book Review)

A world of opportunity opens up when you put down the screen and get out there.

Cover of goodbye phone book

Courtesy of Chronicle Books

When Paul Greenberg's son turned 12, Greenberg had something of a crisis. He realized he'd spent a disproportionate amount of time during his son's childhood staring at a smartphone screen, pouring attention into a device that could have been directed toward his child. 

At the same time, his almost-teenage son was asking for a smartphone of his own. The son challenged Greenberg's reasons for why it wasn't a good idea, pointing out the hypocrisy of his dad's own addiction to his phone. That's when Greenberg decided to take a radical step, replacing his smartphone with an old-fashioned flip phone and focusing on spending time with his son.

Greenberg ended up writing a delightful book about the transition, called "Goodbye Phone, Hello World: 60 Ways to Disconnect from Tech and Reconnect to Joy" – but it's different from what you might expect. It's not a philosophical treatise on the evils of technology, but a fairly short, succinct, and practical guide on how actually to live without a smartphone – namely, all the wonderful, amazing things you can do when you're not throwing away four hours per day (the American average) on a screen doing mostly useless things. It's upbeat, positive, and proactive. 

The book is divided into chapters that explore the various aspects of your life that will improve when you reallocate your time, such as finding a sense of purpose, strengthening mind and body, building better relationships with friends, family, and lovers, and healing the environment. But first, it opens with a reassuring message that our screen addiction is not so much a result of weakness, but rather a carefully concocted plan by a slew of computer scientists far more knowledgeable than we are about our own brains and instincts:

"I wanted to tell [my son] what Cal Newport had said in Digital Minimalism, that 'people don’t succumb to screens because they’re lazy, but instead because billions of dollars have been invested to make this outcome inevitable.' I wanted to tell him that when you look into your phone, you think it’s just your two eyes looking at a screen. What’s really happening is that 10,000 programmers’ eyes are looking back at you, following you, tailoring your environment so that you’ll keep looking."

That's not an excuse for complacency, though. You can quit, opt out, refuse to play the game; and when you do, doors of opportunity open all around. 

What about the naysayers who think you'll become disconnected from others? Greenberg recalls all the places he went in a pre-smartphone era. His words made me smile as I read, "One July day, long before the smartphone, I asked my friend Molly to meet me at 11:00 a.m. on the ninth of September in the Piazza Margana in Rome. She was there." Oh, to plan in advance ... those days seem long gone, but we can still do it if we choose to.

The chapter on finding purpose hones in on building skills and engaging in hobbies that perhaps we once loved, like playing music or making art, and then implementing a regular practice schedule. The chapter on strengthening the mind emphasizes the importance of good sleep hygiene, of allowing ourselves empty mental time to stimulate creativity, of learning how to read lengthy (paper) books once again. 

The chapter on physical health encourages quitting exercise apps because they can actually have a reverse placebo effect called a "nocebo," where "individuals reward themselves with extra food when their app tells them they met a goal [and this] negates their effort." Brush your teeth. Work out with a friend. Fix your posture. Stop editing your photos. Start knitting. Fix something broken.

I found the chapter on relationships to be most interesting because that's where the science on technology's negative effects is most profound. Empathy is in decline, people are choosing their phones over sex, conversations are being eroded by the very presence of a seemingly-inert phone on a table, incessant texts are disrupting private time, and the constant urge to look up information breaks the flow of intimate conversation. So Greenberg gives numerous suggestions for how to put the phone down and what to do in its place – play catch with a child, have tech-free meals, learn a new language to make new friends, adopt a pet, go hiking, plant trees.

This book is a pleasure to read. Its brevity is purposely suited to people who've lost their attention span, but wish to regain it. Reading it, and looking at the lovely illustrations, made me feel like my day had been infused with a sprinkling of hope. It made me smile numerous times, and I know that when my kids get home from school later today, they won't see me on my phone. I'll leave it inside and take them out to play Frisbee.

You can order "Goodbye Phone, Hello World" here.