nilFM

pragmatic digital minimalism

2021-12-02

intro

Since I spend so much time programming each day for work as well as maintaining many side projects and my website, I wanted to achieve a bit more balance off the clock as well as detach myself from the big tech that fuels the modern smartphone. Over the past few months I've whittled down my mobile computing experience to the bare essentials and migrated to a LightPhone II. The need for a hotspot and lack of any Google integration is what made me choose this over, say, a Nokia 8110; although the Punkt MP02 was a close contender with better battery life and built in Signal protocol, although it lacks music or navigation.

Many people tend to think that a smartphone is a necessity for modern life in a first world country, but this is plain wrong. What follows are applications that many assume necessitate a smartphone, and my solutions that allow me to bypass that "need".

email

Email is a necessity in the business world as well as to manage your identity on the internet. As a contractor who makes his own schedule, I have to watch out for emails that signal important matters that I should devote attention to as quickly as possible (as opposed to if I worked 9 to 5 and I could just ignore my emails outside of that timeframe). With my old phone, I had used Fair Email as an email client, but when I started digging into the phone a bit more and decouping it from Google services, it wouldn't stay online in the background and I would miss notifications (strangely even after re-enabling Google Play Services, it never worked right again).

That's when I wrote mail2mms, which sends mail notifications to my phone number with just enough information to inform me if I should hop on my laptop and read it in detail or answer immediatley, or if I can leave it for later. This has become a surprisingly elegant solution especially now that I'm on the LightPhone, which has no email capabilities at all.

multifactor authentication

Multifactor authentication is a great boon to the security of your online accounts, and another application that people claim necessitates a smartphone. However, there are many authenticator apps for the desktop, like Authy (all major operating systems arguably the most accessible/easiest to install and use) or OTPClient (more Linux-centric). I prefer pass-otp, which is a rather elegant command-line solution . Some systems (like fortinet) don't support generic authenticator apps and won't work with pass-otp or other third party apps, but these systems provide hardware tokens that you can put on your physical keychain and use for those services specifically.

banking

Mobile banking has become the de-facto method of depositing checks, wiring money, and managing accounts. While the online banking experience of most banks is comparable to their mobile banking equivalent, there is no deposit functionality on any online banking interface I've seen.

My previous bank was a small bank centered in the Northeast, and I used their mobile banking app to deposit checks especially after moving out of town into the boonies, and then moving across the country to New Mexico. More recently, though, after doing a bit of research, I switched to a credit union which is a member of the Co-Op Financial Services Network, which gives me access to a wide network of surcharge-free ATMs and shared branch locations across the country to make deposits, get cash, etc. Sure, I can't make deposits from home, but whether I'm on the road, here in town, or move long-distance again, I'll (probably) have neighborhood access to an ATM that provides the services I need.

social networking

Social networking as the populace understands it is a poison, but in a literal sense it's a necessity. The best way to network is to just contact people directly via phone, text, or email.

The next best thing is the Fediverse, and for that I have the black hole cafe - my honk instance, which allows me to follow interesting people across various Fediverse servers, communicate with them, and put some of my own thoughts and activity on public display in a low-key way. Like email, I don't access it from my phone, but take it a bit slower from my computer.

video chat and multimedia messaging

While it is very convenient to have a smart phone for video chat, I can also do video chat from my laptop via Jitsi; As an open-source and ethical alternative to Zoom or Google Duo, I can highly recommend it. The interface is slick and intuitive, and the performance is smooth, even on my 2012 X1 Carbon.

The Light Phone II doesn't have a camera and doesn't have MMS capability in terms of attachments, but it can forward incoming attachments to your email address. I carry an actual camera for taking photos (still looking for a decent solution that strikes the balance between form factor, price, and capability for a photo+video camera...), and If I want to share them, I either post them to my honk, or share them via email. Again, the pace is slower, but it's rewarding.

encrypted communications

Regular phone calls and text messages are not secure. Alas, getting the average person to actually care about their digital privacy seems to be a losing battle. Even when I used Signal many people didn't really grasp the benefits or care enough to use it. But if anyone wants to have a truly private conversation with me and we can't meet in person, there is always email with PGP encryption. Again, getting people to care enough to understand how to implement PGP encryption in their email scheme, and then to do it, is an uphill battle, but Proton Mail actually makes it relatively painless, and Thunderbird isn't too bad either.

mobile knowledge augmentation

Perhaps the most useful thing about a smart phone is the ability to easily look up information on the internet while you're on the go. While the Light Phone II does have GPS navigation, it doesn't have a web browser (and never will, unless you hack the shit out of the Android 8.1 base and deal with the low refresh rate and ghosting of the e-ink screen). But, if I'm out for more than an errand run in town I usually bring my laptop bag with me, and if I need to know something in the moment I can always fire up the hotspot on my phone and use my laptop to look it up.

In most situations, though, I can just write a paper note (or text myself in a pinch) and look it up later. It's worth noting there are also SMS portals you can use to look things up on Wikipedia or what have you, but I haven't had the need to try them.

conclusions

The tech whirlwind is a powerful force that tries to suck you in, and the smartphone is a sharp hook that most people nowadays think they can't escape... But it's certainly possible. Even if you don't want to get rid of your smartphone entirely, you can pare down your apps and live less tethered to it, and if you happen to have a supported Android device, you can distance yourself from Google (and whatever other spyware distributors have their teeth in your device) a bit with an aftermarket OS like Lineage OS, Sailfish OS, or Graphene OS.

Since embracing a limited subset of the functionality of the modern mobile phone, I've become more present with my family and use my free time more wisely, and it has reduced my anxiety. Hopefully, reading this, you can move to make some positive changes in your digital life and together we can help build a future that's not so coupled to those slabs of glass and silicon which are constantly eating and excreting data, that we call smartphones.