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Sebastian Junger Never Owned a Smartphone (and Why This Matters)

Junger’s Radical Simplicity

Last November, journalist Sebastian Junger appeared on Joe Rogan’s podcast. The conversation lasted over two hours, but it was the first two minutes that caught my attention:

Joe: You have a real flip phone?

Sebastian: I do have real flip phone.

Joe: And you said you didn’t go back to it, you never left…

Sebastian: I never left her.

Joe: You never went, like, iPhone…Android…never?

Sebastian: No, I never even thought about it

Joe: There’s no draw at all? Using the internet, answering email?

Sebastian: Well, I have a laptop at home and I do access the internet, yes.

Joe: But when you’re out, you don’t want to mess with it?

Sebastian: No, when I’m out, I want to be out in the world. If you’re looking at your phone, you’re not in the world, so you don’t get either…I just look around at this — and I’m an anthropologist, and I’m interested in human behavior — and I look at the behavior, like literally, the physical behavior with people with smartphones and…it looks anti-social and unhappy and anxious, and I don’t want to look like that, and I don’t want to feel like how I think those people feel.

Joe: Wow, that’s deep. I’m a junkie.

In addition to being provocative, this exchange is important because it presents a cogent example of a new type of thinking I’m pleased to see gaining prominence in our cultural discussion surrounding technology.

From Materialism to Humanism

The last thirty years, in particular, have supported an ethic of techno-materialism, in which we assess the value of new technologies on the technologies’ own terms.

We need the Pentium because it’s faster than the 486. We need the latest retina display becomes the resolution is twice as sharp. We need to use Snapchat because 150 million people already do.

The problem with techno-materialism is that just because a new technology was better than the old, or did something new and interesting, didn’t mean that it made us happier.

Throughout this extended period of the Silicon Valley superhero, we kept ending up surprised to learn that faster, newer, more exciting technologies sometimes even made our lives feel worse.

In the above exchange, Sebastian Junger is implicitly promoting an alternative philosophy: techno-humanism. This philosophy* says that a new technology is only useful in so much that it makes our lives more meaningful and satisfying.

He would agree that the ability to connect with a vast network of people and information, through a high-speed digital radio link, delivered into a sliver of glass and silicon thinner than a deck of cards, is an amazing feat of technological wizardry. By the standards of techno-materialism, it’s a triumph!

But he doesn’t think these smartphones will make his human life richer. Indeed, based on his training as an anthropologist, and his recent (excellent) journalistic work on human sociality, he has reasons to fear that its net impact would be to make his less rich.

So he sticks with the flip phone. Apps be damned.

Examples of techno-humanism seem radical when first encountered, but I think more people are coming around to this philosophy’s self-evident logic.


* I’m somewhat wary to use the term “techno-humanism” because it has been co-opted, to some degree, by the transhumanists, who believe that humans will increasingly merge with technology until the point that we arrive at a transcendent singularity. The techno-humanism I’m talking about here is much more grounded and much less grandiose; it’s simply about prioritizing quality human experience over the self-referential benefits of the technological. 

64 thoughts on “Sebastian Junger Never Owned a Smartphone (and Why This Matters)”

  1. Hi sorry if this is off topic i am not sure where else to ask.
    What is the fastest you think someone would be able to get to the edge of a field if the person used the best learning methods like deep work, deliberate pratice, ultra learning, the top performer course approach etc for example
    Awsome blog post by the way 🙂
    Thanks in advance 🙂
    Sorry for going off topic
    kind regards 🙂

    • “a field” is general enough that no answer can really be given. In chess, it would be at least ten years, probably more. But a large part of Cal’s “deep work” hypothesis is that there are many fields totally unlike chess, where very few people are engaged in deliberate practice, so you can become an elite performer with much less work. One example of such a field, surprisingly, is computer programming. He gives an example in his book “Deep Work” of someone who got a job as a web programmer at 100k after six months of studying.

    • Bjarke- don’t look for speed, look for efficiency. Speed (being fast) usually means cutting corners. Unfortunately there is no way to master a field without hard work that is also efficient (on this I suggest “Peak” by Anders Ericsson; as you might know Cal references to his works multiple times and one of his books “The Road to excellence” is linked on this very page). If I were you I would focus on being good, that is the best available in the area. Mastery comes later on.

      • Sorry but i think you have misunderstood what i said i am aware of that book as I mentioned deliberate pratice (it’s one of the reasons i know deliberate pratice) the reason why i asked how fast you could get to the edge is because I don’t see many who use these methods like deep work etc. and those who are are able to do it faster and at a higher quality but even those who do not always do it at the maximum you are able to do (i think the research says about four hours a day) so it would be interesting how fast it would take someone who used the best learning techniques at the maximum you are able to do

      • In other words i am looking for speed through doing things efficiently and getting good at what i do (which is why I mentioned learning techniques like deep work, deliberate pratice etc as they seem to go in that direction making you able to do things faster and effectively)

        • Bjarke – I think it would depend on the field, how many experts exist, and how much literature exists. Learning chess, piano, rocket science, or a completely new field would require different approach tactics. Which field, if I may ask?

          • Currently considering being a composer 🙂 usually it seems to be around 20 years to get on the top in this field but I don’t think they always did the most effective learning techniques at the maximum you are able to do and likely didn’t spend time improving every day non stop the whole time(thats what I imagines) so it may be possible to do it faster 🙂

          • It takes as long as it takes. Basic expert proficiency can be had virtually anywhere with a couple thousand hours of practice. But as long as you continue to refine your ideas, you’re not fully done with training. This goes on for decades.

          • @JOHN CAMARA
            I am aware it take decades as i said it usually takes about 20 years to get on the top as a composer but it doesn’t mean it’s impossible to do it faster I don’t mean to be rude but please read the whole comment through and the others so there isn’t any misunderstanding 🙂

        • Bjarke – the problem is in your question. You say “faster”. Faster than what? You have to go at full speed, but YOUR full speed, otherwise you’re cutting corners. Time is virtually irrelevant. It might take you six years or twelve. Who cares. It will take whatever it takes, as long as you do whatever it takes! Start now, work and live it, learn from the greats, and be great. You know all the strategic ways to accomplish your goals, from deliberate practice on. Just do it, and adapt yourself on the way. You will be amateur, then proficient, then good, then great, then a master.
          Start today. The “end” will happen when you’re ready, you can’t plan it.

          • I have already started i started 11 years ago as a pianist and 5 years ago as a composer i just thought it would be interesting to know what the fastest someone could get to the edge of a field as not everyone learn at the maximum you are able to do so it means that it’s still possible to do it faster

          • By the way you can still do things faster without cutting things out I recommend checking out scott h young as he seems to have achived it eith ultra learning cal newport gives an example of theodore rosevelt(sorry for misspelling) and he seems to have achived it to

          • I don’t mean to be rude but i am not asking the question to impress anyone so i am not asking the question because of anyone who may care but just because i think it could be interesting to know 🙂 but it would suck to first get to the egde of a field as 80 years old there would be little time left to do something that could make a huge difference in the field i think this is what cal calls missions in so good they can’t ignore you so in a way it matters how fast you can get there at least if your goal is to get so good they can’t ignore you

  2. Go on Flickr and look at galleries dedicated to the Fujifilm X series of cameras. First, look at the galleries of photos taken with the more advanced models – the X-T20 and X-T2. Then go to the galleries for the simpler-looking and smaller series, the X-E1, X-E2, and X-E3. You will find these galleries much more humanly rich. I own the X-T20, and I’m not having nearly as much fun as I had when I carried the little X-E2. Go figure. The more advanced camera I’m using now has a convenient flip LCD and more megapixels. Yet there is a sense that when I take photos of people I am standing farther away. With the X-E2, I’m up close and personal – there is less of a barrier. Anybody want to buy my X-T20 body?

  3. Cal, I wonder if you have read work by Jerry Mander. He wrote a profound book called THE FOUR ARGUMENTS FOR THE ELIMINATION OF TELEVISION, published in the 1970’s. His book discusses the physiological effects of television. Early on he called for questioning technology on human terms. I read his book back then, and am grateful that he gave me a way of thinking that has served me well. I have never bought into the latest gadget being sold, and I credit Mander’s work for this.

    • Thanks for the recommendation, Nancy! Ever since discovering DEEP WORK, I can’t get enough of these types of perspectives, so I will be sure to check out Mander’s work.

      • I also highly recommend “Amusing Ourselves to Death” by Neil Postman. It predates the internet, but everything the author says applies easily to the internet age as well.

      • I second the recommendation for “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” I made a decision back in the 1980’s not to own a television. My life and my family’s has been so much richer because of this. I have often pondered the effects of the smartphone in my life, and whether I need to make a similar decision. This blog post is intriguing.

        • I third the notion about reading the book Amusing Ourselves to Death. I was amazed at how accurate the prophecies of a communication professor back before computers and smartphones came true. It’s chilling how accurate his analysis really is.

        • That is inspiring. I gave up video games about 6 months ago (was playing about 3 hrs a day on avg) and my life has been completely changed for the better. If I could convince my wife to ax the television – I wonder how my life would change. How would my children’s life change?

          I have found with video games that for myself it is easier to play not at all than to play with moderation.

    • Thank you for mentioning Jerry Mander’s book. Although it does not include the phrase “techno humanism,” Mr Mander proposed essentially the same argument, in a very compelling fashion. I feel that his book about television is discounted by many because it is not a rigid work of academic logic. Still, I find his arguments compelling and directly applicable to the internet or any other technology.

    • Thank you for your recommendation, Nancy. Already ordered the book at the national Danish library. Have you ever read Wendell Berry … Why I am not going to buy a computer?

  4. I still have a basic phone – it doesn’t actually flip but it is still not a smart phone. Recently my mother-in-law sent us their used iphone 5’s after they upgraded and I took it out with me, thinking that I would pull it out where there was free Wi-Fi or use it to take pictures. I haven’t really used it yet, though. I realized that I like not having those things when I’m out, and just having my basic phone for when I actually need to contact someone, which is usually not that often when I’m out. I am like Junger, though, in that I do use the Internet at home.

  5. I really wanted to use a dumb phone. I have a dumb phone. But I need my samartphone for:
    – ride-sharing and related apps (Uber, Cabify, 99, Moovit)
    – bus timetable apps
    – maps (mostly Google Maps, but Waze too sometimes)
    – alarms
    These are essential for me and canot be easily replaced.

    If someone knows how to replace these apps, I am open to suggestions.

    • -Flag a cab, walk.
      -Printed Bus schedule
      -Actual map, read signs, memory
      -Alarm clock or watch.
      Cost – lower. Distraction – much lower. Brain cells – much more active.

      • Several years ago, I worked in the “cell phone” business.
        Because of this poor career choice, I was “forced” to have TWO phones.
        Because of that fact, I learned first hand that most of my (NEW to me) anxiety came from the very fact that I was under the spell of “not missing out.”
        As humans, we were simply not wired to properly “handle” knowing everything, form everyone,all at once all,from over the globe,everywhere we may be.Think about that.
        10 years ago, I switched BACK to a flip phone, disabled Text and began to leave the phone off -and-at home to potty train myself back to sanity.
        Returning to analog me has resulted in a calmer, kinder and noticeably more situation ally aware me when out in public!
        I use internet daily. Deliberately.(As I am NOW). On a PC, at my home.
        When Im out, Im OUT and its sacred.
        As a beautiful “coincidence”, for 10 years now, I have had no wireless induced anxiety..
        I fail to see the J SMART in the Smart phone.

      • Hi Kurt,

        “-Flag a cab, walk.”
        I walk and run commute whenever possible.
        But cabs are unpractical here in Curitiba, Brazil.
        Uber and its copy here, 99, work much better and are significantly cheaper.

        “-Printed Bus schedule”
        OK for the lines I usually take.
        But sometimes I need a different line.
        Should I carry the lines of all buses in my city?

        “-Actual map, read signs, memory”
        I live in a big city and I rarely have to go to different places. It is only on these rare locations that I need Waze or Google Maps. An actual map? Useless. Signs? Mostly inexistent here in Curitiba. My memory works fine.

        “-Alarm clock or watch.”
        Alarm clocks are either noisy or crippled when compared to smartphone alarms.
        For instance, I can set my smartphone alarm to wake me up only from Monday to Friday.

        “Cost – lower. Distraction – much lower. Brain cells – much more active.”
        I have to agree with the last point.

        Thanks, anyway.


        • Adolfo, I am facing exactly the same challenges and sharing the same desire: Being SMARTphone free.
          Unfortunately, I am working on a cruise ship without constant internet access and I would lose a lot of relationships when not occasionally using apps such as messenger oder WhatsApp.
          In my generation (27yrs) it seems mandatory to be online. Although I am trying to barely use it, I have to use it in the gym for my music, to show pictures to coworkers, actually taking pictures of beautiful destinations…
          Now, I rather consider my Smartphone an extension of my brain that I am free to use when I want to.

    • I think the key is context. In a context where a smart phone, properly used, can provide real benefits, it’s a good investment. It sounds like that’s the case for you, Adolfo Neto. And that’s fine–you’ve weighed the pros and cons, and concluded that smart phones fill a niche that needs filling.

      My wife’s best use for a smart phone? Listening to music to put the baby to sleep, while rocking in a chair. Sure, you COULD use a music box, but this provides numerous options. And when the baby’s asleep, my wife can post pictures of the baby on Facebook for my family to share.

      Smart phones are like medicine or guns: useful, but dangerous if misused. We need to recognize the proper use of those things, not ban them entirely (or abandon them entirely).

    • You never miss what you did not have.
      Drunks never “missed the drink” till well after they knew it owned them.They never missed it before they chose to constantly partake.
      The more you rely on that “device”, the more you will rely on that device.
      Saying you want to use a non smart phone, which, paradoxically isnt dumb,
      Then saying you NEED certain apps is silly.
      Another way to say that is…
      I refuse to embrace alternatives, because Im ADDICTED to my device, but DONT want to be!
      The very THOUGHT that one NEEDS each and every new shiny thing technology that hits the scene should scare the shit out of us

      • Cal – I just finished, amazing and important topic. I loved all the discussions on attention science and its implication even from a legal standpoint.
        On its way to you; no answer/acknowledgment needed. Just give it to someone that might like it after you’re done w/ it or if you can’t read it.

          • New topic. I am 61 years old and studying for the Florida bar it’s been 30 years since I studied for the bar I plan to use one of the commercial bar review courses are there any tips on how to study more efficiently

  6. Cal,

    I just watched your Ted talk on your topic. You convinced me that, at the least, social media is not worth the risk it brings. I’ve given notice to my Facebook “friends” that I’m disappearing in a week, so that anyone that want so to keep in touch can get my email address. Thanks!

  7. Hi Cal , what is your advise for a grad researcher doing a lot of lab works with lots of failed experiments that make her or him depressed sometime. How to manage to be more productive with lots of pressure from the PI. you no there is no time limits fir the lab works. and with no positive result you might be considered a failure.

  8. I use a smartphone and it’s 99% of the day in airplane mode. I only turn it on when I want to call people… and then I also see the people who tried to call me. I call them back every 1-2 days in batch. I still use WhatsApp (over wifi) too much and check it maybe every 2 hours. Sometimes only in the evening.

    I think the pros & cons of a smartphone are very connected to how YOU USE the phone vs. how IT USES YOU… or how other people use it on you.

  9. Off the topic here. I have two questions:

    1. Why Joe Rogan is so popular in US? Even Cal allocates his precious time listening to his podcast?

    2. If you don’t have a smartphone, aren’t you forced to listen or watch podcasts at desk? With smartphone you can at least listen to it during traffic or other trivial time in your life.

    • 1. I have no idea. Sometimes he has good guests. But even in those cases his podcasts are very long. Maybe he is popular because he likes MMA and interviews MMA fighters.
      2. I would never listen podcasts at a desk. I think the point is to be aware that smartphones are a problem.

    • “2. If you don’t have a smartphone, aren’t you forced to listen or watch podcasts at desk?”

      I have an mp3 player. When I’m driving or mowing or the like I can listen that way. Sure, I have to consider which podcasts and music to listen to, but that’s hardly a major effort. I have coworkers that have smartphones, and when we’re at remote sites it’s convenient to have smartphones for such things (pumping groundwater wells for 10 hours a day is pretty boring, and music helps), but it’s just one tool, and not a very good one all things considered.

    • J. L.
      You asked, I will answer!
      I listened to that whole interview on my MP3 Player.
      A stand alone MP3 player, with headphones.
      $30.00 – done.
      Now That’s SMART

    • Sometimes doing nothing during the trivial parts of the day has value. Space out, be bored, think, imagine, look around, notice things, etc, etc. The idea that we need to fill every moment with something is another cultural ill of our age.

      • I listen to podcasts when I’m cooking, cleaning, doing the dishes, taking the garbage out, etc… “trivial” parts of the day. If you’re suggesting it’s better to be in the moment and thinking about that dish I’m washing then I’m going to argue with you that that is not a very efficient use of my attention. Why not simultaneously listen to a good discussion? Podcasts have replaced radio, that’s all.

  10. hey cal….i m a student of 11th class named meharpreet kaur from INDIA .Its was just wonderful to listen to your tad talk show .. thanks a lot …and i had instantly deactivated my Instagram account … but i do have a question that a person who has to go into the field of mass communication , how she will work without social media ..

  11. With so many companies becoming more automated. Do you feel that people are worried about their jobs? How will people earn money except in call centers? How long until all of our jobs are replaced with an app?

    • My bad Cal. I was trying to see why my prior comment had not been added. I didn’t have any obscenities or was attempting to troll anyone. You may erase these.

  12. Do you see any conflict between your professional work (which seems to be related to improving communications networks to allow ever faster data transfer), and your views on what this technological advancement is doing to society?

    I ask because I work in a similar field, and I am wondering whether there the benefits to society to increasing data throughput and developing new wireless technologies outweigh the harm it is doing.

    • I think my professional work makes we *well* qualified to talk about these issues. Who better to ruminate on the intersection of technology and society than someone who works daily to push the cutting edge of the former?

  13. I ditched my smart phone on Dec 6, 2017. I am currently writing a book about my dumb phone experience. My aim is to show those who feel they cannot live without a smart phone in today’s day and age that it is indeed possible, realistic, and practical. Great post Cal, thanks mate.


  14. I love this! It’s not just about not using a smartphone to avoid wasting time, it’s about avoiding things that really aren’t helping us. So often we surround ourselves with things that “make our lives more convenient” but that in the end only lessen the quality of our lives. We don’t need to be on smartphones all the time, especially since most of the apps on them are only efficient at wasting time and aren’t productive at all. I love that he actively avoided purchasing a smartphone, he knew that he didn’t need one.

  15. I wen’t back to flip Phones I do have an android but I use that when I road trip.. I just want something that just makes phone calls.. WE have five computers so the info is there at home and being retired I have a lot of time on my hands?

  16. I’ve never owned one either. Don’t see the attraction. When Jobs announced the iPhone in 2007, I looked at it as an expensive, overpriced, and fragile toy – and promptly forgot it existed.
    Fast forward to about 2016, and “suddenly” its an expectation and EVERYBODY has a comment when they find out I don’t have one. Its annoying. *shrug* Whatever!


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