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The Half-Swanson

In the wake of the revelation that Apple is scanning my photos on behalf of third parties I’ve been considering alternatives to my iPhone. Unfortunately, good alternatives don’t seem to exist. Linux phones like the Pinephone aren’t quite ready for prime time. Flip phones and feature phones lack apps, and as much as I’d like to go full retro, the unfortunate reality is that living without apps can limit what services you can access.

Yesterday, we rented a car to go visit my mom, and the car rental required an iPhone or Android app. The other rental car provider was entirely out of cars.

I suppose I could throw up my hands and let Apple violate my privacy? Except… no. Cannibalism is illegal but I don’t let the government test what’s in my fridge. Sexual assault is illegal but I don’t allow my bedroom furniture to monitor my private activities. Why would I allow my cell phone manufacturer to crawl through my private data?

I’m left with three choices, none great. Endless corporate surveillance (Android), creepy government surveillance (iPhone), or you can’t access modern services any longer and you need to drive to the bank to deposit a check like it’s 1995 (dumbphone).

It’s a bummer! But sometimes you’re stuck making the best of a bad situation. There’s no use howling at the moon.

What to do?

Analyzing My Smartphone Needs

Thankfully, I have some experience in making trade-offs in the interest of digital privacy. For example, when I switched to Linux computing last year, I ended up dual-booting my machine with Windows 10. Ninety-five percent of the time I’m living my Linux life and I have privacy in my computing activities. Occasionally I boot into Windows when I need Windows-specific software. It’s a minor inconvenience.

Why not take the same approach with my smartphone needs?

First, I made a list of the specific things I require a mainstream smartphone for. Group texting made my list. Flip phones don’t support it, and it’s become a dominant mode of communication for coordinating get-togethers with friends. I also need the GigCar rideshare app, and once in a while, Lyft. I’m all for using my brain to get around town, but P & I love to travel. Have you ever landed in a foreign country, jet-lagged, with no internet, trying to figure out the local bus system because the internet research you did ahead of time is wrong? Because I have. Have you ever tried to access keys for your rental when the owner only communicates via Whatsapp and you don’t have Whatsapp? I have! It’s rough.

Remember, the world has changed since smartphones became dominant. The old methods of navigation like signage, printed pamphlets, and so on… well, they’ve been deprecated in our smartphone-savvy world. It’s technically possible to exist without a smartphone – plenty people do it – but depending upon what activities you do, it might be quite limiting.

So I made my list of “essential features and apps” and it wasn’t extensive. But each item on the list is important to me, so as much as I’d love to go full Ron Swanson and bash my iPhone with a hammer, I won’t.

It seems a compromise is necessary.

The Compromise

Long term, I plan to buy the first privacy-respecting smartphone that meets my needs. The two most promising options I see are the Pinephone and the eFoundation’s de-Googled Android devices. I’ll keep an eye on those, but neither organization has big teams of engineers and it’s slow going. I’m rooting for them, and I’ll be happy to be a customer when they become more usable.

In the short term, I’ll compromise. I can’t dual boot a phone, technically, but I can spread my “smartphoning” over multiple devices. Here’s the setup I’m considering:

1) One iPhone, to be used as little as possible. - My iPhone will become my “secondary phone” just like Windows is my secondary operating system. I don’t trust it, but I’ll use it when necessary, for things like group texting, unlocking rental cars, and navigating while traveling. I’ll think of my iPhone less like a phone and more like a helpful portable tablet. Most of the time, I’ll leave it at home. When my iPhone dies, I’ll replace it with a refurbished model sold by a third party. Obviously, no iCloud for me.

2) One non-smartphone, to be carried around as much as possible. - Any dumbphone will do, but I’d already ordered an un-Smartphone, so I’ll use that when it arrives this winter. I also considered an Alcatel Flip, a Light Phone and various Nokia feature phones. I’ll probably forward calls from my iPhone to my cell phone, since I need texts to go to my iPhone anyway.

A secondary phone isn’t strictly necessary, as I could simply use my iPhone as little as possible. But I want to pare back Apple’s access to my habits, my movements, and my money. Yes, I’m aware they’ve announced very narrow limits to their surveillance. But the way I see it, when someone announces they have a right to break into your jewelry box, it makes no sense to shrug and let them have the key to your front door.

Also, I’m looking forward to getting my un-Smartphone. I think they’re pretty cool. I’ll get an inexpensive text and talk only plan, about $10-15 USD per month.

3) A Physical Camera - No doubt I’ll use my iPhone camera occasionally, as a utility, like when remembering where I’ve parked, but I’ll try to minimize it. I dug my old Olympus DSLR out of storage, and I’ve been playing around with it. It’s fun!

Obviously I feel very strongly about digital privacy or I wouldn’t be going through so much hassle. I’d rather not be doing any of this, but hey, we all get to choose our hills to stand and fight upon. Privacy is one of mine. That, and the right to use the Oxford Comma only when and if it clarifies the meaning of the sentence.

As a fan of Parks & Rec, particularly their lovable technology-hating libertarian, I’ll call my half-dumbphone, half-smartphone setup the “Half-Swanson.”

The Half-Swanson: Days in the Life

My second phone won’t arrive for a while (dang chip shortage!), but I’ve got an idea of how my two-cellphone shuffle might work. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far: a few scenarios.

A Normal Day at Home

On a normal day I leave the house a few times: for a walk with the spouse, to run errands on foot, perhaps to meet a friend for coffee. Each time, I’ll take my dumbphone in case there’s an emergency. On the way home from coffee, perhaps I’ll call P to see if he wants me to pick up dinner from our favorite Thai place. In the evening, I’ll glance at my iPhone for the first time. It’s been sitting unused near the couch. I didn’t hear it beep today, but I want to make sure I didn’t miss any texts.

On Vacation

We’re heading to the airport in this scenario. I leave my dumbphone at home, as I’ll be using the iPhone a lot while we’re on the road and I don’t want to carry two devices. My boarding pass is on my phone, and so are my navigation apps, along with bookmarked websites for the places we’re visiting. If we’ll be staying in an AirBNB I’ll install that app for the duration of the trip. I’ll flip the phone into airplane mode when I’m not using it, to minimize the telemetry Apple has access to, and I’ll bring a separate camera. When I get home, I might delete the apps and data I don’t need.

A Day on the Train

We’re taking the train to Portland, OR to go to Powell’s City of Books. Oh Happy Day! I can’t think of any reason why I’ll need a smartphone, as we’ve been to Portland many times, but we’re wandering a ways from home, so just in case, I turn my iPhone off and toss it into the bottom of my purse. It’s there in case I need a pocket computer.

Unresolved Questions

The Half-Swanson will meet most of my needs, but there are a few holes in the system. Text forwarding is a dicey concept, so there are edge cases where I can be wandering with my dumb phone and someone is trying to reach me by text RIGHT NOW but they can’t. I rarely have urgent texts, I’m more of a “let’s text to set up lunch” kind of person, but I may need to tell folks “If you need to reach me urgently, don’t text. Call.”

Also, purposefully curtailing my iPhone use is an annoyance in terms of casual web browsing. Sometimes I like to read the newspaper on my phone while I sit at a coffee shop, and now that my iPhone is something I’m trying to minimize contact with, there’s a loss of functionality there. It’s not a huge deal, but it’s worth noting. Ubuntu Touch on a Pinephone might make for a nice mini-tablet, but at this point, I’m not eager to add a fourth device to my bag of tricks.

Hmm… Or am I? 😋

Ron Swanson holds up his Zune.

Bring back the Zune!

Anyway, these are my thoughts on the current moment’s smartphone conundrum. For those of you similarly concerned about digital privacy, I hope this post has been useful food for thought. And if you think I’m tinfoil hat crazy, that’s okay too.

We all have our quirks. ;)