I run a Silicon Valley startup – but I refuse to own a cellphone

Iphone 6

Before you read on, I want to make one thing clear: I’m not trying to convert you. I’m not trying to lecture you or judge you. Honestly, I’m not. It may come over like that here and there, but believe me, that’s not my intent. In this piece, I’m just trying to ... explain.

People who knew me in a previous life as a policy adviser to the British prime minister are mildly surprised that I’m now the co-founder and CEO of a tech startup . And those who know that I’ve barely read a book since school are surprised that I have now actually written one.

But the single thing that no one seems able to believe – the thing that apparently demands explanation – is the fact that I am phone-free. That’s 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 can’t call me unless you use my landline – yes, landline! Can you imagine? At home. Or call someone else that I happen to be with (more on that later).

When people discover this fact about my life, they could not be more surprised than if I had let slip that I was actually born with a chicken’s brain. “But how do you live?” they cry. And then: “How does your wife feel about it?” More on that too, later.

As awareness has grown about my phone-free status (and its longevity: this is no passing fad, people – I haven’t had a phone for over three years), I have received numerous requests to “tell my story”. 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 it’s not exactly Caitlyn Jenner, but still: here I am, and here’s my story.

In the spring 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 punishing schedule to take account of the eight-hour time difference. I had completed two years at 10 Downing Street as senior adviser to David Cameron – let’s just put it diplomatically and say that I and the government machine had had quite enough of each other. To make 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 torrent 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 used old ones procured through eBay, with a pay-as-you-go plan from a UK provider. The handsets kept breaking and the whole thing cost a fortune. Eventually, I had enough when the charging outlet got blocked by sand after a trip to the beach. “I’m done with this,” I thought, and just left it.

I remember the exact moment when I realized 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 had 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 mind. Noticing things.

I remember thinking: “of course I’ll have to get a phone eventually, but let’s just keep this going for a bit. See 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 haven’t become a hermit. I still have a laptop, and use it most days. It even works when I’m away from my house, or office. On planes! In Starbucks! I’ve 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 “running 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 really, why do I need to keep tabs on them every minute of the day? If something happens, there’s always someone there to take care of them. When people ask me this question, I feel like giving them a slap and yelling “what’s the matter with you?” but usually reply: “What do you imagine your parents did? And parents for all of human history before the last 20 years?”

Then there’s my startup: “How can you be a tech CEO and not have a phone?” I do always borrow phones to see how our new products and features work on mobile. And, well, there was one meeting I was late for and couldn’t let the person know. I won’t pretend that ended well – but it was one meeting. In three years.

There are some practical issues of course. Without a phone, I can’t check things. People with phones seem to spend their life checking things: messages, email, the news, the weather, some random celebrity’s Instagram – I don’t know what it is exactly, but you all seem to be checking things the whole time. And I can’t do that, obviously. Tragically. Somehow, though, I cope.

Here’s another practical consequence of being phone-free: I can’t use Uber. Around here, that’s like saying I can’t use – I don’t know, water or something. But since my wife now works at Uber, it’s probably just as well I can’t use it. Most of the time, I get around perfectly well on my bike and public transportation, even in spite of the Bay Area’s 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 comes the first chink of vulnerability in my story. There have been occasions when I say to a friend – at the end of a night out, for example – in a slightly embarrassed voice, “could you, y’know, order me an Uber? I’ll pay you for it obviously …”

This is where my wife, if she were co-author of this piece, would chime in: “You see, he’s a hypocrite! He doesn’t have a phone but he relies on other people having a phone. And this whole ‘not having a phone thing’ isn’t some cool rejection of tech addiction. It’s the ultimate selfishness. It means the whole world has to revolve around him. If you make a plan to meet, you can’t change it because you can’t let him know. It drives me completely mad …” etc, etc.

Fair point? I don’t think so. (You can see that this argument gets quite heated in our household.) Asking to borrow someone’s phone – 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 benefits of being phone-free but allowing others to suffer the costs. But I would say: it happens maybe four or five times a month. That’s the sum total of the times I find I really need a phone’s functionality and ask to borrow someone else’s. I’m aware of the choice that I’ve made and accept that sometimes it can inconvenience me. Except that it hardly ever does.

The more important question, however, is whether my choice inconveniences others. Here too, I find the argument less than compelling. What’s wrong with sticking to plans 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? Isn’t 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 someone up at a hotel bar because I was waiting at the wrong bar). In any case, no one ever answers their phone these days anyway. Ask someone to actually call – rather than message or email someone – and they look at you as if you’re completely insane.

But just 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 jail 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 I’m getting a little preachy, but I’m genuinely trying to avoid that. I’m 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 said, “honestly, you really need to get a phone”. We talked it over, and the conversation brought me to tears. The idea of having a phone actually made me cry. 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 honestly as I can the things that people say when they hear I have no phone, I’ve 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 really don’t 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 just do it properly, for a week. See if you can cope. If you can’t, then fine, go back to your phone. I don’t care - see, I’m not trying to convert you, honest. But if it does work for you, I’d 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.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Steve Hilton, for The Guardian on Monday 11th January 2016 13.00 Europe/London

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