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Life in airplane mode

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When your smartphone stops being a phone and starts being real

James Bareham

I don't have much money lately. Or, rather, I’m bad with money lately. I end up with enough to pay a few bills and buy food, but for a few months now I've failed to pay my phone bill. So I have a phone, but I don't have a phone number or mobile data. No text messages, no phone calls.

I'm living in airplane mode.

I've been in this position before. T-Mobile sends a few warning texts and emails, and then, once they've had enough of my delinquency, they shut me off.

But a smartphone doesn't die without an LTE connection. Much to the contrary, the first thing I notice about airplane mode is my improved battery life. And then, of course, there's Wi-Fi. I have Wi-Fi at home, I have Wi-Fi at the office, and I have Wi-Fi at my primary evening hangout spot. It’s almost like having an iPod Touch, except my iPhone is newer and better than an iPod touch, and because someday I know I’ll get data on it again.

So, basically, my phone still works. And, I should clarify, because I have an iPhone, most of my "text messages" (magically transmogrified into iMessages by Apple, whenever I'm talking to a fellow iPhone user) also work. And I can call people just fine over FaceTime or Google Hangouts. I prefer it, in fact. FaceTime Audio sounds way better than a regular phone call, and both Hangouts and FaceTime can add video chat to the experience.

Really what I'm primarily missing out on is talking to non-iPhone users. If they try to call or text my phone number, they get no response. I'm dead to them. And I'm a little sorry about this. But because I don't see it, it doesn't bother me much.

As for "out and about" data consumption, I just have to be strategic. I've always been good at getting podcasts and audiobooks downloaded onto my phone before I step onto the subway. Now I just have to make sure everything is downloaded before I step out the door. YouTube Red has been a godsend, although I feel a bit guilty paying $10 a month to watch YouTube videos offline when I haven't paid my phone bill. But I get over it, because YouTube Red is wonderful.

And music... well, I just don't listen to much music anymore. Apple Music (another monthly fee) has some of the least reliable offline functionality in my experience — I'm an Rdio expat, and I miss it dearly. But my ears are always occupied by audiobooks or podcasts anyways. Oh, I should mention I pay monthly for Audible credits, as well.

Any office communication — Slack or emails — only pops up on my screen whenever I'm in range of a Wi-Fi router. But that's fine, because I'd rather deal with that stuff on a computer anyway. I can't check Twitter while I roam, but I don't mind that either.

Weirdly, one of the worst experiences on my disconnected phone is games. So many games these days want to check in with a server to even launch. It's driven me to super simple puzzle games that don't have delusions of "community" and "ranks" and only beg passively for microtransactions.

Please turn off electronic devices airplane stock (1020)

So, anyway, that's my story. Being too poor to pay your phone bill isn't too bad when you own a $600 iPhone and pay $50 or so a month for various subscription services. So, like, you aren't really poor at all. I'm sure my priorities sound weird to most ears. There are people who have much more trouble getting reliable Wi-Fi, getting their hands on a competent smartphone, and for whom a phone number is a necessity not a nice-to-have thing. That's just not my experience, and so I'm able to pull this off. Cellular service is already imperfect, and always-on-everywhere connectivity is a myth. Sorry T-Mobile, maybe I'll get back to you next month.

But I think there's something else going on here. When your smartphone isn't a phone anymore... it's just a computer. And that's kind of beautiful to me. I write on my phone, I play games, I enjoy multimedia. I'm opposed to pushing my computer life entirely into the cloud, because then my power over my own information is only as good as that cloud service and my data connection. On my computer I have decades of computing power tools to sift through my own information, and to create new information. In the cloud I have whatever tools Google's engineers see fit to give me.

I want to see my phone behave more like my laptop, not the other way around. I want to glimpse Unix. I want a command line. I want code and scripts and automation and daemons. I want power. Eventually I'll pay my phone bill, and it will be kind of a relief to have data on the streets again. But I'm not going to give up on this dream. I will utilize the cloud, but I will not forfeit to the cloud. I will own and operate computers.