A Little Background
About a year ago, I gave up my smartphone and started using what some people refer to as a ‘dumbphone’. It is seen as dumb, due to the features missing in comparison with a modern smartphone. I believe, however, these missing features have actually enriched my life. Changing how I interact with technology and people for the better. It may sound counter intuitive, but the concept of ‘reduction’ in order to create a better experience, is by no means new and doesn’t apply solely to technology.
Genres of music have spawned under the guise ‘minimalist’, where a song’s components are stripped back to focus on the core instruments. Cooking has a similar theme, using less ingredients is typically a good thing, as it lets the few deliberately chosen ones shine through. Same story with supercars, less materials, less weight, less equipment. More power, more control, more fun.
With my dumbphone, there are less features, meaning there is less to go wrong. No bugs needing continually fixed and patched. Just a phone that is produced and shipped to a high(ish) standard in the first place. As there are less features, the battery lasts longer. Much longer. Think days and almost into the week territory, instead of mere hours. I no longer find myself tethered to a power socket, anxiously clutching my phone waiting for it to turn on. In those instances, I may as well have been plugged into the wall, Like Neo plugged into the Matrix.
Unlike the majority of smartphones, my dumbphone has a removable battery. This allows a second battery to be swapped in for full charge in a matter of seconds. Also, as batteries tend to be one of the first components to deteriorate, you can simply buy a new battery when this begins to happen. No need to buy a completely new phone and send an otherwise perfect device to landfill. Why buy a new pair of boots when it is only your laces that have snapped? Just replace the laces! This is a much more sustainable, responsible and greener business model. Not to mention good common sense for the consumer.
There is less incentive for a thief to steal it, when it is sitting among shiny iPhones and a myriad of other glossy screened devices.
My dumbphone is more rugged, being made from cheaper materials and not delicate slippery glass. No need to cradle and coo over your dumbphone like a new born child. And should the worst tragedy of 21st century living befall you, Internet downtime, it even has a no-data required FM radio. Something the £1,449 iPhone XS does not possess. Oh, and it has a 3.5mm headphone connector, another item ’86’d’ from Apple’s menu.
More Noise Than Signal
Being one of the few people that possesses a seemingly Mesozoic-era relic, do I live in a cave isolated from society, global events, education and employment? No. I do not.
Equally, though, I do not let a constant flow of: vibrations, alerts, notifications, alarms, weather, breaking news, travel alerts, WhatsApps, Telegrams, emails, YouTube uploads, podcasts, sports scores, adverts, update reminders, likes, tweets, posts and comments consume sizeable portions of my day and mental capacity.
Having a dumbphone makes escaping social media easier and absolves me from the pretence and charade involved in maintaining an ‘online presence’. I am free to enjoy my day and be productive.
Paraphrasing an idea from a podcast I listened to a while ago. When your time in this world is up and you are about to shuffle off its mortal coil, are you going to look back and say, “I wish I spent more time checking Facebook” or “I wish I’d spent more time browsing eBay” or “If only I’d refreshed my email inbox more often” or “Why didn’t I send more emojis to my friends”? For me, the answer is a resounding no.
When I need to check email, I go to it. When I feel like listening to the news, I do so when I want to. I still own a laptop, so these tasks can be done when I am home and all at once. As a consequence, people don’t always get an immediate response when they instant message me. But, if it’s urgent enough I can always be phoned or texted. Conversely, I now no longer expect people who I interact with, to respond immediately either. I feel this is an unfair expectation placed on us by modern living. One that we have come to accept as the norm.
My dumbphone is simply a useful tool that allows me to message and call friends, family and other people in my life. By not having a smartphone I find myself caught up in unproductive activities less and less. Perhaps I am somewhat at fault here, through poor self control. But as I will explain later, the whole smartphone experience is designed to suck us in and manipulate our brain’s soft spots.
With a Great Smartphone Comes Great Irresponsibility
I am no longer shoehorned into any particular tech giant’s app ecosystem who’s primary goal is to fire unlimited streams of content in my direction. All those free apps, why not try them all if they’re free? But there simply isn’t enough time, that didn’t stop me from trying for a while though. What about Google and Apple Music, unlimited songs. Non-stop listening. Even the Spotify adverts tell us mockingly to ‘wear our headphone’s on our lunch break’. Silently isolated from fellow humans in an audio bubble of adverts and digitally ‘curated’ music; what a bleak prospect. Unlimited storage for your photographs and ‘your’ data, which instantly becomes their data (I explore the truth of data ‘ownership’ in a previous post: How to Quit Google & Alternative Suggestions). Unlimited anything is seldom a good thing. ‘Unlimited’ disrupts homeostasis and equilibrium, tipping the scales too far in one direction. It makes us lazy, as we no longer have to choose what’s important to us.
Clarity of Mind
With a dumbphone, I no longer have the struggle of trying to keep on top of the information it feeds me. I seek out information that benefits me, as and when I need to.
To have access to all of humankind’s knowledge to date, in the form of a smartphone with an Internet connection, is a fantastically terrifying prospect. Immensely useful, but never ending. Along with space (the cosmos kind, not gigabytes), could data be the only other thing that has no definitive end? Humans can feed off of data in the same way as a healthy breakfast gives you energy for the day. Healthy data can ignite ideas, spark action and be the catalyst for change. However, the flurry of data being fed to us through smartphones, apps, social media and fake news seems more reminiscent of a Big Mac. It satiates our short term desires, whets our appetite for more of the same, yet crucially, leaves us unsatisfied in the long-run.
The plethora of media available for our consumption demands serious thought power, to decide which is worthy of our time. Some psychologists believe that when we are presented with too much choice, we become unproductive . The more choice and information available to us, the more paralysing it can be (it reminded me of Mr. Burns in the ‘Ketchup vs Catsup’ Simpsons scene). In the past I’ve spent more time browsing Netflix than actually watching something. Before I know it, I’ve finished my diner and didn’t watch a thing. The paradox of choice…
Some apps and games are designed to be addictive. Some are designed to exploit the brain’s inherent weaknesses for corporate gain. Companies have employed psychologists to help with app design, using their knowledge to manipulate us. People are now suffering from smartphone addiction and ‘information overload’. Apps are appearing to help people use their phone less (there’s got to be some irony there). ‘FOMO’ or fear of missing out has become a thing. Some people are even saying that smartphones hinder our ability to connect and interact with people in the offline world .
I found myself completing ‘digital detox’ exercises in the past. The goals were eliminating non-essential apps, intentionally spending less time on my phone to be more productive and not using it when around people. These exercises were useful as the apps I did have left, I realised were still not all that essential. Suddenly I was left with a very expensive smartphone, that in order for it to be useful, non-intrusive and a tool, lots of fat had to be trimmed off. For me, the next logical stop was to simply get rid of it.
There are many genuinely great benefits smartphones can bring us, but I am yet to find one that is absolutely essential. Apps like Ada are obviously greatly beneficial to people in developing nations, as might be digital currency. Perhaps it is selfish and ignorant to assume the rest of the world cannot benefit in ways the developed world cannot.
The modern smartphone (and even more so, tablets) remind me of bottled water. It is a product that for the most part only exists because we were told we need it. Tap water is cheaper, simpler, less wasteful; 99% of the time, it meets our needs just fine.
Smartphones are pretty good at multitasking, I admit. However the premise of one device being able to do everything well, isn’t convincing from a practical point of view or a security point of view. Would you rather order a pizza from an ‘Indian’ takeaway that also does burgers, hoagies and steaks or from a proper Italian place? Think ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’.
With all that being said, it would be dishonest to say I never use a smartphone. I do, I have one set aside for use if I genuinely have a need for one. By using my dumbphone most of the time, I approach technology with a bit more thoughtfulness. When I do have to use a smartphone, I appreciate it all the more.
When the original iPhone come out it was truly something spectacular and revolutionary. It became a fantastic tool by doing things other phones had done in the past in a much simpler way. That was over a decade ago and since then, no phone release has even came close to changing the game in the same way Apple did. Sure, smartphones can be useful tools, but what made them useful, now seems to be buried under a growing number of gimmicky features. App subscription models, lengthy contracts and encompassing marketing make these devices something we have become tied to using, instead of something we choose to use.
Some ancient technologies, like the fax machine are still kicking around, in perhaps surprising quantities after all these years. Why? They are tried and tested. They are apparently great at sending sensitive documents within the medicinal field, with little susceptibility to cyber threats . Vinyl record sales are even experiencing growth and making somewhat of a comeback. Other technology such as 3D TVs, however, seem to be dwindling as interest fades. Will the dumbphone stand the test of time and join the ranks of the humble fax machine? Or will they follow the path of the T-Rex? Only time will tell.
Minimalist Approach for Maximum Value
Finally it’s time for the usual summary section, where I present the main benefits of following the advice in this article in five points or less. This time I answer,
how reducing (or eliminating) the amount of time spent on your smartphone, can add value to and simplify your life…
- Be more present with the people around you, stop giving off bad vibes by having your head buried in a phone. Arrange to meet up with the person your are texting, concentrate on the people you are physically present with.
- Switch off from constant notifications and relax, disconnect to reconnect.
- Dumbphones are cheaper. I pay £3.99 (of which 10% goes to charity) per month for texts and calls.
- You will lack the ability to binge watch YouTube and browse Reddit, freeing up time for more productive tasks.
- You won’t be able to use your smartphone continually as a ‘tool’ to escape ‘awkward’ situations, embrace them and deal with them. Learn and grow!
 DeAngelis, T. (2004). Too Many Choices? Monitor on Psychology, [Online] 35(6), p.56. Available at: https://www.apa.org/monitor/jun04/toomany.aspx/. [Accessed 8 Jan. 2019].
 (2017). Driven to Distraction – Smartphones Are Strongly Addictive. [Online] The Economist. Available at: https://www.economist.com/special-report/2017/02/09/smartphones-are-strongly-addictive/. [Accessed 7 Jan. 2019].
 Cukier, K. (2018). Lots in Space. [Podcast] The Economist: Babbage. Available at: https://www.podbean.com/media/share/dir-7yvc8-537b633/. [Accessed 1 Jan. 2019].