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Dumbing down your smartphone

When it comes to disconnection, “everything old is new again”

And don’t throw the past away
You might need it some other rainy day
Dreams can come true again
When everything old is new again
When everything old is new again

…so went the chorus of Broadway songwriter Peter Allen’s campy 1974 hit.

In terms of our relationship to technology, we might soon be humming a similar tune.

When smartphones first came out, we were ready to throw the past way. As soon as we had our hands on Blackberrys or iPhones, our retroactively-named “dumbphones” — or “brick phones” — started gathering dust in the electronics drawer.

But in the past couple of years, as we have lost control of our smartphones — as they feel more like our masters than our tools — we are starting to miss our old dumbphones. The bricks solved the central conundrum of our modern relationship with technology: how to stay digitally connected with the people we love without letting our addiction to that digital connection inhibit our life in the real world.

The return of the dumbphone

Just in time for dumphone nostalgia, the Nokia 3310 — that pre-iPhone, multi-buttoned, tiny-screened, heavyset, days-per-charge phenomenon from the mid-2000’s — has been re-issued. As it turns out, dreams can come true again… everything old is new again.

The company selling it cites anti-technology blowback as part of the reason to bring it back. Plus, industry analysts are saying that it might make a powerful second phone, to be used in times like we have described above: when you want texting and calling but do not want all the addictive temptations of a smartphone. Parents are also taking notice: neo-dumbphones like the Nokia 3310 might be good ‘starter phones’ for kids, so they can stay connected but not have their childhoods ruined by technology overload.

Other manufacturers are starting from scratch to build the perfect dumbphones for the digital age. One example is the Light Phone, a kickstarter project to build a phone that can only make phone calls. Seriously, it is only a number pad and a single line display. You keep your usual number, use a normal 2G SIM card and get three weeks of use per battery charge. When someone calls your smartphone, the call is forwarded to your Light Phone. If you do not pick up, the caller is informed you are in Light Phone mode and will call back later. No voicemails allowed! One reviewer wrote that it is working: “I found that walking without my smartphone actually freed me up to enjoy the sights and sounds of the city around me… if someone really needed to reach me, I figured, they would call.”

If buying a dumbphone from the early 2000’s is not enough — or if using a phone-only Light Phone is not even enough — there is still something out there for you: The No Phone. The No Phone is the end of the dumbing down line, because it literally has no functionality. Advertised as a way “to never again experience the unsettling feeling of flesh on flesh when closing your hand” the NoPhone is a smartphone-shaped and smartphone-weighted piece of blank plastic. It allows users to, in the words of its founders, “always have a rectangle of smooth, cold plastic to clutch without forgoing any potential engagement with your direct environment.” The NoPhone creators are speaking our language:

“Phone addiction is real… it’s everywhere. It’s ruining your dates. It’s distracting you at concerts. It’s disrupting you in movie theaters. It’s clogging up sidewalks.”

We agree. And so do many other people, too: the balance-friendly pranksters have already sold thousands of No Phone units.

De-fanging your smartphone

If you don’t want to buy a dumb phone, you can always dumb down your smartphone.

The simplest way to do this is to strip away the worst parts of our current smartphones. First, turn off notifications. As Brett and Kate McKay write in their guide to breaking smartphone habits, the “pings, buzzes and flashing lights” of our smartphones are the “Pavlovian bells” at the center of our addiction. I did this for Thanksgiving a few years ago. I thought I would turn them back on as soon as Monday rolled around. I still haven’t turned them back on and have had a better relationship with my phone ever since. The sky didn’t fall.

A less extreme version of turning off notifications comes from Google ethicist Tristan Harris, who recommends turning off all notifications from non-people. If you want notifications from a friend that wants to contact you — say, through text or Facebook Messenger — that is fine, but if a company wants to push their latest updates to you, say no.

Second, you can bury the icons of the most addictive apps in the back pages of your phone’s home screen. That way, Adam Alter writes, “you’re deciding actively when you want to check them, instead of them signaling to you, ‘Hey, I’m here…You should check me out.’” This turns passive apps — apps you go on out of habit to zone out in front of — into affirmative apps — apps that you affirmatively decide to go on for some purpose. You have much more control over affirmative browsing then you do over habitual, zoned out scrolling.

Third, you can take back control over your inbox, so as to not let it invade the non-work part of your day. At the very least, turn off incoming email notifications. At best, delete your inbox from your phone — you can answer emails much more like snail mail, at a specific place and time.

Finally, when you are in a place where you may want to make a phone call at some point but do not necessarily need to receive any incoming calls, messages, or notifications, you can always turn off your cellular data and wi-fi, or switch on the iPhone’s “Do Not Disturb” mode. You cannot use those one or two people that need to be able to reach you at all times as an excuse to never do this: there is a setting on iPhones that allows you to input certain numbers that can ring through “Do Not Disturb” mode. We should all get in the habit of much more frequently putting our smartphones to sleep. At the very least, it is symbolic of the mastery we need to gain back over our tools: turning the tables from smartphones putting us into addictive comas throughout the day to we instead doing the same to our smartphones.

If you do not want to dumb down your smartphone in this piecemeal way, you can also use a variety of useful wholesale apps. The app “Offtime”, for example, lets you decide how long you want to stay unplugged and turns off all connectivity for that time period. Even better, it has a set of features to help ease your fears of smartphone disconnection. First, it lets you set contacts and apps that do remain active. Second, it sends you a summary of what you missed while you were gone. Finally, it lets you set an away message so folks know why you are not getting back. This seems perfect to us: disconnection, with a side of solace that you and your loved ones will still remain connected and on the same page.

Don’t throw the past away

Peter Allen warned us to not throw the past away because we might need it some other rainy day. In terms of our relationship with digital technology, that rainy day has come. We spend half of our waking hours consuming media, spend three hours a day staring down at smartphone screens, and swipe open our phones 150 times a day. We don’t just have nomophobia, a fear of being away from our phones — we have a digital addiction. The very recent past has answers in the much more healthy relationship we had with our dumbphones. If we can make that old thing new again, we will be one step closer to a more balanced relationship with our technology. 

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