The dumb phone revolution
As more and more consumers ditch the smartphone for old-school alternatives, Tanya Sweeney wonders if this tech trend is part of a wider backlash
A couple of years ago, the Nokia ‘brick’ – a 90s rite of passage if ever there was one – was fated for a life in kitschy museums.
And for a good few years, a phone free of apps, social media and a decent camera seemed about as useful as a handbrake on a canoe.
Yet with smartphones taking over our work and home lives, ye olde-styley phone – the sort that only sends and receives phonecalls or texts – is making a rather unexpected comeback. And this comeback is all the more expedited with some fervent celebrity fans.
Ryan Tubridy was first out of the traps with his announcement that he was ditching his smartphone for something a little less complicated. In doing so, he likened smartphones to “the new smoking”.
“I wasn’t going to have no phone at all, that’s stupid – that’s just not going to happen,” he explained at the time.
“I was ‘off smartphones’ for a month and I thought, ‘I can go back on it now’,” he added. “I transferred the sim card into the iPhone and it lit up and I went, ‘Oh, the noise, the noise, the white noise!’ I knew there were hundreds of people in it tugging [at me] and I just thought, ‘It’s like Vegas in my hand – it’s just vulgar and loud and irritating and fine for a weekend’ but I quietly took the sim card out and put it back into my little dumb phone.
“It’s just a very nice place to be and as to how long I can keep going with it, I’ll just wait until eventually I’m told that the party is over and you have no one left to talk to.”
Economist and author David McWilliams went back to basics too. “Despite my teenage children accusing me of looking like a small-time drug dealer, life with my new, old-looking Nokia has been one of serene calm,” he wrote in a recent column.
It transpires that a number of celebrities made a similar move, although in some cases they reportedly made the switch to avoid privacy invasion by government officials, law enforcement or Facebook.
Rihanna’s social life doesn’t appear to have been dented one bit by her reliance on an old-school flip phone: similarly, the more private likes of Keanu Reeves, Daniel Day-Lewis, Eddie Redmayne and Warren Buffett have also made the switch.
“It was a reaction against being glued permanently to my iPhone during waking hours,” Redmayne admitted. “The deluge of emails was constant and I found myself trying to keep up in real time at the expense of living in the moment.”
Even Kim Kardashian, who has built an empire from her smartphone, has been spotted with a more analogue model.
Where celebs blaze a trail, the rest of us often follow. According to Sky News, sales of ‘dumb phones’ – or ‘feature phones’ as they are better known – rose by five per cent last year. Meanwhile, Nokia and Motorola have released new versions of their classic models, the 3310 and the Razr.
Nostalgia or irony could well account for several of these sales. A lower price tag, not to mention smaller monthly phone bills, have doubtless played a part too. (At Carphone Warehouse, a Nokia 3310 costs €49.99 on prepay, versus the iPhone X, which is €1099.99.)
Privacy is another concern, for celebs and civilians alike. “We’re giving away data all the time and it’s something we need to be aware of,” observes Alex Cooney, CEO of Cyber Safe Ireland. “There’s a big danger when we click past the terms and conditions on a site without even looking at them. How do you know how much of what you’re sharing?”
Yet something much bigger is afoot.
Some people find they don’t need the bells and whistles an expensive smartphone offers.
And some, much like our celebrity pals, hanker for a life without this particular psychological millstone around their neck.
A recent study by psychologists from two British universities surveyed 640 smartphone users aged 13-69 to look at a possible link between smartphone use and certain personality traits.
The team found that those who were less emotionally stable and resilient were “more likely to have a higher level of smartphone use, possibly as a form of therapy”.
Psychologist and hypnotherapist Jason O’Callaghan of The D4 Clinic has encountered plenty of instances of smartphone addiction in Ireland.
“They suffer from phone panic if they hear their phone but can’t find it,” he observes. “They also sleep with their phone and studies have found that prolonged exposure to cell phones right before bed makes it harder for users to fall asleep and creates a fitful night’s rest. They bring their phone into the loo with them. They know all about the lives of their friends but have not seen them in months.”
FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), or even a feeling of disconnect, needn’t be part of the dumb-phone revolution. Twitter, Facebook and social media accounts can be accessed via a laptop, as can news/media sites. Aside from that, it’s a question of dating, sharing photos, banking or keeping in touch with friends and family the old fashioned way.
Along with her business partner Emily Duffy, Angie Kinsella runs Digital Detox Ireland and has noticed an upswing in dumb-phone users.
“My partner decided to get the Nokia 3310 – he didn’t want to feel like he was drawn online all the time, but the battery was a consideration too as he didn’t want to keep plugging in,” she explains.
“The thing is, you can still have Instagram and other apps on your other devices,” she adds. “The big thing I notice is people going back to calls, which is a step towards more real meet-ups and interactions. There’s a better connection with phonecalls – perhaps it has to do with tone. Either way, it can only be a positive thing.”
But what of those who will attest that they need to be connected/available at all times for professional reasons?
“I think it’s about reassessing those (professional) expectations,” notes Angie. “Is that the reality or is it the situation we have created for ourselves? There’s definitely a change afoot, but as always you get a lot of resistance when you meet a big change,” she adds.
“When I do a digital detox, I feel the frustration and the FOMO, but I remember that we do the [detox] retreats for a reason and we all have those feelings.
“And then I remember that I’d like to experience a little more present happiness in my life, as opposed to just a virtual experience.”