In celebration of the dumb phone, a rare sanity-saving gadget
I miss the phone. No, not that slab in my pocket that we call the smartphone.
Yes, that device can act like a phone. But it also doubles as a portable laptop, camera, alarm, console, TV, wallet, and so many other things — I’m not sure what it is. But one thing’s for sure: calling an iPhone just a “phone” has never felt quite right.
It’s easy to lose sight of just how utterly vast a smartphone’s capabilities are. Hidden inside our pockets is a powerful machine that seems like it really can do everything, everywhere, all at once. There’s a reason the courts recently restricted FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried to just a dumb phone. A smartphone is a powerful tool, especially in the hands of a math nerd who lost billions of other people’s money overnight.
And while my smartphone has improved my life immensely — and I’m not about to get rid of it — it’s also made some things worse. Namely, my brain. The smartphone lets us easily check on things constantly and immediately, whether that’s the news or our loved ones, but at the expense of our attention spans, mental health, and relationships. Hell, recently, I realized I barely remember most of the concerts I’ve gone to, and why? I was too busy taking hundreds of videos and sharing them on Instagram with my phone. Funnily enough, I never even watched the videos after and only did when I needed to delete them to free up storage.
That’s why I want the cheap dumb phone to make a comeback, and I’m so excited it’s on the verge of potentially doing so as more Gen Zers increasingly embrace it. I need a break, and as long as my iPhone is this good, I don’t think I’m going to immediately give it to myself. I need a phone that, while waiting in line to fuel my caffeine addiction, lacks apps so I can’t whip it out and distract myself with the news or FOMO-inducing vacation photos. A phone, ideally, with no camera, either, that won’t pull me away from enjoying the present moment with my baby nephew as he flashes me one of his first toothy smiles.
I want it to be a Thing, too. Something common again so I don’t feel like a freak as I draw attention pulling out a dumb phone that looks like it’s from the early 2000s, which has actually happened. I also want it to be affordable so everybody can own one, not a couple of hundred bucks, as many popular dumb phones like the Light Phone currently cost.
And yes, I know what you’re thinking. “Why don’t you just put your phone on ‘Do Not Disturb’?” I have. Multiple times. On good days when my willpower is high, sometimes it helps. But I’m only human, and smartphones and apps are designed to be addictive. On those days when I’m already feeling down or exhausted, the temptation to pull out my smartphone for a quick and easy dopamine rush gets too strong. I know I’m not alone.
We’ve proposed bringing dumb phones back before, back in the days when Trump ran the country by Twitter and rattled our collective nerves with each new tweet. The need to log off was great, and now it feels even greater.
Since then, we’ve suffered a global pandemic while the US witnessed a literal attempted coup. Russia invaded Ukraine, which has cost well over 200,000 people their lives, destabilized the region, and contributed to major food shortages. As that conflict continues to unfold, we’ve also recently hit our — what? — millionth major financial crisis in 15 years? Every other week, we live in unprecedented times, and it’s no wonder depression diagnoses are on the rise.
At the same time, technology is just getting better — and even more distracting. There are even more addictive apps as well as more capable smartphones and AI tools to polish up our lives. And as social media companies continue to add more and more distracting features, research increasingly demonstrates the negative impact it’s all having on the mental health of young people and adults alike. It’s no wonder: reading the news sometimes makes it feels like the world’s about to end, yet somehow Instagram and LinkedIn feeds make it feel like everybody’s winning at life every day and all the time. And they’re doing it all while looking like supermodels, too, thanks to incredibly good AI filters.
And that’s why I — no, we — need the dumb phone to make a comeback. We need something to help us temporarily disconnect from a fake digital world so we can be more connected to the real one. It used to be getting out of the house was how I could unplug, but now I never can with my smartphone in my pocket and tech everywhere. We can’t hit a pause button on the world, but we can forcibly log off by using a dumb phone instead of a smart one.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want smartphones to go anywhere, and I don’t want them to stop getting better, either. Rather, I imagine a world where we have our smartphones, but it’s also normal to have cheap dumb phones to use while, say, out of the house or just whenever you need a break. Just a basic phone that we can all use to just text and make calls with. No cameras, no apps, no internet, no none of that stuff. Just a phone — not another constant distraction.