Why are people replacing their smartphones with dumbphones?

Every year in the woods outside of San Francisco, in what just might be the most San Franciscan thing ever, a group of people gather to reconnect with nature, themselves and one another.

They leave behind everything electronic – cameras, phones and tablets are all safely locked away by the events organisers – with the mission of freeing themselves from not just a few hundred dollars, but all of those digital distractions, that unceasing barrage of Facebook comments, Instagram likes and Bebo retweets.

So-called digital detoxes are gaining popularity around the world, as people begin to reappraise the increasingly controlling relationship they have with their devices. But while confining yourself to a wi-fi free gulag in the forest is an extreme example of the trend, many are turning to less radical solutions, and using dumbphones as a means of cutting down on a screen time.

Dumbphones (also called feature phones) are a category of phone with a limited set of features. Typically capable of just phone calls and texting, with no touchscreen or apps, and costing tens of pounds rather than hundreds, the growth of these devices outpaced the rest of the smartphone market for the first time in 2017. Thats thanks in part to their affordability and reliability in developing markets such as India. Nokia has even revived two of its classic phones, the 3310 and the 8110, much to the delight of nostalgic millennials, though the inclusion of Google Maps and Facebook precludes these from being considered true dumbphones.

As the niche widens, designers are now creating feature-light phones that arent just low-tech, retro, or for emerging markets, but that look good and perform as well as any high-end device. Chief among these is the Light Phone, a crowdfunded, minimalist, e-ink phone that strips away the extraneous features of a smartphone – theres no camera, no internet, no app store and no email – to leave just a few select features behind.

Its a phone that, according to its creators, doesnt want to be used. “We wanted to create an object that encourages people to take a break from their phone and come back to reality, even if just for a couple of hours,” says Kaiwei Tang, Light Phones co-creator.

Were so far beyond self-control. When every app is designed to draw your attention, the phone is no longer a neutral object.

“Just the presence of a smartphone on the table changes conversation,” says Tang. “We expect someone to pick it up, we expect to be interrupted, so the conversation doesnt go deep. Just the presence of that shape changes us. Its so deeply rooted into our behaviour. When we started out, I realised were fighting against the tide.”

The second iteration of the Light Phone has raised almost $1.5m in crowdfunding, with the first devices shipping to backers in 2019. Demand is rising for a phone that makes no demands of us, and perhaps one that would be permitted in the woods outside of San Francisco.

“People say, why not turn off your phone? Why not have some self-control? But were so far beyond self-control. When every app is designed to draw your attention, the phone is no longer a neutral object.”

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