I Went Back to a Dumbphone

Here’s what I’ve learned so far.

The flip phone is now considerably less exciting than it was in 2006, when the RAZR debuted. (Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters)

A couple of months ago, I disrupted my household by going on a treasure hunt. Drawers ransacked, closets deconstructed, boxes dug through. I was looking for a cellphone—and not just any cellphone, this cellphone:

Alan Jacobs

I wanted it because I had come to a momentous decision: After seven years with an iPhone, I was going to get a significantly dumber phone. And what could be dumber than the phone I was rocking circa 2005, a Samsung knockoff of the legendary Motorola Razr? But anti-style points aside, I was trying to respond to a feeling that had been creeping up on me for a long time, but that had only recently become strong and clear: Social media were stalking me from my pocket.

Back when that feeling was still inchoate, I had made some changes in my technological life. Influenced by the indie-web movement, I stopped using Tumblr and Instagram and transferred all my attention to my own turf. I retreated to a private Twitter account and unfollowed everyone on my public account, reserving it for link-sharing only—basically, an RSS feed.

And I loved all these changes. They made me more peaceful and focused; less bothered by notifications, less tempted to do things—tweet, post photos, reblog posts—that might cause my friends’ phones to notify them. But then it occurred to me that the phone I was carrying around was designed to encourage all the things I had just stopped doing. The iOS app ecosystem was constructed so that this one device could be the instrument through which most of my encounters in the world are mediated and broadcast. As Nicholas Carr has recently noted, you are your phone—and I was my phone too, but didn't want to be my phone any more. Yet I couldn't escape the awareness that even if I deleted all the social-media apps from my phone I was a couple of taps away from restoring any or all of them. That’s what I mean when I say that social media were stalking me from my pocket; and that’s why I wanted a dumb phone.

So I turned the house upside down until I found that old Samsung... which proved, after I plugged it into an old car-charger (the original charging cord was long gone) to be dead as a doornail. Could I get a new battery? A new cord? What kind of SIM card went into that thing, anyway? And Lord, it’s ugly ... the stiff spine of my dumbphone resolve was beginning to weaken.

And then I read about the Punkt MP 01. It’s not ugly. And its only communication abilities are calling and texting. And my mom wants to know what I’d like for Christmas.

My MP 01 arrived just before Christmas, to my mom’s relief, and it’s a nice phone, though wildly overpriced unless you have a major jones for Swiss design. It’s not nearly as heavy as an iPhone, so it felt a little flimsy to me at first, but I’m getting used to it. Readjusting to old-school texting, using number keys and the predictive-text algorithm T9, has not been fun; and my wife’s emoji-heavy texting style has had to be curtailed. (The decision to dumb down has consequences for other people, I guess.) I find that I now call her more and text less, since calling is so much easier. Probably my favorite thing about the Punkt is that it has to be charged about once a month. This blows my mind after so many years of anxiety about low iPhone battery levels.

But far more interesting than the phone itself is the marketing strategy employed by Punkt to promote it. Both on their website and their Twitter account they relentlessly press the message that to use a Punkt is to “disconnect,” to “detox,” to be “offline.” Well, no. If people can reach me, and I can reach them, by call or text, then I’m not really disconnected, am I? But in a “you are your phone” environment, calling and texting can certainly feel like disconnection.

And for many of us — almost everyone in the Punkt demographic — the anxiety of being disconnected is strong enough that Punkt doesn't even try to sell the MP 01 as your main phone. Consider some of these suggestions from their Tips and Tricks page:

  • Turn on call forward: Direct incoming calls from your smartphone to your MP 01 when you need to make/receive calls rather than reply to emails or notifications.
  • Use with your iPad: The MP 01 is the perfect companion to a business tablet, which ensures safe typo-free email replies and is ideal for those seeking a break from the ‘always‐on’ lifestyle.
  • Twin SIM: Ask your operator to duplicate your existing SIM so you can take/make calls with the MP 01 on your smartphone number when you’re out with friends and family.
  • Perfect secondary device: For those who need to reply to emails and check documents outside the office, the MP 01 is a perfect secondary device (personal phone) in addition to their smartphone (work phone).

Temporary “disconnection” is the best they hope for. But those of us who preordered are given every encouragement to take the phone seriously—to treat it as an eminently desirable object and the use of it as a powerful signal. In the box with the phone I found a Punkt tote bag, some Punkt postcards, a big MP 01 poster, and a copy of Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. All important tokens of my new detoxified digital lifestyle.

And yet, the primary feeling I have about the MP 01 after some weeks of using it is: It’s just a phone. I don’t think about it. I even accidentally leave the house without it sometimes. It’s not me in the way my iPhone was, because, as it turns out, what creates the “you are your phone” phenomenon is not the aesthetic beauty of the device, even though you may enjoy that when it’s present, but the power of the device to serve as a portal to ... well, to the Internet in its deepest and original meaning, the network of networks. The iPhone encompassed all the ways that people who are distant from me forgot or overcame that distance. The Punkt, a device that is not such a portal, is therefore not really me; and it has proven to be relatively dispensable.

That’s not a criticism or an insult. I like my new comparatively disconnected life. I am happier not being constantly jolted by the news of the instant. But if I end up in a remote cabin somewhere in Idaho, you’ll know how it all began.

That’s not the more likely eventuality, though; it’s certainly not the one that concerns me. I have an old iPhone that I use as an iPod. Basically, it stays next to my bed, and when I climb into the bed at night I listen to podcasts or music with it. But I can’t quite forget how easy it would be to slip that SIM card out of the Punkt and into the iPhone.

Related Video

It's quite possible to live and date in New York without a smartphone.