Wednesday, March 23, 2022

The year of the dumbphone?

Photo by Isaac Smith on Unsplash

Remember when a mobile phone was only used for voice calls and text messaging? No apps, no social media, no alerts, no mobile payments, no cameras, no music and no games unless you count primitive ones like Snake (remember that?). A few weeks ago I wrote about a renewed interest in low-tech solutions like hand-crank radios (Digital vulnerability) and now I've just read a news post from BBC about a surge in sales of basic unsmart mobile phones, Not smart but clever? The return of 'dumbphones'. It seems that an increasing number of people, many of whom are in the 25-35 year old bracket, are buying basic mobiles. The article claims that sales of so-called dumbphones reached one billion worldwide last year so it's certainly not just a niche market. 

The reasons for dumbing down vary but in general people want less clutter and distraction in their lives. They realise that they are addicted to their mobiles, checking them every few minutes in case they miss something. Mobiles steal enormous amounts of our daily lives. Our mobiles are also the ultimate surveillance device, sending data about our location, purchases, conversations, searches, contacts, health and more and selling that data to just about anyone willing to pay for it. So many are opting for a less connected life and the freedom it offers. According to Professor Sandra Wachter, a senior research fellow in artificial intelligence at Oxford University:

It makes sense that some of us are now looking for simpler technologies and think that dumbphones might offer a return to simpler times. It might leave more time to fully concentrate on a single task and engage with it more purposefully. It might even calm people down. Studies have shown that too much choice can create unhappiness and agitation.

I can certainly relate to the fears of smartphone surveillance and the addiction to checking social media all day. The problem is that we have already entered the age of the obligatory smartphone. Here in Sweden it is becoming almost impossible to function in society without one. Most public transport requires a mobile app to buy tickets and check timetables. Travelling without the app is just about possible but you still need a bank card (no cash allowed) and you pay extra for being old fashioned. Most smaller transactions are done by a mobile app (even at a local market). The national bank identity system for verifying all types of payment runs on a mobile app. Offline banking is actively discouraged. Your covid vaccination pass is of course stored in your mobile and so the list goes on. Basically without a smartphone you are seriously limited in what you can do. It's nice to see that many people want to reduce their smartphone addiction but I suspect that they have become too embedded in today's society. The smartphone is no longer an option, it's compulsory. That in itself is a cause for concern.

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