Dumb phones are not the answer to digital minimalism
Why dumb phones are not the answer to digital freedom
I’m not saying ‘dumb’ feature phones are bad if you want to partake in digital minimalism. However, there are a few drawbacks that will take up your time when you could be using it more effectively on things you enjoy. I spent fourteen months with a feature phone (technically three phones) and the experience made me appreciate the smartness of having a smartphone. The problem isn’t smartphones, it’s you. Sorry to be truthful, but like any tool, it is how you use it that counts.
At the end of 2019, I had enough of my smartphone addiction. I was spending more time than I would like to admit on my smartphone. As I recall, I would use my iPhone for a total of 6 hours and 37 minutes per day, as Apple screen time would inform me. That’s roughly 100 days of screen time wasted per year on what I was consuming at the time — gaming, social media, YouTube and aimlessly searching for random stuff to feed my dopamine obsession.
I felt shocked and appalled when I thought about it. I was always running out of time to complete my responsibilities and jobs I had on hold. Why couldn’t I achieve anything? I was always ‘busy’, complaining that I never had enough time to do anything. My solution — stay up until 1am to cram in as many jobs as possible. As you can imagine, it wasn’t long until I made myself poorly with sleep deprivation and unregulated patterns. My diet was all over the place, and I was hooked on energy drinks to keep me alert.
Discovering digital minimalism
I knew I had to have a mental reset. I did what most people would do — I researched about social media, mental health and dependency on technology (on my phone, of course). I stumbled across some comments on X (formerly known as Twitter) about someone called Cal Newport. He had a book out called Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. I certainly needed focus, and there were plenty of things distracting me in my noisy world. I purchased the eBook and sent it immediately to my Amazon Kindle app on my phone. I read the book within a week, on my phone, and quickly realised I was responsible for my shortcomings. Even if Cal expressed developers were creating apps and social media platforms to be addictive, it was actually my fault for falling for it. Taking responsibility for my actions was the only solution I could take to put things right.
I felt anger, contempt, and frustration towards my iPhone. I hated it. Furthermore, I hated Apple and the whole tech industry. The hatred grew, and I spontaneously deleted all of my social media accounts. I disconnected myself from the world. My phone felt neglected, as I purposely left it uncharged and out of sight (to the annoyance of my family). I knew it couldn’t be a maintainable approach to my problem. Avoiding wouldn’t resolve the concern, but I was adamant I was not going to use my phone.
Falling down a rabbit hole on YouTube probably was the best thing I did at the time. Yes, I ‘wasted’ hours over a couple of nights on consuming content, but I came to the realisation that others were being awakened to the modern issue of technology co-dependency. This is when I saw videos of people resorting to going all in with a dumb phone, later to be known as a feature phone. These were the phones I grew up with before the smartphone era came along.
It was at this time I discovered Nokia were introducing remakes of their classics under an operating system called KaiOS. Within a week of browsing, I had a Nokia 8110 4G in my hand. The remake of the original Matrix phone, aka the Banana phone, was the answer to all of my problems. I loved it. I would show off how I was not hooked like a slave, unlike those around me. My preaching to others and high moral ground stance was embarrassing when I look back at it. I didn’t care at the time. I was enjoying life and looking down on those around me, who walked around like zombies glued to their smartphones.
Limited features meant fewer reasons to have a big data plan. I was able to go to a cheap data plan of £5 ($6.34) per month. I saved a lot of money in the fourteen months I was using a feature phone.
The 8110 4G wasn’t perfect, though. The number pad was tiny and awful to type on. I hated texting and calling people on it because there were multiple steps with every simple action. KaiOS is terrible — slow, bloated, ad-riddled, buggy and generally useless. I knew what I had to do. Search for a different feature phone! I did. I upgraded to the Doro 7060 flip phone. It had big buttons, KaiOS with Google Maps, and the novelty of flipping out the phone (quite literally) in front of others never grew thin. However, just like the 8110, the phone had its faults. The main problem was poor Bluetooth support for my car.
My wife would get fed up with my lack of ability to answer phone calls while driving. In the UK, using your phone while strictly forbidden. On top of this, my friends felt I was avoiding them by not being in the group chat. I was excluded from the WhatsApp group chat. It also caused issues with keeping up with my son’s football and basketball clubs. I had to get my wife to relay the meet-up information, which didn’t always get through to me reliably.
Back to the drawing board, I knew I loved the feel of a flip phone like the good old days. I set out to find a flip phone with smarter capabilities. I was in luck. Nokia released an ad trailer for their remake of the Nokia 2720. I was in awe. It had 4G, better Bluetooth options, a sleek design, and more importantly — WhatsApp. I could reconnect with my friends and groups. I bought the black edition because my default preference is always black. The phone was wonderful to hold in my hand. It connected to my car with ease. I was able to transfer some music across and everything was good.
Then the cracks started to show. The OS was buggy, the phone was generally slow, WhatsApp crashed, system navigation was terrible, and it was bloated with ads and Facebook. I have a problem with phones loaded with bloat.
Reverting to a smartphone
I managed to stick with my Nokia 2720 flip until the end of February 2020. There were too many issues. I was getting frustrated with the phone, and I was starting to consume hours of content on my desktop, which is no different to what I was doing on my smartphone before I switched to a feature phone.
I had my eye on a smartphone that was designed for the digital minimalist in mind. It was called the Blloc Phone. It was an Android phone without Google services, which ticked many boxes and used many more tricks I knew were good for blocking addictive practices on devices, such as greyscale and minimising what you could see on the home screen. I watched videos of the phone in action, read everything I could on the phone/OS, as well as reviews from numerous outlets like Android Authority.
The phone had came out a couple of years prior, and I managed to buy it second hand from eBay. This phone shaped how I use phones today. It taught me about design language, intentional use, minimalist philosophy, and above all, the power of using monochrome to remove the need for colourful apps. You see, apps are in colour for a reason. Our brains are hooked on colour. We crave colour to get that dopamine hit. The Ratio launcher on a Blloc phone is the best launcher I have ever experienced (review). The launcher is now available on other Android devices from their Blloc website. I was able to use a smartphone without being hooked to it.
The Problem with dumb phones
Dumb phones won’t address the problem within us. They can help us disconnect and re-evaluate what we are doing on smartphones. The feature phone breaks up our dependency on constant access to the internet. However, there are some drawbacks that I would like to share.
Feature phones are not secure
- They don’t receive security updates like smartphones do. There’s no secure messaging option either, only SMS, which is easily accessible to those who want to gain access to your messages.
- Google and Meta have access to what you use on modern feature phones. If getting away from these tech giants is your concern, then a feature phone is not the answer.
- The web browser on the phones does not have the security features available on modern browsers. Welcome to ad city. Good luck trying to read page without the ads blocking your view.
- Google Maps, Waze, or Apple Maps are brilliant tools to navigate to places unfamiliar. The difficulty with features phones is they have a basic version of Google Maps, which is unless.
- You will spend a lot of time researching your journey instead of actually working on important things (not productive at all).
- Searching for the nearest place to refuel, shop and eat will require you to pre-plan your journey. I would have stacks of Post-Its and notebooks with directions, printouts and snippets to aid me on the journey.
- The apps on features phones are outdated. You will not find anything useful. There were countless times I wanted to take a quick note, add something to my calendar or check an email. I couldn’t. Again, the apps are not available. You will need a pen and notepad, if you remember to bring them with you.
- Phone operating systems like KaiOS are supported by Google and Meta. You will have a phone bloated with their apps. I wanted to get away from them, not have them as the only apps on the phone.
- Ads are everywhere on these devices. I was inundated with ads popping up while navigating the complicated menu system. I even received push ads on the weather and music app.
- Feature phones do not have multitasking available. Some of the phones won’t let copy and paste either.
- Yes. WhatsApp is installed on some feature phones. However, there is limited in functionality. It is a lightweight version of the software. WhatsApp added group chat to some phones. It was a minefield to find out what phone supported group chat. Even then, waiting for the update to be pushed out was a real gamble.
- You will not have access to other communication services and messengers.
- Videos calls? Forget it.
- The signal strength and call quality was poor in all the phones I tried out.
- Bluetooth connections in a car can be temperamental. Dropped calls, no audio coming through, missing phonebook, distorted voices, to name a few.
Photos and video
- Most of the feature phones on the market have poor cameras in them. VGA or 2MP is the best you will get.
- You will miss important moments that you would have wanted to capture.
- Getting the content onto your computer is difficult. Some phones record in a format not recognised without additional software.
So, what is the solution then? I am not saying this will work for you, but I have a few lessons I have learnt from my experience. These rules still carry on today with my phone usage. You might find some of them useful.
No social media apps on your phone — I refuse to use social media apps on my phone. Delete all of your social media apps from your phone. The added level of friction is essential to make you question whether you need to access the sites in the first place. I only access my social media platforms through a desktop or laptop. Having to make the effort to sign in, launch the browser and sign into the site is tedious, but it works. I have added enough friction to make me question if I really need to access the social media site.
Set time to access social media sites. I started off with thirty minutes a week on a Wednesday. It was on my calendar for 8:30pm. If that is too extreme, why not set the time amount of time each day? I have tried a rule where I am not allowed to access any social media at weekends, so I am able to spend quality time with my family. You want to build a habit of not aimlessly scrolling through social media. Be intentional.
Have safe spaces for your phone at home. These are typically three locations in your home where you can place your smartphone out of reach. I call them stations. The idea is to not have your phone near you all the time. I have the island in my kitchen, an office charging dock (when I’m not working in there), and a stand in my bedroom corner. I never have my phone near me when I am doing jobs or relaxing.
Only have the essential apps installed. I think this can be a tricky one to build into a habit because there are so many apps you want to try or have access to. I get it. I once had an impulse to have everything installed ‘just in case’ I needed to access it. I now focus on the following — Calls, default messenger, calendar, notes app and to-do list manager. If you need something else, think cautiously why you need the app on your phone.
This doesn’t mean I don’t have other apps installed. I have Day One for journaling, Twos App for quick capture and Upnote for practising my coding or capturing an article for scheduled reading. Removing all games is a viable option to take because it is another reason to use your phone. My gaming challenge made me think of this idea. I’m so happy I made this choice.
By only using your phone with the minimal amount of apps, you will see your battery will last longer. My iPhone 12 lasts two days without charging. I know people with a plethora of apps on an iPhone 14 Pro Max who have to charge their phone each day. Don’t be that person.
Remove ‘always available’ apps. This is probably a hard area to master. You don’t need to be a social recluse, but take care of yourself. I removed my email client app and anything to do with work. Although I have multiple social media accounts, I refuse to have any of their messaging apps installed on my phone. I also recommend you use your phone’s focus mode to block communication between certain times in the day. I have my wife and son in the exception list for emergencies. Recently, iOS has added the ability to limit what apps are available within their focus modes. For example, at 9pm, all my apps are locked out apart from the Phone, iMessage, Reminders and Calendar apps.
Go monochrome. As mentioned above, with the Blloc phone, boring monochrome is king. I use monochrome on my phone for 99% of the day. The only time I use colour is when I want to take or view a photo. The Blloc Ratio launcher has a nice feature where you can select certain apps to have colour, like the photos and camera app. My iPhone doesn’t have this feature, unfortunately. With a triple tap of the back on my phone, I can switch between colour and monochrome.
Be mindful. You need to be mindful of what you are doing on your phone. Consistency, intentionality and minimalist thinking are key to your success in digital minimalism. It’s not about being all ‘anti-social media’. These platforms can be used for good. What you want to do is take responsibility for your actions. Your phone is a tool for you to use. Don’t let the phone use you.
Finally, I would like to thank you for reading my post. If you wish to use a feature phone, and it will help you become less dependent on technology, go ahead and experience it for yourself. Just be aware that the experience will require you to plan ahead, cause friction between you and others, and become a logistical nightmare in the world we live in right now.
Mark @ CodeMacLife