Why more and more people are buying a "dumbphone"

As new research shows our phones are making us distracted (and even unhappy), the surprising resurgence of Nokia's 3310 prompts the question: are we finally sick of smartphones?

March 05, 2018
More and more people are buying iconic older models like the Nokia 3310 (pictured)—and it's not just about nostalgia. Photo: Prospect composite
More and more people are buying iconic older models like the Nokia 3310 (pictured)—and it's not just about nostalgia. Photo: Prospect composite

Who would have thought it: Nokia has become a surprise darling of the Mobile World Congress, which took place this week in Barcelona. The star of the show was the Nokia 3310, which is a repackaging of the phone that I, and probably you too, played Snake on in the year 2000.

Nokia originally sold 126 million units of the first 3310, and the new Nokia 3310 does much of the same things as its 17-year-old peer.

It makes calls and writes basic texts—providing a golden opportunity to dig out some good old text speak (“c u l8r?”) Nokia’s new Matrix-inspired “banana phone” has also garnered headlines, with its pleasingly tactile slide-down keyboard lid.

It’s all a bit of fun, and refreshing in a sea of samey smartphones, although Nokia-branded phones—now actually made by a startup called HMD Global—has launched four of those, too.

So what’s happening here? Nostalgia has a lot to answer for, because there’s nothing technically superior about these new Nokia phones. All the way from clothing to food, brands are leaning hard on nostalgia to promote their products.

Young consumers in particular have become cynical and difficult to reach. But remind them of things from their childhoods—the 1980s and the 1990s—and it’s a lock. I mean, wouldn’t you like to play a few rounds of Snake, for old times’ sake?

Ultimately, few people are likely to buy the new old Nokia to play a simple game. But for the sake of £50, you could get your hands on a phone which can last up to two weeks without needing to be charged—can you imagine it?

You can just about check Facebook on the new Nokia 3310, but you can’t access Wi-Fi or install WhatsApp, making this very much just a phone, not the entertainment centre that our smartphones have become.

There are certainly times when a simple phone would come in handy: if you’re going to a festival or a nature hike where you can’t expect to get a charge, or where you might not want to bring a gadget worth hundreds of pounds for fear of loss or damage.

But the “dumbphone” phenomenon has already been simmering along for a few years now, and for entirely different reasons: a phone that does less is its own kind of freedom.

New technology is often accused of being bad for us—even the humble kaleidoscope was vilified when it first arrived in Victorian England, with critics warning people would stare into them while walking down the street.

But the smartphone may actually be different than other technologies that have come before. In her new book, How to break up with your phone, Catherine Price argues that the smartphone is uniquely designed to capture our attention, and to keep it by offering constant and endless means of distraction.

“Our brains are naturally programmed to be easily distractible which, in an evolutionary context, makes sense: the creatures most alert to the threats in their surroundings are the most likely to survive,” she told Vox. “Humans are unusual amongst animals in that we have the capacity to override this naturally distracted state in order to concentrate.”

“That’s really hard for our brains to do. They’d much rather just flit around from one new thing to the next—which, of course, is what our phones and apps are specifically designed to encourage.”

People look at their smartphones dozens or even thousands of times every day. Sometimes, we don’t even realise that we’ve picked it up until we’re at it again. It’s hard to resist: each Facebook thumbs up or Instagram heart delivers a little dopamine hit.

But when that little high wears off, it leaves us itching for more–it’s a bit like eating a lot of sugar. This can create a negative cycle, because as compelling as that glass rectangle may be, it can also create a restlessness that’s not entirely pleasurable.

Here’s where the appeal of a dumbphone comes in: it removes temptation and restores some of that lost ability to focus. Vlad Savov embraced the dumbphone “for the sake of my sanity and my gainful employment,” he wrote in the Verge. “The peace of mind this has given me has been exhilarating,” found James Brown in the Telegraph. “I feel content in the dumbphone world; free of worry, free of that hovering impulse to constantly check what's new,” reported Stan Schroeder for Mashable.

The problem with nostalgia is, of course, that it’s a selective memory—we only remember the good parts. Having a phone that reminds you of being in university won’t change anything about your life the way it is now.

There would be upsides of course: the battery on the new old Nokia will never die on you as you’re texting your friends about where to meet for dinner. But the downsides are there too: you may never find the restaurant without a smartphone with GPS and a map.

Similarly, you may decide to downgrade your phone in the hope of becoming more productive, and that may work—or you may just find yourself taking a sudden interest in sudoku. Because no matter which phone you have, you’re still the same person.