Rise Of The Dumbphone

Will Stults spent too much time on his iPhone, doom-scrolling the site formerly known as Twitter and tweeting angrily at Elon Musk as if the billionaire would actually notice. Stults’s partner, Daisy Krigbaum, was addicted to Pinterest and YouTube, bingeing videos on her iPhone before going to sleep. Two years ago, they both tried Apple’s Screen Time restriction tool and found it too easy to disable, so the pair decided to trade out their iPhones for more low-tech devices. They’d heard about so-called dumbphones, which lacked the kinds of bells and whistles—a high-resolution screen, an app store, a video camera—that made smartphones so addictive. But they found the process of acquiring one hard to navigate. “The information on it was kind of disparate and hard to get to. A lot of people who know the most about dumbphones spend the least time online,” Krigbaum said. A certain irony presented itself: figuring out a way to be less online required aggressive online digging.

The couple—Stults is twenty-nine, and Krigbaum is twenty-five—saw a business opportunity. “If somebody could condense it and simplify it to the best options, maybe more people would make the switch,” Krigbaum said. In late 2022, they launched an e-commerce company, Dumbwireless, to sell phones, data plans, and accessories for people who want to reduce time spent on their screens. This wasn’t Stults’s first attempt at entrepreneurship; his past efforts included a made-in-America clothing brand in Colorado (“That went under,” he said) and a coffee shop in the back of an ill-attended Hollywood comedy club (“A doomed enterprise,” Krigbaum said). Dumbwireless, however, has been much more successful.

The couple’s home, in East Los Angeles, has turned into a kind of dumbphone emporium, with five hundred boxed devices stacked up in what was supposed to be a dining room. Stults takes business calls on his personal cell, and on one recent morning the first call came at 5 A.M. (As the lead on customer service, he has to use a smartphone—go figure.) They pack each order by hand, sometimes with handwritten notes. They have not yet quit their day jobs, which are in the service industry, but Dumbwireless sold more than seventy thousand dollars’ worth of products last month, ten times more than in March, 2023. Krigbaum and Stults noticed an acceleration in sales last October, which they speculate may have had something to do with the onslaught of holiday-shopping season. Some of their popular phone offerings include the Light Phone, an e-ink device with almost no apps; the Nokia 2780, a traditional flip phone; and the Punkt., a calculator-ish Swiss device that looks like something designed for Neo to carry in “The Matrix” (which, to be fair, is a movie of the dumbphone era).

The growing dumbphone fervor may be motivated, in part, by the discourse around child safety online. Parents are increasingly confronted with evidence that sites like Instagram and TikTok intentionally try to hook their children. Using those sites can increase teens’ anxiety and lower their self-esteem, according to some studies, and smartphones make it so that kids are logged on constantly. Why should this situation be any healthier for adults? After almost two decades with iPhones, the public seems to be experiencing a collective ennui with digital life. So many hours of each day are lived through our portable, glowing screens, but the Internet isn’t even fun anymore. We lack the self-control to wean ourselves off, so we crave devices that actively prevent us from getting sucked into them. That means opting out of the prevailing technology and into what Cal Newport, a contributing writer for The New Yorker, has called a more considered “digital minimalism.”

The Light Phone débuted in 2017, before smartphone exhaustion became a mainstream ailment. The company’s co-founders, Kaiwei Tang and Joe Hollier, have sold tens of thousands of phones. The Light Phone II, released in 2019, features a monochrome touch screen that allows users to make calls, send text messages, and use a few custom apps: an alarm and timer, a calendar, directions, notes, music and podcast libraries. There are no social-media apps or streaming apps. “The point is to create useful utility that does not have the attention economy built in,” Tang said. Like Dumbwireless, Light Phone has recently been experiencing a surge in demand. From 2022 to 2023, its revenue doubled, and it is on track to double again in 2024, the founders told me. Hollier pointed to Jonathan Haidt’s new book, “The Anxious Generation,” about the adverse effects of smartphones on adolescents. Light Phone is receiving increased inquiries and bulk-order requests from churches, schools, and after-school programs. In September, 2022, the company began a partnership with a private school in Williamstown, Massachusetts, to provide Light Phones to the institution’s staff members and students; smartphones are now prohibited on campus. According to the school, the experiment has had a salutary effect both on student classroom productivity and on campus social life. Tang told me, “We’re talking to twenty to twenty-five schools now.”

To Tang and Hollier’s surprise, some of the most willing Light Phone converts are Gen Z-ers. Some of them are younger than the iPhone. Digital technology has been an inevitable feature of their lives, yet they are also better equipped, or better motivated, than generations past to confront its negative impacts. Apple recently allowed third-party developers to write software that accesses the iPhone’s Screen Time function, meaning that some new programs can now help users limit their screen time by blocking apps. T. J. Driver and Zach Nasgowitz, two engineers in their early twenties, took advantage of this change to create an iPhone accessory called Brick, to fight their own excessive phone usage. Brick, which launched in September of 2023, is a magnetized plastic cube with a corresponding app that allows you to select which features you want to block on your smartphone. Tapping the brick activates or lifts the blockage. Driver and Nasgowitz started with one 3-D printer to produce the accessories; now they have fifteen machines running around the clock and are shipping a few hundred products a day.

There is no one dumbphone solution for everyone. Each digital addict is addicted in her own way. Stults, of Dumbwireless, uses an app called Unpluq, which works similarly to Brick, blocking specific apps from his smartphone while allowing him to maintain the store’s customer-service channels, including e-mail and Shopify. Krigbaum has been a committed Light Phone user for the past two years. She said that she doesn’t miss her smartphone, but that her new device can cause some awkwardness when she meets other young people who ask how to keep in touch. They mean on social media, of course; for the vast swath of Gen Z-ers who don’t use dumbphones, exchanging numbers to text message or, God forbid, call seems archaic. “I’ve been saying, ‘I guess I’ll see you if I see you,’ ” Krigbaum said.

When I want to escape from my iPhone, I pop the SIM card out (which, unfortunately, is not possible on some newer iPhones) and install it in a red Nokia 2780 flip phone—the closing snap of which brings me back instantly to my high-school days, when flip phones were cutting edge. After the surprisingly easy switching process, I take the simple device with me on my daily walks with my dog. If I had my smartphone in hand, I’d be refreshing Instagram or compulsively checking my e-mail while my hound does her business or sniffs tree trunks. With the Nokia, I’ve cut myself off from such meaningless digital stimuli but preserved my ability to answer texts or phone calls if necessary. (I’m too much of a millennial to actually leave the house without any phone.) I find myself looking more at my surroundings, which are particularly enjoyable in springtime, and I am more relaxed when I return from the excursions. When I switch the SIM card back into my iPhone, the device seems momentarily absurd: an enormous screen filled with infinite entertainment and information that follows me wherever I go. Then I open all my usual apps in quick succession—e-mail, Instagram, Slack—to see what I’ve missed. ♦

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