Smart people prefer dumbphones

Has Generation Z had its fill of technology?


Smart people prefer dumbphones

Late last month, a new kind of phone caused a sensation at a design show in Milan. Some people were calling this radical innovation the ‘dumb phone.’ Others preferred the phrase ‘boring phone’ or the more neutral ‘light phone.’ Regardless of what you called it, the novelty of this flip phone was that it was feature-free. It had none of the connectivity of a smartphone, being designed purely for text messages and—unimaginably rudimentary, this—phone calls.

For those who wish to experience the dumb phone without owning a dedicated device, there is even an application due to be launched in June that will dumb down your smartphone, allowing everyone to enjoy the benefits of temporary disconnection.

The publicity for this app explains that it is a symbol of the fight against addiction to technology and the pursuit of more genuine human connections: ‘...the boring phone highlights the evolution of digital society and its need to take a step back. (It’s) an encouraging project that challenges the status quo and promotes a more balanced approach to smartphones.’

The growing trend for reversing technological progress extends to a revival in vinyl records, cassettes, fanzines, and even 8-bit video games. It’s almost as if King Ludd (who gave his name to Luddites, past and present) had finally been restored to the throne he occupied before the Industrial Revolution, 200 years ago or more.

None of this would be quite so surprising if the dumb phone was favoured by the older generations. They have been muttering under their breath for years about teenagers and twenty-somethings fixated on screens, apparently oblivious to their surroundings, bumping into oncoming pedestrians, falling down manholes, that kind of thing.

But now it seems those same forlorn smartphone addicts have had enough. Joe Birch, a technology analyst at Mintel, claims, “There is evidence of this generation modifying their smartphone behaviour, with concerns around the negative impacts of being constantly digitally connected. Three in five gen-Zers say they’d like to be less connected to the digital world.”

This surprising move towards offlining, or digital minimalism, is also seen in Generation Z’s declining use of social media. They are the only generation whose time on social media has fallen since 2021, according to the research company Gwi.

Twentysomethings are also concerned about privacy, in an Internet that can seem more like a surveillance tool for brands, governments and scammers than a place to pursue interests and find interesting people. One group of New York schoolchildren have even formed The Luddite Club, announcing that they are giving up their iPhones for flip phones.

There are other reasons behind this deliberate step back from the technological abyss. Generation Z—sometimes known as “Zoomers”—have been uniquely exposed to the mental health consequences of the revolution.


Read more: The end of forgetting: Is social media holding us hostage to our pasts?

Born between 1997 and 2012, they had no real experience of the 20th century. As digital natives, they view the analogue age as an alien epoch before a paradigm shift. This means they have suffered more than anyone from the detrimental effects of their smartphones, including depression, addiction and the ravages of the attention economy.

The warning signs have been around for a while. Back in 2017, workers in Silicon Valley were already questioning the “attention economy”—an Internet shaped around the demands of advertising. Google, Twitter and Facebook workers were sending their children to schools where iPhones, iPads and even laptops were banned.

‘They appear to have been abiding by a Biggie Smalls lyric from their own youth about the perils of dealing crack cocaine: never get high on your own supply’, as Paul Lewis stated in the Guardian. One Silicon Valley employee even hired a social media manager to monitor her Facebook page, just so she didn’t have to. It used to be: 'Move fast and break things'. But hey, that was then. Nowadays, the internal motto is Noli me tangere.

Attentional control

There is growing concern that as well as addicting its users, technology is contributing toward so-called “continuous partial attention,” severely limiting people’s ability to focus and possibly lowering their IQ. People might actually be getting dumb in inverse proportion to the cleverness of their devices. One recent study showed that the mere presence of smartphones damages cognitive capacity—even when the device is turned off. So next time you struggle to converse with a person glued to their screen, try gently pointing out that it is sucking intelligence out of them.

James Williams is the author of Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy. An ex-Google strategist, he decries his former industry as ‘the largest, most standardised and most centralised form of attentional control in human history’: “The attention economy incentivises the design of technologies that grab our attention. In so doing, it privileges our impulses over our intentions.”

This, in turn, has consequences for our politics. The news media is increasingly working in the service of tech companies and must play by the rules of the attention economy to sensationalise and entertain in order to survive: “The dynamics of the attention economy are structurally set up to undermine the human will. If politics is an expression of our human will, on individual and collective levels, then the attention economy is directly undermining the assumptions that democracy rests on.”

In other words, Apple, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat are gradually chipping away at our ability to control our own minds. The time might come when democracy no longer functions, he says: “Will we be able to recognise it, if and when it happens? And if we can’t, then how do we know it hasn’t happened already?”

Studies show that people might actually be getting dumb in inverse proportion to the cleverness of their devices.

Going offline

Since that article was written, anxieties have only intensified to the extent that some individuals have bowed out altogether. The Guardian recently featured a man who was concerned that he was losing his independence of mind and the ability to live in the real world. He tried a 'light phone' for a week, using only texts and calls to communicate.

Afterwards, he admitted, "It feels a little like swimming nude. Fun, slightly naughty, not always appropriate, but something I will definitely do again. I may carry my swimming trunks, though. Just in case". Skinny-dipping itself sounds like nostalgia for an idyllic past. At this year's boat race, the rowers were warned against any contact with the Thames for fear of E. coli. 

Meanwhile, down in Brighton, there is a man who has been offline for six years. That may not make him remarkable in itself, but this man is only twenty-four years old, which is why the BBC thinks him newsworthy. Imagine how his feat could inspire generations to come. Pilgrims will seek him out to sit at his feet, and he will be easy to find as the only one who both a) cannot recall the 20th century and b) walks through the streets of Brighton with untroubled mien, hair tousled by the sea breeze, and comes to rest outside a fish and chip shop, openly, without a phone in sight, chatting to his acolytes, while on his face is a look of almost beatific serenity.

And the pilgrims will say: "Tell us, oh master, what is the secret of your almost beatific serenity?" 

To which he will reply, simply: "Go offline!"

"Can it be that simple, oh wise one?"

"Try doing it before you say it's simple, for was it not T.S. Eliot who said that humankind cannot bear very much reality?" 

"But what," they will ask, "is the meaning of reality, oh guru?" 

"At the risk of repeating myself, go offline! For only there will you find it."

Upon which, a seagull will swoop down and steal half his plaice, and the man who is offline, despite his serene beatitude, will be sorely irritated.

Being offline is already starting to look like part of the Zeitgeist. Even 90's revivalism appears to be having a moment, according to Alexis Petridis, a music critic. It's interesting that this vogue has something to do with phones: "A hankering after the era's pre-9/11 optimism and pre-smartphone straightforwardness has meant Britpop references suddenly seem to be everywhere."

Optimism, pre-smartphone straightforwardness: of course, these may well be Zoomer hallucinations of a lost innocence. The Nineties themselves were a throwback to the Sixties, after all. Even the word 'throwback' doesn't mean what it used to mean.

But none of this nostalgia for simpler times is surprising when one delves a little into the Zoomers' strange, sometimes eerie, private worlds. I have learnt more than I really wanted to know over the past few days about sextortion, nudification, porn, advice on self-harming, deep fakery, and even suicide. It's a scary world out there in the ether.  


Even when they're not so dramatic, the effects of the perils of social media can be felt in everyday life. There is a heightened sensitivity to 'offensive' conduct. According to Catherine Carr, this has had a chilling effect on Zoomer boys.

Take the experience of a schoolboy who complimented a girl's haircut, only to have the heavens fall on his offending head as the other girls in the class heaped invective upon him: "Oh my God, you can't say that about someone's appearance. That's so bad. You can't talk about a girl like that!" The boy had fancied the girl with the haircut but subsequently felt so deflated and embarrassed that he resolved never to 'go there' again.

An anxious generation

It is the association of smartphones with depression and even suicide that has led Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist, to write a book called The Anxious Generation, in which he concludes that Zoomers are depressed because of the time they spend online. They lose the skills of conversation, become isolated, and are inhibited by pornographic expectations.

Then there's the doomscrolling, or the tendency to continue to surf or scroll through bad news, even though that news is depressing. This has boomed since the pandemic to the point where a surprising number of people suffer from problematic levels of news consumption. It may be that Haidt failed to give the effects of the pandemic sufficient weight. He might also have understated the influence of climate anxiety. But the basic insight is an intuitive one whenever you see a young person crouched over their device in libraries, in a posture that might turn them into hunchbacks one day. It's not just bad for their deportment. It could also have disastrous consequences for their mental health.  

There are moves in various Western countries to restrict the use of smartphones, either by banning them from schools or by bringing in age restrictions. In Britain, the Prime Minister has been widely ridiculed for his acting skills in a video highlighting the distractions of these gadgets.

The government's campaign may prove unnecessary, though. If the younger users lose interest in being depressed or distracted, grow weary of their data being harvested and their undivided attention being sought, perpetually, then the smartphone might go extinct of its own accord, no parental or state interference necessary.

Boomer meets Zoomer

Whenever I've found myself ranting about social media – which has happened with increasing frequency of late – I've tended to put it down to my advanced age. I'm a 20th-century boy, after all. There's nothing I can do about that. My complaints must sound, to younger ears, as outdated as Marc Bolan singing: Friends say he's fine; friends say he's good,
Everybody says he's just like Robin Hood (or 'rock and roll' – opinions differ). I move like a cat, charge like a ram, sting like a bee. Babe, I'm gonna be your man!

By all accounts, this approach worked for the lead singer of T. Rex, but times have changed. I don't move like a cat these days unless you count fidgeting in my sleep. I haven't charged like a ram since the last time I tripped and brained myself on a stationary building. As for stinging like a bee, it's not going to happen, not after being informed of the fatal consequences for the bee. In short, I am emphatically not gonna be your man. I don't expect you to be all that disappointed.

Is it any surprise, then, that I struggle to see the point of social media? I've never availed myself of a dating app, for example. When I read about a young woman who habitually used such an app, I was reminded of my contempt for Lonely Hearts ads in my youth, all those clipped messages (to save money) that included 'must have GSOH.' I don't suppose anyone would use that particular acronym these days.

Back then, I imagined those sad people who met on blind dates turning up at frowsty station bars and scanning the faces for their quarry. Once they found each other, they would have to endure an evening of awkward silences interspersed with forlorn efforts to be funny. It sounded like Sartre's description of Hell. Yet what must it be like now, with all the verbal constraints we labour under? I'm not even sure what a 'good sense of humour' sounds like or if it's actually good. Presumably, the angelic hosts could tell me. 

Now, along with social media, a healthy and, on the face of it, attractive (careful with those compliments) young woman feels obliged to 'date' this way, exactly as if she never meets real people in the real world.

Of course, I myself was taken in for a while by the 'social' bit of social media. I dabbled in Facebook back in my callow years. A multitude of fragrant women regularly tried to befriend me on Instagram. Others, more formally attired, were desperate to employ me on LinkedIn. There were hosts of people who wanted to hear my opinion on Twitter. In a matter of minutes, I could go from being Saint Anthony on Instagram, beset by visions of digitally-enhanced pulchritude, to the George Osborne of the Internet collecting an infinite variety of prestigious job titles, to the man-of-the-hour with the world's press at my gate, pointing their cameras and boom mics in my direction and demanding to know my opinion on the Sewage Crisis.

I was in such high demand that my head spun from the moment I awoke from another bad night's sleep. I felt involved in the world like never before—up to my neck in it, in fact. But I'm a 20th-century boy; they couldn't fool me for long. After little more than a decade, I realised that I'd been ghosted by the entire species and that what I was hearing were disembodied voices from the ether.     

While Generation Z cannot recall the century I was born in, I clearly remember buying an idiot's guide to the Internet back then and reading it with amazement as I sat on a train. It had a short print run, that guide. Yet still, there are those, like my mother, who chide themselves that they haven't caught up with the 21st century. It's almost a quarter of the way through. Some members of the Z cohort are already helping run the country. To be frank, anyone who hasn't caught up is like a village railway station after the Beeching cuts. The century may pass through at speed, but it no longer stops there. 

I was lucky enough to survive the paradigm shift. I have a modest competence with computers and smartphones dating way back to when I was wowed by the idiot's guide. Yet I still remember life without the Internet, and I have never really adopted the social practices it begat.

So, I've found myself meditating on the plight of my technophobic mother. She started out as a merry Luddite, refusing to see any benefit to adoption and getting on with life as if technology were a passing fad. Nowadays, she's a hopeless case, defeated by the gadgets, but also uncomprehending when it comes to the thought processes and social practices that go with them.

There is roughly a twenty-year gap between us. I could be equally estranged from the world in half that time. If so, what will have happened? The obvious answer is artificial intelligence, but that's really just a phrase for something unimaginable, like string theory. It's entirely probable that this magazine will be written by bots one day. Would anyone even notice? 

A recent Guardian article, trivial in itself, demonstrated how quickly things are moving away from me. It was all about voicemail and something called voice messages—or were those audio texts?—and how some of the author's friends were stringing these out into exceedingly banal, extemporised podcasts. It contained the following odious passage: '…but in the context of this particular flashpoint, we need to talk about voice memos. (Or audio messages, or voice texts, not to be confused with voice-to-text, which is something else entirely – all right, Grandma?)' 

That may as well be me, but she's calling Grandma. I'm old enough to be one. I have the small consolation of disproving Oscar Wilde's dictum: "All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his." (The Importance of Being Earnest).

You see, despite being a man, there's nothing tragic about me since I can confidently predict becoming more and more like my mother. The practice the article describes, though I find it comprehensible on some level, is entirely alien to me. I don't need it. I basically despise it. True, the voice message train zooms through my station from time to time, but always without stopping. 

It's nice to know that some disillusioned Zoomers are moving into the same village as me in search of a bit of peace and quiet. I expect they'll be rather inhibited at first, but at least they'll lower the median age of the inhabitants.

As for the offline man in Brighton, he really ought to meet my mum; there's nothing she likes more than a good old chinwag. 

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