The Stubborn Pride of Dumbphone Owners

The Atlantic
The Stubborn Pride of Dumbphone Owners
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The Stubborn Pride of Dumbphone Owners

Smartphones generally get all the tech press attention, but this week dumbphones and their loyal owners have popped up in two trend stories. Both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal point out the loyal— and ever-shrinking—demographic of Americans resisting conversion to the smartphone cult. Back when the iPhone 4S came out, we discussed those very people, noting the reasons these Luddites have failed to get with the times. Six months later those folks are still kicking it with their dumbphones, as proud as ever. 

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These articles point to all the familiar and very legitimate explanations for why some choose a dumbphone over more technologically advanced options:

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  • Fear of addiction. “I don’t want to end up falling victim to the smartphone, where I dive in and get lost for hours at a time,” dumbphone owner 24-year-old Jim Harig, 24 told The Times' Teddy Wayne. 
  • The benefits of disconnectivity. "I also fear my own susceptibility to an e-mail-checking addiction," writes Wayne. "The pressure to always be in communication with people is overwhelming,"  Erica Koltenuk tells the Journal's Sue Shellenbarger. 
  • Cost. "These die-hards say they are reducing waste and like sidestepping costly service contracts," writes Shellenbarger.
  • Durability. "I want a phone that you could drop-kick into a lake and go get it and still be able to make a call," says Patrick Crowley, who bought a new phone 5 years ago. 
  • Anti-consumerism. "[David] Blumenthal sees no need to 'keep running out and buying new things if you can patch them and they hold together,'" explains the Journal

But beneath all of that, we think this cult boils down to pride. When dumbphone owners talk about their opposition to the future it's always framed with a sort of hip-to-be-square attitude. "I hate waste. I don't care if I'm hip." Julie Barbour-Issa told the Journal after describing her jankity cellphone, which she says is embarrassing to whip out at family gatherings. But we bet Barbour-Issa knows that not caring if you're hip actually makes you come off as hipper. If she were really embarrassed she wouldn't make statements like that. 

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And it's not just a non-nonchalance, it's as if this resistance indicates an enlightened way of life. "It's a very basic, functioning telephone, and that's what I use it as—a telephone," explains David Blumenthal, who hasn't succumbed to a smartphone's unnecessary functionalities like the rest of us. "A game like Fruit Ninja, where you wave your index finger to chop up foodstuffs as they fly across the screen — I don’t need to do that, or to slingshot a bird into various targets," adds Andrew Epstein, who also shuns maps and restaurant phone apps. 

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These dumbphone owners, they aren't like the rest of us, they're better. And, like any proud sect, when they're not around those of us duped by smartphones, they celebrate, admitting their superiority. "A group of four of us was hanging out, and none of us had a smartphone. It was definitely like, 'Wow, look at us!' " dumbphone enthusiast Kristin DiPasquo told Wayne. 

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It's not clear how long our prideful relic owners will continue holding out. When we praised dumbphones back in October five Atlantic Wire Staff members owned these low-tech options. Since then, all but one -- the lone phone pictured above -- has upgraded. "My dumbphone ownership is partly reverse snobbery, but mostly the result of a combination of being a cheapskate and a procrastinator," this hold-out told us. "Being the last dumbphone holdout merely proves my dedication to those things." With attitudes like that, the movement just might have the strength to carry on. It even has the perfect hipper-than-thou figurehead to define and promote the real meaning behind anti-smartphone-ism. "It can be nice to stay in touch, but smartphones necessarily redefine ‘being in touch’ to mean something that has almost no value," novelist and vegetarian advocate Jonathan Safran Foer told Wayne.