The 80s called they want their cellphones back

Date: May 2013 Client: For Canvas Magazine, NZ Herald
In some social circles you’re the odd one out if you don’t own a cellphone that can receive emails and surf the internet. That doesn’t bother Amy Williams, who is among a die-hard group stubbornly resisting the pressure to upgrade their brick-like mobile phones.

When I dropped my cellphone on a recent flight, the man who kindly picked it up joked that it’s an antique. It had ricocheted along the floor and the back broke off, the battery bounced under a seat and the key pad came unstuck. But I knew without a doubt that when I pieced the parts together, this trusty phone would beep back to life. And it did. That wasn’t the case when I accidentally ran it over in my own driveway while researching this story.

Until that unfortunate day, however, my mobile phone had survived being dropped, chewed, and cello-taped for the past 10 years all the while performing an exemplary texting and calling service. It didn’t have a camera, the numbers had worn off the keypad and the colour faded to off-white.

This relic was the second cellphone I’ve ever owned and a not-too-distant relative of the first mobile phone made 40 years ago.

The act of getting my phone out of my bag had started to attract comments and curious stares. My mother-in-law recently asked me if it was my children’s toy or a real one. And my gym instructor stared at it for what seemed like a full minute before exclaiming ‘oh, it’s a phone!’

But I’ve been proud of my brick and haven’t felt the need to upgrade. This is partly because I’m a cheapskate and prone to procrastination about purchases more than $100. For all those people who think I’m backwards, I too am a snob. After all, if everyone else around the dinner table is tweeting and such on their phone, where’s the conversation going?

That’s why I feel quite chuffed that the Oxford Dictionary has included a new noun for phones like mine in its latest intake of words; dumbphone. The dictionary defines it as “a basic mobile phone that lacks the advanced functionality characteristic of a smartphone”, which includes surfing the internet, receiving and sending emails, and downloading applications like the popular time-wasting game Angry Birds. But get this – worldwide there are still six dumbphones out there for every smartphone. That puts me in the majority, and not just with the elderly population.

A Research New Zealand survey conducted earlier this year found almost one in two people (48 percent) say they own a smartphone, and that mirrors the numbers in Telecom’s annual report last year.

It’s not known exactly who owns these smartphones, because the telecommunication companies are loath to release that data. It’s safe to assume the figures would be similar to the US, where a Pew Research Centre report showed that smartphone ownership among Americans was higher among the young, the wealthy and the urban in 2011. At that time, 58 percent of 25-to-34 year-olds owned a smartphone.

The New York Times has reported on a “small but hardy contingent of smartphone holdouts” who scorn Angry Birds and fear their susceptibility to an email-checking addiction.

The article quoted Nicholas Carr, the author of “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.” In the book, Mr Carr argues that surfing the web rewires people to be better at multitasking, but reduces the ability to stay focused and think interpretatively.

“You see a similar type of compulsive behaviour [to computer assisted web surfing] but it can go on continuously from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep,” he told the New York Times of using smartphones.

An article in the Atlantic Wire last year named the reasons dumbphones have such loyal owners. It says fear of addiction, the benefits of disconnectivity, cost, durability and anti-consumerism all play a role. “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,” the Atlantic Times said.

Aucklander Matt Bates is among this die-hard group. He’s 34, and very tech-literate given he works as an IT business analyst and developer. He’s the only person at his workplace who doesn’t own a smartphone.

“I’m ironically proud. I get to be the odd guy out,” says of his three-year old cellphone.

His favourite joke is returning his colleagues complaints about their low-life smartphone batteries with his own – that he used to charge his every two weeks and now has to plug it in every week.

For Matt, sitting at a computer each day then going home to a young family means he gets all the screen time he needs at work.

Another proud dumbphone owner, Auckland paramedic Heather Barker, 34, says she feels pressure to upgrade her four-year old relic because her friends have smartphones. They use the Heytell walky-talky app to contact each other, giving themselves code names like ‘Dangermouse’.

“Generally I feel quite proud of it because I feel like I’m stubbornly sticking to the old school stuff. People comment on it.”

She says cost is her main barrier, and she’s afraid of the bills she’d clock up on a phone that uses data.

It can be very amusing to be part of this stubborn convoy. I travelled to overseas tech-fests and conferences when I worked as a business reporter. One of these, in Barcelona, showcased the latest futuristic communication devices. My friends thought it was hilarious I’d been sent to cover this gig with a relic phone in my bag, and I have to admit to feeling like a bit of an imposter at the time.

We (my dumbphone and I) also attended a technology fair at Seattle’s Microsoft HQ. This event showed off the latest in robotics and journalists from around the world attended it. On the bus to the event, I sat next to an American reporter who was covering technology for one of the major daily newspapers. When he saw my phone, he started asking me about grass huts.

I’m not the only owner of a brick to have attracted flack.

Lesley Hopkins, 37, a consultant planner, calls her phone a brick and says others have called it steam-powered and told her to get with the times. She recently had to replace her faulty cellphone but chose to stick with a dumbphone because of its durability.

“It’s indestructible. When I went into the shop to buy it I said I wanted a rock solid phone that was unbreakable. The guy started to show me smartphones, I don’t think he believed me. If I had bought a smartphone I would’ve killed it 10 times over by now,” says Hopkins.

She says people comment on her phone but she doesn’t care about being hip.

“It’s the same theory as my car. It’s old and rundown but gets me from A to B, why trade in a perfectly good phone?”

Kurt Scott, 36, had the reverse problem when he accidentally sat on his iPhone a month ago and couldn’t get it working again. His workplace is getting smartphones soon, so he bought a cheap dumbphone and says he doesn’t miss his old phone.

“I’ve dropped this five times since I bought it. The battery falls out and the back falls off. Every time I just put it back together, it seems to be fairly robust,” says Scott.

Others really like the fact that if it’s urgent, they get a call.

Jonathan Miles, 45, sits in this camp – he’s had his ancient device for 10 years despite being a manager at a large organisation (he has a work phone but has resisted pressure to upgrade that too).

“I like literally what it stands for, its simplicity, and it provides the function that it is. It’s a phone it’s nothing else. It’s a way of being able to still stay a bit remote because there’re so many opportunities to be connected.”

His wife Rachel Miles, 41, also a dumbphone owner, also likes the separation between using a computer for emails and phone for calling.

“I can keep in touch with people but it doesn’t suck a lot of my time.”

Of course it’s possible that those who hang onto their dumbphones will move straight to a tablet, rather than doubling up with a smartphone.

The tech-savvy chief executive of the Telecommunciations Users Association New Zealand, Paul Brislen, considered this when he was buying a cellphone but decided to go for a smartphone instead. He uses a tablet instead of a laptop.

“I was involved in so many dull meetings in a previous job that I started tweeting. It’s amazing how much work you can get done in a dull meeting when you’ve got a smartphone,” says Brislen.

But he reckons dumbphone owners will be lured into using smartphones sooner or later.

“I do suspect that when your phone dies you’re likely to end up looking at a smartphone whether you want to or not. Phone companies want to upsell you on all the other things and once you’ve been suckered in you spend a lot of money on apps and data.”

A recent smartphone convert, my friend Ruth Taylor, 36, has also become a bit of a missionary for certain apps. She hasn’t clocked up a shocking data bill yet, but says although she likes her smartphone she misses the days when people called each other.

“Now I think we use mobile phones as an avoidance tactic.”

Taylor’s favourite cellphone of days gone by was the very Nokia dumbphone I have just run over – the one we remember as having the slightly bouncy keypad.

As for me, I’m loyally using my husband’s cast-off dumbphone while I ponder my next move in this hi-tech world. After all, there’re emails to keep track of.