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All I Want For Christmas Is A Virtual Dumbphone

Why should smartphones make us choose between using them too much or not at all?
December 12, 2012

My colleague David Zax has replaced his iPhone with a so-called “dumbphone.” Novelist and media inventor Robin Sloan did the same thing. Tech columnist Paul Miller is offline for a year and loving it. I kind of envy these people, but at the same time, I can’t help but roll my eyes a bit at such permanent, scorched-earth solutions for the problem of being digitally “overconnected.” Smartphones and the internet aren’t a monolithic scourge to all that’s productive, creative and present in the human condition. If I ditched my iPhone, I’d mindlessly check Gmail a lot less. But I also wouldn’t have been able to create some beautiful nature photos on my early morning walk, which made me feel quite creative and present, thankyouverymuch. What I need isn’t “freedom” from technology, but self control: the ability to choose when and where certain features of my gadgets are appropriate to use, and when they are not. 

There should be an app for this.

A smartphone app to help me do this wouldn’t be hard to create. In fact, Android users already have such options: this app, for example, temporarily turns your Android slab into a “dumbphone” so you can concentrate on studying instead of Instagramming. Unsurprisingly, iOS offers little in this department other than its primitive “Restrictions” settings, which are aimed more at parents who don’t want their kids visiting risque websites or spending money on useless apps. Any “SelfControl”-esque iOS app would probably get dinged by Apple’s developer guidelines for restricting the phone’s functionality.

That’s a shame, because being able to conveniently modulate the user experience in this way (without going under the hood like an IT manager) is a clear next step for mobile devices. Sure, it makes intuitive sense that an iPad may take over “household computer” duties among different members of one family, and should therefore be easy to switch between different setups or preferences for each user. It may be less clear why similar functionality would be desirable for smartphones, which tend to be “monogamous” with a single user. But think about it: are you really “the same user” in all of the different contexts you use your smartphone throughout the day?

I’m certainly not. When I’m on a video shoot, I’m in “realtime availability” mode: I need emails, text messages, and phone calls to alert me as soon as they arrive so that I can communicate with my crew. But when I’m on deadline for an article, I want “dumbphone” mode: no notifications, no distractions. And when I’m relaxing while my daughter is taking a nap, I want to use my phone as a toy: playing Letterpress with friends and fussing with new Instagram filters while not being bothered with work-related tweets or pings. 

Maybe the rumored “iPhone mini” will help users find a more comfortable middle ground between “always on” and “off the grid,” but I doubt it; like the iPad mini, it’ll probably do everything its big brother can in a smaller package. But that’s okay, because “less power” or “less features” isn’t the solution anyway. Any smartphone is a ridiculously sophisticated device–and it’s more than a bit silly to force ourselves to use it like a light switch: all on, or all off. Like any computer, it can emulate lesser devices with ease and on demand. You wouldn’t throw your own iPhone away simply because your five-year-old child would be better served with a flip phone. Well, sometimes the five-year-old is you–is it too much to ask that our devices be smart enough to help us parent that inner child?

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Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

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