“I waste way too much time on my phone and am attracted by the idea of simplifying my digital life. So I found several apps and tutorials designed to make my smartphone ‘dumb,’ but I’ve hesitated to take the plunge. Am I just trying to escape modern life?”
As more and more of the formerly mute objects in our lives (refrigerators, thermostats, doorbells, even toilets) are christened “smart,” it often feels as though the entire inanimate world were undergoing a process of enlightenment. And “smart” is a difficult adjective to resist, particularly in a society that regards intelligence as a form of currency—or even, at times, a spiritual virtue. So while “dumbing down” one’s phone ostensibly describes a rather mundane process of removing apps, blocking internet access, and choosing unappealing aesthetic features (gray scale, bland wallpaper), I understand the anxiety it can provoke. It’s hard to avoid feeling that such digital minimalism is swimming against the current of this awakening, that you are not just simplifying your life but also downgrading your mind.
Perhaps that’s why one of the most popular new-generation dumb phones, the Light Phone, opts for the language of luminosity and its association with intellectual brilliance. The original model, whose capacities were limited to making and receiving calls, was described in the company’s 2015 Kickstarter as “thoughtfully simple” and promised a life in which users could engage more fully in cerebral and artistic tasks, the pursuits of the higher mind, without those buzzes and beeps that prompt a craving for the next dopamine rush. But the story of the Light Phone also illustrates the backsliding familiar to anyone who’s attempted a digital paring down—the way features, almost on their own, creep back into the picture. By the time the second model was released, in 2019, the phone had added a ( black-and-white) touchscreen and text messaging, plus music, mapping, and ride-sharing apps. The promotional materials stress that these additions are “tools not feeds,” a justification that had the ra ther dubious ring of a dieter insisting that their indulgences are composed of “good fat.”
Even the most zealous attempts to renounce ubiquitous technologies devolve into rationalization and the invention of creative loopholes. I happen to know a woman who was such an inveterate news junkie that she deleted all media apps and browsers from her phone, stripping it down to the bedrock of text, calls, weather, and maps—a solution that worked until she discovered it was possible to locate the New York Times Company’s headquarters in Manhattan on Google Maps and access the paper’s homepage through the app’s internal browser. The old saw about
addictions—that they are impossible to outsmart—applies doubly to smart technologies, which are engineered to be used compulsively and elude your most ingenious efforts to gain mastery over them.
With that in mind, I might suggest a more counterintuitive solution: Stop fighting the fear of dumbness and instead embrace it. Like most people who want to “go dumb,” I assume that you’re attracted in part to the term’s association with silence —the desire to dial down the chatter—but unsettled by some of its more unflattering synonyms, like idiocy. But idiocy was not always weighted by the negative associations it now carries. The word stems from the Greek idioteswhich referred to Athenians who were essentially laypersons—those who, unlike soldiers, scribes, and politicians, maintained little connection to the affairs of the state. It meant “on one’s own” or “private” (meanings that persist in words like idiosyncratic) and was reserved for those who enjoyed a freedom and autonomy from public life, the kind of existence that often serves as a haven for independent thought. Gilles Deleuze argued that idiocy was intimately linked to philosophy, beginning with Socrates, who famously recognized that he “knew nothing” and claimed this made him wiser than those who believed themselves intelligent. Descartes, in order to plant modern thought on a new terrain, similarly willed himself to disown all the knowledge he’d long taken for granted.
Few of those positive connotations survive today, and yet the resurgent nostalgia for dumb technologies is often spurred by a not entirely modern desire to distance oneself from the bustle of the polis and the frenzied commerce of the agora. Perhaps this is just another way of saying that, despite the widespread celebration of smartness, many of us secretly long to know less. The notion that information at a certain scale becomes something less than informative was a truth colorfully voiced by Thoreau, whose complaints about the 19th-century news cycle read as Surprisingly familiar today. When he heard that a transatlantic cable line would soon bring updates from Europe, Thoreau imagined “the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.” The suspicion that such “knowledge” was making him denser was partly what spurred him to abandon the city for Walden. And I sense in your question, Dumbstruck, a similar inkling that the information economy obscures, somewhere—perhaps in the fine print of its mammoth user agreements?—a bleaker existential bargain: that the instant access to knowledge has subtly atrophied your imaginative musculature; that your immersion in digital echo chambers might be foreclosing more original forms of thought.
Idiocy should not be confused with stupidity, the willful refusal of information that might disrupt one’s rigid convictions. The latter is rooted in a pride that makes it the inversion of smartness, not its alternative. Idiocy might be seen as a condition of openness and flexibility , qualities that define the fool archetype that appears in many cultures, from the Sioux heyokaa sacred clown who deliberately engaged in counterintuitive actions (riding a horse backward, wearing clothes inside out, complaining of being full when food is scarce) so as to challenge popular assumptions, to the Russian yurodivyor holy fool, a figure whose seeming madness was believed to lend him divine insight. Fools tend to be shape-shifters who thrive at thresholds and boundaries. This was particularly true of the Shakespearean fool, who was frequently “balancing on the edge between reality and various constructions of reality,” as one scholar puts it. The fool mediated the space between the play and the audience—that dimension where the virtual meets the real—moving fluidly between the stage and the crowd and occasionally breaking the fourth wall to comment on the play’s themes.
I bring up the fool in part to stress the virtue of “dumbing down” as opposed to opting out. As appealing as it might be to live totally off the grid or leave civilization, it’s practically impossible to emulate Thoreau’s retreat to Walden (as impossible as it was even for Thoreau himself). It may well be that the dumbed-down smartphone offers a distinct advantage: Even the barest smartphones can be restored to their full capabilities at any moment, which places the user in the fool’s liminal space, a no-man’s-land that might offer perspective, or even wisdom. Your unwillingness to “take the plunge,” as you put it, seems less a sign of fearful waffling than evidence that you long for those unique possibilities that exist somewhere between the online and off, between the virtual and the real. In the best-case scenario, the stripped-down smartphone offers neither an escape from reality nor a refusal of its conditions, but a portal into new opportunities for defining one’s relationship to public life—while still being able to call an Uber .
If you buy something using links in our stories, we may earn a commission. This helps support our journalism. Learn more.
This article appears in the September 2022 issue. Subscribe now.
Let us know what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor at [email protected].