‘What. The hell. Is that?’ My mate Joe stifled a laugh and pointed at the phone I had just set on our café table: a hot pink Nokia 105, roughly the size and shape of a slightly squashed Mars bar and equipped with nothing more advanced than a calculator, Snake and an FM radio tuner that didn’t really work that well.
Now, it would be reasonable to assume that, if it weren’t an especially punchable affectation, then this was an emergency measure; a temporary replacement for a smartphone that had been lost or smashed or accidentally drowned in a toilet bowl. But, no. At the time that this scene played out — in February, earlier this year — my perfectly functional iPhone sat in a drawer at home, I was on my way to a wi-fi-less hut in the middle of a field in Kent, and there was definitely method to the madness of partially cosplaying as a late-Nineties teenager.
Let me explain. I finished writing my first book last spring. Published in October, called Settlers and, broadly speaking, about Black London and the African diaspora culture that has moulded me and so many others, it’s a piece of work that I’m immensely proud of. That it was equally, at times, a lightly traumatising ball ache to write hardly needs saying. But what if I also told you, without exaggeration, that if it wasn’t for that tiny Nokia and those occasional offline trips, I’d probably still be forlornly trying to finish the thing? Or that, long after I handed in my manuscript, I found that I was still swapping my SIM into the burner, two or three times a week, faintly addicted to an anti-distraction method that’s gaining popularity in the post-Covid age? Gather round then, friends. And brace, perhaps, for perplexed stares as you jam your thumbs at a primitive hunk of plastic. Because I am very much here to tell you that buying a dumbphone might be the smartest thing you’ll ever do.
We should probably rewind a little bit. Late 2021 was perhaps the personal high water mark of my long, distinguished career of internet-drunk procrastination. I would wake to the glow of my phone screen and then spend every few minutes gorging myself on Omicron updates, the steady trickle of Partygate stories or the smacky, infinite scroll of Instagram. My ability to focus felt especially fried; every stray thought led me down a succession of deepening rabbit holes. And to be anywhere with wi-fi or 4G connectivity was to feel myself wandering purposefully into different digital rooms, unable to ever quite remember what I had come in for.
I was not alone in this, of course (this was the period when ‘pandemic brain’ — in which chronic stress actually impairs your ability to focus — entered the collective lexicon). Though, perhaps unlike most people, I did have a deadline for an incredibly research-intensive book, hurtling ever closer like a giant asteroid. The discovery of that wi-fi-less hut helped. Though, taking my iPhone along for my first trip meant that the temptation to ‘check a fact’ quickly (read: arse around with my Fantasy Premier League team for literal hours) proved too great.
There is something utterly pathetic about being this hopelessly addicted to the internet’s pacifying distractions; to find yourself unplugging wi-fi routers or employing website blockers that you can invariably find a way around. I realised, by degrees, that I would need to go fully cold turkey; cutting myself off completely while writing before reconnecting to the internet for the purposes of editing and fact-checking. And there was precedent, in the literary world especially, for the wilfully disconnected nuclear option I was considering.
Jonathan Franzen wrote his landmark novel, Freedom, while wearing both earplugs and noise-cancelling headphones, in a barren basement office where the ethernet port had been physically sealed so he couldn’t connect his laptop to the internet. The image of Franzen doing this — and I am still not entirely convinced it isn’t an elaborate bit — brings us to one of the bigger issues of going down this route. Which is to say that there is a high risk you’ll seem like an enormous dickhead. An old colleague and mate had a performatively terrible, basic phone and could just about carry it off. For most other people, it is dangerous, vintage-typewriter-and-too-much-Kerouac-territory. The Venn diagram of people with rudimentary Nokias and those who loudly tell strangers that they don’t really watch TV is a circle.
Thankfully Zadie Smith, a self-confessed internet addict who has been known to use a flip phone, deploy site blockers and write on a primitive laptop that can’t access wi-fi, was typically wise on this issue in a 2015 podcast interview. ‘If I could control myself online, if I wasn’t going to go down a Beyoncé Google hole for four and half hours, this wouldn’t be a problem,’ she said. ‘But that is exactly what I’ll do… It’s not some k i nd of h ig h moral ground, it’s that I so want to [write] that I just have to get it done.’ The same was true for me. I just wanted to get on with it. And so I accepted my pitiful lack of self-control and, in early September, the little hot pink Nokia arrived before a trip to the hut in Kent. There would be no WhatsApp, no social media, no email. I would have my laptop with web pages relevant to my research downloaded, but if people wanted to contact me it would be SMS or a phone call.
The first thing you realise when you switch to a burner is the frankly insane number of things we rely on smartphones for. Directions, payments, train times, music; in a swoop, I didn’t have access to any of it and felt almost physically impaired. My earliest memories are of blundering around like the thawed protagonist in a time-travelling, fish-out-of-water comedy — of, for instance, missing a train because the clock on the Nokia had slowed due to lack of charge — and constantly groping for the phantom heft and salvation of my iPhone. My wife joked that she could imagine me approaching strangers, in the manner of someone trying to cadge cigarettes and ask ing them, desperately, if I could quickly check Twitter on their phones. I genuinely did get so desperate for distraction at certain points that I played a fair bit of Snake.
But, of course, on the other side of this delirium was a kind of thrilling liberation. I had days when the only other living creatures I saw were the scraggy sheep that would come loping up to the hut. I got madly into sports coverage on the radio and (uncharacteristically) extremely into composing texts on the Nokia’s torturously fiddly too-small keys. And, of course, I wrote and wrote and wrote in wild, sleepless bursts of inspiration.
It was revelatory. Not the only form of work I did on Settlers (that encompassed more than two years of field research, weighty social history books and interviews with more than 50 people) but vital nonetheless. And, naturally, when I got home and the first flush of giddy, desperate reunion with my smartphone waned, I found that I sort of missed that sense of focus and clarity; the feeling that I was able to complete tasks and solve problems in a less fidgety, dependent way. Which is why I find that I’m now switching to the burner and heading somewhere where I don’t know the wi-fi password a few times a week. It is not a surprise to learn that burner fetishisation is on the rise. Google searches for them jumped by 89 per cent from 2018 to 2021; the ‘dumbphone’ discover page on TikTok has 2.4 million views. Or that more and more tech CEOs, such as Ben Crudo of e-commerce company Diff, have downshifted to basic handsets.
Yes, after these monastic, cleansing interludes, I still tend to gorge myself on internet like Augustus Gloop stooping beside the chocolate river. But to be cutting down, and to have reinvigorated my Covid-addled productivity, feels healthy. So, if you see me out and about, cradling a dinky hunk of hot pink plastic, then you will know why. It may well look ridiculous. But, in its own strange way, it feels a little slice of freedom.