Shutting down

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Shutting down is a conscious choice. You might see it described as digital detox or a digital break. I, like a number of people that I know have a ‘dumb’ phone to complement my smartphone. This is different from the pre-broadband era of the internet where going online was an active decision punctuated by the sound of the modem.

At that time, keeping in touch was an active decision rather than the tyranny of the pings from messaging applications. We cocooned ourselves from each other with a personal audio soundtrack via an iPod or a Discman. This cocooning effect was viewed to have a positive effect on personal autonomy was called the Walkman effect by sociologists.

Once you used a device be it the modem-connected PC, TV or music player you went through the act of shutting down devices. My parents still go room-to-room at night shutting down devices.

Pimp my N95
My Nokia N95

Over the past two decades we have stopped shutting down. A number of things happened:

  • Phone as Swiss Army knife. Cellphones quickly became our alarm clock. Working on the Nokia N93 launch with Flickr (then part of Yahoo!) felt like a watershed moment allowing photos to be taken and shared instantly online. During the July 7th London bombing, I got home by navigating with the ring bound A-Z atlas of London, which lived in the bottom of my backpack. Now I have four apps that would use depending what I wanted to do.
  • Device as social currency, your smartphone says as much about your economic health as your car. It’s a hygiene level of status, just like branded training shoes (sneakers) were when I was at school.
  • Synchronous social media. The now long-forgotten iNQ SkypePhone, BlackBerry and Danger Sidekick heralded no-shutting down engagement.
  • Dark patterns / design techniques used to encourage app or service use as a compulsion. It is no coincidence that a number of senior design and engineering teams at Tinder and Instagram sat in BJ Fogg’s persuasive computing design (captology) modules, yet the products used techniques that Fogg described as unethical.

Parent and policy voices.

The key points that activists and concerned parents talk about revolve around the following talking points:

  • Screens now dominate our lives, and their presence is only getting stronger and more powerful. For instance, I can no longer phone up my local surgery to get a repeat prescription or book an appointment, it’s all mediated by the surgery website and the NHS app.
  • (Some) adults can control to a certain extent how often and when they use screens. Shutting down is proving hard for many adult consumers to do. But there is a commonplace screen addiction. Empirical evidence suggests that it would be damaging for children. I could make countervailing points, here is a better place to see them outlined.
  • Smartphone addiction and drug addiction share some similarities including a neglected personal life, a pre-occupation with the subject of the addiction, social media as a mood modifier or for escapism. The implication is that smartphones are an unwilling appendage which add capabilities (some of which are of a questionable value) and can’t be put down. All of which reminded me of my childhood (and adult relationship with music).

The push seems to be on regulating the services that run on top of smartphone platforms.

There doesn’t seem to be a corresponding focus on encouraging shutting down as a desirable behaviour; presumably because the efficiencies promised by digital government services are too alluring.


While there might be a desire for dumb phone, there are remarkably few options as second generation mobile networks have been turned off around the world.

HMD (what was Nokia’s terminal business) is the leading player in this sector. They are starting to do clever things that tap into the idea of shutting down and being present in the meatspace at key moments.

HMD x Heineken x Bodega collab dumb phone

Heineken collaborated with HMD and streetwear atelier Bodega to collaborate on a ‘dumb’ phone in a transparent case, similar to electronic devices issued in prisons.

HMD x Heineken x Bodega collab dumb phone

Heineken seem to doing this for a number of reasons:

  • People are less likely to be themselves when there is a broadcast studio in your pocket full of distractions to pull you away from the now.
  • Shutting down allows you to be more present for your friends.
  • Losing a £1,000+ device down the pub full of work information and access to your bank account isn’t a particularly attractive option. So providing a cheaper option is a bit like the ‘festival phone’ tough but basic Nokia that I bring to gigs and festivals.


A less well known competitor is Punkt. Punkt is a boutique Swiss consumer electronics company who have made a number of cellphones, home phones and a Braun-like alarm clock. Punkt want to promote the idea of intentional technology use, rather than as a wrapper around our everyday lives. Their MP02 phone acts as a wi-fi hotspot and a dumb cellphone, as they view a two device strategy of laptop and phone leans in better to their intentional technology use vision. Punkt make shutting down easier, by adding friction to switching on.

More related posts can be found here.

More information

Battle lines drawn as US states take on big tech with online child safety bills | Guardian Online

UK children and adults to be safer online as world-leading bill becomes law |

Zuckerberg among tech bosses to testify on child safety | BBC Online