Who are these city-dwellers living without a smartphone?

When Léna is at the bar with a friend and the friend goes to the bathroom, she doesn’t pull out her phone to wait. Her Nokia only allows for calls and texts. So, she lets herself be caught up in the conversation of the people at the next table or looks at the view. “In the end, I am more attentive to my environment, more alert than if I were scrolling on a smartphone.”

Since high school, this doctoral student in political science has had a “dumb phone” (a basic phone, as opposed to a “smartphone”). At the time, she broke her Blackberry and instead of replacing it with an expensive smartphone, she opted for a basic, less expensive phone. Now, she could afford a smartphone, but no way. Because for her, this old-fashioned phone has many benefits, especially for her concentration. On her screen, no media notifications informing her of the latest reshuffling, no WhatsApp indicating that she has a new message, or even TooGoodToGo telling her that there are anti-waste packages to pick up near her home. In short, nothing to disturb her, aside from calls and texts.

Against the smartphone, refusal of speed

No smartphone either for Alexandre Gilbert, 43, director of the Chappe gallery in Montmartre (Paris). “The smartphone is a world that frightens me because I see its inefficiency,” he says outright. “WhatsApp groups, it’s 72 hours of discussion to make a rendezvous, four weeks to agree on a birthday destination that will ultimately not happen.” He has decided to live without a phone altogether. He still uses Messenger, Facebook’s messaging service, to stay in touch with his loved ones, but only when he decides to, on his computer.

Margaux, however, has a basic phone. Yet, at the beginning of the 2010s, she pondered whether to get a multifunctional phone. “But this life where everything should go faster, communications between friends, purchases, it doesn’t appeal to me.” So what does this 34-year-old midwife do during the 3 hours and 36 minutes daily (according to the 2023 report by Data.ai) that the average French person spends on their smartphone? Cinema takes pride of place, with about a dozen showings per month (thank you unlimited UGC card). “For reading my emails and the news, I go to the library in my neighborhood,” confides the woman who has decided not to have internet at home. Digital moments, therefore, but chosen ones. “And of course, I go to bars and restaurants with friends.”

She knows she’s missing out on events organized on Facebook or WhatsApp, but it’s nothing compared to the digital invasion she avoids. “During my sister’s trip abroad, I had a WhatsApp account that I used on my computer for six months. The few times I logged on, I had 36 conversations to read, I hated finding myself in so many groups.” Margaux prefers face-to-face relationships. “So yes, I miss the latest photos of the family or friends’ children, but so be it, I’ll see them later in person.”

The dumb phone, no small feat

Going without a smartphone sometimes means missing out on professional opportunities. For example, a young woman named Margaux, 25, is a student at the École de formation du barreau de Paris. Because she has had a Nokia 3310 since high school and cannot use WhatsApp, she missed out on student jobs at a bar, where shifts were regularly offered through this messaging app. The same goes for when her school offered students paid legal clinics, also through a WhatsApp group. “First come, first served. Naturally, I saw the proposal after everyone else…” she recounts.

Having a “dumb phone” also means that your loved ones may write to you less, according to Gaspard, a third-year medical student. He tried the “dumb phone” for three months. During that time, he appreciated having more time for himself and feeling more present in the moment, but he felt out of sync with others. “On a basic phone, it takes time to write a long message, so you tend to be brief. And since you’re on your phone less, you respond more slowly. Our loved ones still on smartphones are in a different time frame, where they’re used to reactivity and long messages.” He ended up giving up his “dumb phone.”

Without Internet, the key word: anticipate

While some basic phones allow you to navigate on a live map (which is not particularly practical because of the size of the screens), Léna’s phone doesn’t even have internet. So, she has developed her sense of direction. “I lived in Rennes for a year. I quickly learned about the city and the names of its streets, better than some who had lived there for a long time!” she reminisces.

In addition to a good sense of direction, living without a smartphone requires a good deal of planning. When Margaux, the midwife, goes to the suburbs to examine patients, she sometimes has to take routes she’s never taken before, with metro, tram, or RER (Paris regional express network) changes. So, she always leaves with a plan on paper. “Sometimes, it’s complicated,” she admits. A problem that is actually quickly resolved. “I ask for advice from people.”

Abandoning the smartphone is still an exceptional act

This desire to do without a smartphone is shared by a significant part, according to a (non-representative of the French population) survey conducted on the Echos START LinkedIn page. In response to the question “Would you like to give up your smartphone for a basic phone?”, 27% of the 749 voters say they would like to but admit they don’t have the strength. 2% have already done so, and 5% say they will do so soon. For the two-thirds, there is no question of giving up their smartphone.

And as proof that doing without a smartphone is seen as a real challenge, the skyr brand Siggi’s launched a contest in early 2024 in the United States to offer $10,000 to participants willing to give up their smartphone for a month in favor of a basic phone. To be selected, volunteers had to write a text explaining why they needed a digital detox and how it would benefit them.

Margaux (the midwife) measures every day the difficulty of having a digital relic in her pocket. “The last time my train was cancelled, I spent ten minutes on the phone with an advisor who told me to go on the app. So a human was telling me that he couldn’t do anything and was sending me to the machine. This world worries me.”

Another thorn in the side of “dumb phoners”: QR codes. Margaux attends a colloquium this week for which registration was imperative via this unique digital square. “I was shocked. I eventually had to ask a friend to register me.” Incensed, Margaux fully intends to express her anger to the organizers.

The same obstacles faced Margaux (the aspiring lawyer) at a restaurant or cafe, where she found herself alone facing a QR code that she couldn’t scan to see the menu. Or in front of the door of a law firm where she was interning and for which the entry lock opened with an application, which of course she couldn’t have on her phone.

Are the aforementioned witnesses exceptions? In any case, sales of “dumb phones” are not increasing. In April 2023, the appliance and multimedia retailer Boulanger made the following observation: “Vintage cell phones and historic brands at the origin of these products, such as Nokia and Motorola, still have their audience but we do not identify any enthusiasm or specific trend towards them.” The market is even tending to decline, according to the GfK research firm. In 2023, sales volume declined by 17% compared to the previous year, and in 2022 by 11% compared to 2021.

For the courageous who want to take the leap

To detox from smartphones, psychiatrist Laurent Karila does not necessarily recommend going through the “dumb phone” phase. He also advises against relying on functions that limit the use of an application. “It only frustrates us,” explains this specialist who publishes “Doctor: Addict or Not?”, a book dedicated to screen addictions but also to alcohol or sex.

To abandon this “digital security blanket for adults,” as he calls it, Dr. Karila recommends instead modifying one’s usage habits. How? By deactivating notifications to no longer be solicited. By putting the phone in a drawer or in the pocket of your coat during the periods when you use your smartphone the most, so you no longer see it and are no longer tempted.

What about digital detox, which involves giving up digital tools for a given period (a few days, for example)? Even there, this addiction specialist does not advise it. “No study has demonstrated its effectiveness. The time frame is too short for a real awareness.”

When the world no longer wants people like me, it’s time to leave

The doctor knows that his patients must fight against forces stronger than them, namely the internet giants who scrutinize our reactions to better understand them. Always with the same intention: to capture our attention. “We are all laboratory rats who are continuously subjected to cognitive experiments to see how we manage our emotions and thus monetize them into advertising.” Dr. Karila points out that when Facebook evolved its “like,” it was to propose to users five emoticons that correspond to the five main human emotions.

Alexandre has no regrets about resisting the charm of the smartphone. On the contrary. “This device makes you imagine that an incredible world awaits you on the other side and that if you’re not in it, you’re dead. To me, I feel like I’ve actually strengthened my friendships.”

There are no regrets either on the side of Margaux, the midwife. However, she knows that the SNCF or QR code episodes will happen again and that society is moving towards even more digitalization. “At times, it stresses me out because I don’t want to give in. I’m afraid of becoming more and more dependent on others to do activities. Asking for help doesn’t bother me, but in the end, I’m playing the game of the system because I’m asking others to do it in my place. It’s cowardly.”

She doesn’t see the future in a very positive light. A bit utopian, she might imagine herself in an autonomous community, far from Paris. “When the world no longer wants people like me, it’s time to leave.” Then, in an almost pondering voice, she takes it back: “At the same time, living in Paris is the best way to live well. In seclusion in the countryside, I might suffer more from my disconnection.” The other Margaux seems more fatalistic. “Ultimately, I probably won’t have any other choice than to use a smartphone… reluctantly.”

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