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 rather 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 idiotes, which 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.