Making Good on the #TravelUnplugged Pledge

Matthew Phenix writes for AFAR, a print and online publisher based in San Francisco, USA.

 

Two months at 2G with the forward-thinking Punkt. MP01

During a recent team-building away day, tables of AFAR colleagues competed in a trivia challenge, vying for chocolate Olympic medals. One of our tougher questions: On an old-school cell phone, how many button-presses does it take to text the word “HELLO”? It was a stumper, and answering it required a startling amount of haggling, ghost-thumbing, and fingers-and-toes arithmetic.

These teammates – some who create the print product and others who do digital – had just spent weeks working on stories about logging off, shutting down, and traveling unplugged – which resulted in a gorgeous issue of the magazine and well-stocked hub of smart stories on AFAR.com. But we were stymied by a 2G trivia question. They had us at “HELLO.” 

A month later, a box landed on my desk with Swiss postage. Inside was a note welcoming me to an exotic new tribe and smaller box containing a chocolate-brown Punkt. MP01 cell phone – a mobile handset its maker proudly describes as a “dumbphone.” A two-hour charge-up and a SIM card later, I was about to make good on a promise I’d encouraged our readers to make. I planned to spend one week phasing out my trusted iPhone and seven subsequent weeks in my own private smartphone rehab.

In the United States, exactly one carrier still maintains the 27-year-old 2G network my new Punkt. requires. And it’s hardly T-Mobile’s marquee offering; the company provides the service (and will until 2020 or so) mostly as a reluctant concession to your grandmother and her big-buttoned Jitterbug phone, along with a few million 2G-linked machines that make up the Internet of Things.

The Punkt. MP01 is, above all, a statement. Placing it on the table during a business lunch is a superb “I meant to do that” moment, when the low-tech option becomes the high-minded solution. Let’s be clear: This is not an inexpensive phone: Even with a recent 30 percent price drop, the MP01’s $ 229 bottom line makes it suitable only for the most committed digital-detoxers. Like me, he tells himself.

If cheap is your aim, Amazon still has a selection of 2G phones from companies you’ve never heard of, and there’s even an eBay nerd-market for semi-vintage phones, notably such former 2G style statements as the Motorola Razr V3 and the wacky Nokia N-gage. And last year, Nokia revived its beloved model 3310 candy bar phone for the mostly modern era, adding a camera, an MP3 player, and even itty-bitty Facebook and Twitter apps. But that stuff betrayed the whole point of embracing 2G in a 4G world. Not having ding-dong Facebook notifications or a camera to Instagram your lunch is why we want a phone like this; having them in this compromised form only makes you dwell on how bad they are. So after a brief nostalgic rush, commentary on Nokia’s reborn 3310 quickly devolved into something less heartwarming.

The Punkt. phone has none of that stuff – no low-fi camera to deride, no microscopic version of Facebook to despise. The MP01 makes calls and, if you must, it sends text messages. (“HELLO” requires 13 button-presses, by the way; having just done that, I have no plans to do it again.) Reception and call quality are fine, and the battery lasts for days and days – and because nobody actually calls anybody on the phone anymore, my phone rarely rings, adding still more battery days. There is no GPS chip to track your location and no NFC chip to let you pay for your moccachino with a tap. There is Bluetooth, however, which these days is more for hands-free safety than hands-free convenience. 

 

When I adopted the Punkt. MP01, I found plenty of time to read the book that came with it.

And my new monthly phone bill, for the record, is . That’s three dollars. Three. But that’s not really the point here, either.

Punkt. has anticipated your skepticism over a $ 229 phone that only does, you know, phone stuff. The savvy Swiss company has positioned itself as a lifestyle brand and change agent first, a phone-maker second. My phone shipped with a hardbound copy of Sherry Turkle’s eye-opening Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, and Punkt.’s social media accounts are always floating links to stories about AI’s darker implications and Amazon Alexa’s creepy glitches. And the company’s own Digital Detox Challenge has prompted something of a movement, complete with Twitter hashtags like “#technology_tamed” and a homepage brimming with tales of smartphone breakups and the better life that waits on the other side.

It’s helpful that Punkt.’s mobile phone is prettier than a mobile phone needs to be – minimalistically classy in a Movado Museum Watch way. The prolific British furniture and home goods stylist Jasper Morrison designed the MP01, and its simple round keys and bright little screen are irresistibly haute. The plastic shell is all angled planes like the skin of a stealth fighter jet and covered in dimples like a golf ball. It’s just the right size and feels good in your hand, and it gets attention in ways an iPhone X never will.

As for the AFAR angle, the Punkt. MP01 is a surprisingly happy traveler. Although 2G service is sketchy at best in much of Asia and Australia, several carriers in Europe, including T-Mobile and Telenor, have yet to forsake their GSM networks, so cruising the Continent with an MP01 in your pocket, at least for the next few years, is doable. 

In the end, my two months with a dumbphone were touch and go at times, but not for the reasons I expected. I didn’t miss mobile Facebook or mobile Twitter or mobile Pinterest and I definitely didn’t miss poop emojis or animated cat GIFs. I did miss the convenience and perks of my Starbucks app, and I missed the ability to play my bad ’70s music and public-radio podcasts during my commute (TMI?). Naturally, the absence of email and Slack notifications have required adjustments to my work habits, and on the road, the lack of turn-by-turn navigation functionality required the occasional use of those big folding paper things. But that’s kind of the point of digital detox, right? 

So it’s been eight weeks with the Punkt. and the #TravelUnplugged pledge, and I feel, well, smarter. I’m no longer in a state of always-on, which I guess means I’m less connected to a certain part of the world or to the whole world in a certain way. But I’m also less troubled by stories of the misdeeds of companies that do business via smartphones and unmoved by even the glitziest new mobile technology. I am freshly fearless about things like getting caught in the rain or forgetting my charging cord. I’m reading and writing more, and taking pictures with a real camera, and even learning to play the ukulele. And I talk more, to people, with my voice. I feel taller.

In her book, Sherry Turkle evokes Henry David Thoreau and the virtuous circle he created at Walden Pond: “He said that in his cabin were ‘three chairs – one for solitude, two for friendship, and three for society.’ ” In my life, the smartphone was a thumbtack on all three chairs: It was making me less adept at being alone, less present as a friend, and less engaged as a human. The dumbphone from Switzerland didn’t fix me, but it did help me fix myself. And that, for a phone, seems pretty smart to me.

 

Matthew Phenix
New York, USA
 

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