Nostalgia for retro tech and the rise of the modern luddite

Nostalgia for retro tech and the rise of the modern luddite

Seventeen years after the heyday of the Nokia 3310, it’s back. Microsoft sold the Nokia brand to HMD Global last year, giving production, distribution and sales to iPhone manufacturer Foxconn, which agreed to rebuild the old classic.

At Barcelona’s Mobile World Congress HMD announced the return of the 3310 — taking us back to a simpler time of old “feature phones’’ – albeit with the addition of a new color screen, camera and one-month standby time.

MWC audiences cheered when HMD CEO Arto Nummela confirmed “it has Snake”. But, in today’s age of Internet dependence and flashy mobile tech, really? Who wants to play Snake when you’ve reached a new jelly level on Candy Crush. It’s romantic, but can we live without 4G connections, Facebook and forward-facing cameras?

Increasingly, believe it or not, people seem to be saying yes. There’s a trend of regression to days gone by. Basic messaging platforms have overtaken social media networks, research says people wish there were fewer selfies online (though we just can’t stop taking them), and millions of people are seeking out digital detoxes.

Perhaps it’s not so surprising. UK researchers found that the average person looks at their phone 85 times a day, clocking over five hours of screen time. This is double the amount they actually perceive. Back in 2000, people sent a meagre 35 texts a month. Today, texters send the same amount in just one day.

For many, a digital existence, free from a barrage of stimuli, incessant WhatsApp conversations and social media echo chambers sounds like a dream. But technophobia in the age of plenty isn’t the only motivator. There’s certain iconic tech that has a greater effects on audiences, like Nintendo’s revamped Game Boy, the new and improved Super Retro Boy. It’s a renaissance of noughties memorabilia, now that nineties kids are coming of age, and have more disposable cash.

Last May, old flip-phone fans were buzzing at the prospect of the return of the Motorola Razr. A Motorola ad, featuring American high school stereotypes flipping open their old Razr’s, set tongues wagging in anticipation of new releases from parent company Lenovo. Fans were excited, ironically tweeting their desire for “low key” mobile retrograding. But, it wasn’t to be. Teaser campaigns and Hello Moto jokes were quickly quashed and Motorola launched the Moto Z, a modular smartphone with attachable magnetic accessories, not the old style icon of yesteryear.

In fact, that year, smartphone subscriptions overtook feature phones, according to Swedish Telecoms Group Ericsson. The old feature phone market is shrinking (590 million in 2015, predicted to drop to 350 million in 2019). But fear not, between new buyers and consumers with nostalgic yearnings, there’s still a call for the dumb phone. New tech is embracing the culture of old luddites, and it’s not just the gaudy, plastic 3310.

Swiss design firm Punkt created the MP01, a 2G network enabled feature phone that allows basic calls and texts. The sleek design, answering to our minimalistic mobile demands, sold out on release but is now available with a price tag of around $326 (329 Fr).

Then there’s the senior citizen friendly Doro PhoneEasy 740, which comes with a clean UI. It’s a smartphone with basic apps, a choice of touchscreen or hard keypad and a limited version of Google Play. The PhoneEasy has remote management meaning relatives can take control of the software on the Doro website, uploading contacts and adding calendar appointments.

There’s also new software to enhance basic hardware functionalities. In parts of Africa, the M-Pesa mobile device, a brainchild of Vodafone, has transformed money transfer, helping tens of millions of people to gain financial security. Where previously people dealt with wads of cash and public transport, now with a few basic text commands they can send remittances, pay school fees, hospital treatments and more, on inexpensive handsets. The market for these devices is still strong. In Africa, more than half a billion people now subscribe to mobile services. And in mid-2016 sales of feature phones actually went up 30%, while smartphone sales declined.

In a world of IoT (Internet of Things) connections, where a fridge can tell you when your milk has gone off and a catflap can tweet, it’s comforting to know there’s still a place for the dumb phone. Whether it’s enhancing the lives of people living in poor communities in Kenya, or giving technophobes a retro-chic alternative to digital overload and a nod to the good old days.

This post is part of our contributor series. It is written and published independently of TNW.

This post is part of our contributor series. The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily shared by TNW.

Read next: What Your Employees Want You to Know, but Might Not Tell You