Can tech products with fewer features help consumers log off?

Have we reached peak internet? Amid growing cultural sub-currents that prioritize well-being and mental health, a pushback to the always-on lifestyle is gaining ground. New brands are using design to counter the impacts of technology, creating thoughtful products that reframe what it means to be connected.

“It’s time to call it: The internet has stopped being fun,” reads a May Vice article titled “Not Going Online Is the New Going Online.” Today, the pitfalls of connectivity are well studied: fractured attention spans, a drain on mental health, and physical side effects like eye strain. Studies have even found that quitting the internet causes withdrawal symptoms. Vice imagines the brewing digital detox as a new counter-culture movement: “Tech, of course, shapes the future, but it’s also totally conceivable that a struggle to redefine the role it plays in our lives will take place.”

In some cases, “offline” is even being positioned as a new luxury amenity. Events like Restival ($1,800 for five nights) seek to carve out alternatives to mainstream festival culture with disconnected retreats, featuring enough workshops and spa treatments to fill five days of off-the-grid living. Camp Grounded, which offers an unplugged summer camp–like weekend for $695, has only expanded since its 2013 launch. 

New products are beginning to tap into this consumer sentiment. The Light Phone, a Kickstarter-funded project that became available to the general public in May, is a $150 credit card–sized phone with limited features: nine pre-programmed speed dials and a time display. The product is meant to be used as a second phone, sharing a number with a primary phone and set up via a desktop app.

“In a time where technology products are being built at an exponential rate, it is more important than ever to ask ‘why?’” reads The Light Phone’s manifesto. “Technology should help us appreciate life more. We don’t want to buy more stuff, to be told we’re not enough by our feeds, to be tracked or reduced to some data point. We are not anti-technology, we are humans and we’re taking our lives back.”

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The Light Phone.
 
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In May, Nokia relaunched the Nokia 3310 with a fresh, updated design that added a hipster gloss to the original “dumb phone.” At €49, the new 3310 offers calling and text, a battery that lasts up to a month, and, of course, Snake. The phone is available at select UK retailers, where it sold out in its first week, reports Wired. The phone is also facing high demand in India.

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The Nokia 3310.

The Punkt MP01, launched in 2015, takes a higher-end approach to the dumbed-down handset. For $295, the MP01 offers little more than calling, texting, a calendar, and an alarm clock. It even operates on a 2G network. Finishes like a Gorilla Glass screen, bespoke ringtones, and design touches from Jasper Morrison contribute to the phone’s high price point, but what really sets the MP01 apart is its philosophy. The company has attracted business leaders and even celebrities with a promise of “premium products that are a joy to use, with everything you need and nothing you don’t.”

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Other products take a more practical approach to digital detox. For families concerned about the effects of constant connectivity on children, Google Wifi, launched in October 2016, offers a “family pause” switch that suspends wifi at dinner or bedtime, as covered in our latest Future 100 trend report. And Yondr is a new company tackling the rise of Instagramming at concerts and music festivals by creating phone-free spaces. The tool has recently been used by artists from comedian Chris Rock to rapper Childish Gambino.

The digital disconnect is also becoming an important safety feature. Apple’s newest iOS, arriving this fall, will automatically include a “Do Not Disturb while Driving” feature. Users who enable it will not receive any notifications when the phone’s speed sensors determine that it is in a car. In May, Nissan UK announced that its Juke model would feature a built-in “signal shield” compartment that blocks all cellular and Bluetooth connections.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, new technology could help liberate us from technology; according to SONAR™, J. Walter Thompson’s proprietary research tool, 43% of smartphone users believe that voice assistants like Amazon’s Alexa could free us from the mobile screen and allow us to interact more with the world around them.

Brands should be aware of today’s burgeoning internet burnout, and look for ways to help consumers immerse themselves more fully in the real world—or, at least, consider how to prevent new technology from adding to the clutter.