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The Remarkable Return of the Burner Phone

Some of us are ditching smartphones in favour of more basic choices, as though we're back in the early 2000s. But why?

by Daisy Jones
10 September 2019, 5:41am

Photo: Gianni Muratore via Alamy Stock Photo

Earlier this year, Supreme released their much anticipated AW/19 lookbook. As usual, there were some odd things in there. A voodoo doll, for instance. A measuring jug. Some champagne flutes. But what seemed to get the most attention, this season, was their collection of red and black burner phones. Described on the site as an “Unlocked 3G cellphone with an in-built camera and dual-sim compatibility,” it felt like a statement to release burner phones to their target market in particular: a generation hooked on the latest smartphone.

While the Supreme phone was probably, in part, a winking joke about dealers, it’s not the first burner to have come out in recent years. When Nokia released a remake of their classic 3310 in 2017, a spokesperson from Carphone Warehouse claimed that pre-registration numbers had been ten times higher than that of other models. A year later, Sky News reported that global sales of basic phones had risen by five percent, while sales of smartphones had only risen by two. These might look like small numbers, but it marked the first increase in burner phone sales in years. So either people are getting bang into pushing weed, or there’s something deeper going on here.

Alice ditched her iPhone three months ago. The 27-year-old London-based musician now uses the famed Nokia 8110 (“the banana phone”), which has a camera and WhatsApp, but very little else. As she tells me, she based her decision around a multitude of interconnected factors, mainly relating to data privacy and the way apps monetise our attention. “Your smartphone is like a secret diary, but it’s uploaded onto the cloud and sold to advertisers,” she says, over the (burner) phone. “We're not dealing with platforms that have our best interests at heart. These are capitalist entities; they have their business at heart. We can’t expect them to turn into saints. So we have to change the way we behave around technology.”

Alice says that since using her Nokia she’s felt freer, more present and more comfortable with a phone that isn’t using her personal life to constantly sell products back to her. “It feels safer, rather than me just pouring my heart out into this device that’s harvesting my data,” she says. “If I want to go on social media, I do that on my tablet, which I leave at home. But my phone is my personal shit. It takes me back to being a teenager and texting, when there was no thought of ‘Oh, someone's reading this.’ That ‘surveillance state’ feeling was not the same. I think it probably all just added up – a culmination of this feeling – and I was like, ‘Why the hell aren't I doing something about it?’”

For others, like Remi, a 25-year-old student based in Manchester, the choice to switch to a burner was less considered, but beneficial in the long run. “I bought the baby blue Nokia 3310 when it came out because I liked the look of it and it matched my puffa. I thought I could bring it to festivals or on holiday,” she tells me. “But then I carried on using it when I got back from Glastonbury this year. While I was away I realised just how much I had been checking Insta and all these apps. It felt good to get a break from that. I thought, ‘Why not continue that break?’ I don’t need to constantly be glancing at my phone when I could be getting on with stuff that benefits me.”

Would Remi ever switch back? “I’d never say never, but right now I’m comfortable with just using my Nokia,” she says. “With my iPhone, which I actually ended up giving to a friend because she broke hers, I always felt guilty for not replying to people or repeatedly checking to see if I had new notifications or likes. It felt as if it was clogging my brain up. I could never concentrate or finish what I was working on. If I got an iPhone again I’d be choosing to go back to that state of mind. I could get one of those apps that limit usage, but that seems pointless when I've got this.”

In the past five years, a real understanding of data privacy and “digital health” has started to trickle into the mainstream beyond jokes about people in tin hats thinking their phone's watching them. In 2017, the Cambridge Analytica scandal brought our fears to life when it was revealed how our Facebook ‘likes’ had helped Trump win the US election, with Brexit as a petri-dish. We know that until late August, Apple contractors could listen to our Siri recordings (and now Apple employees will instead), Microsoft workers can listen to Skype conversations, Snapchat employees have abused data access to spy on users and PornHub are keeping track of our most intimate fantasies. We also know that paranoia about outside parties hearing our phone conversations isn't unfounded. As Motherboard reported last year, certain apps can, and do, access our microphones.

During a time when even your little bro and great aunt Sue have probably seen this year's Netflix documentary The Great Hack, it makes sense that people are starting to lean away from using smartphones altogether. “Certainly in my social circles the conversation is going towards ‘digital health’ and how we can move away from this preset which no one signed up for,” agrees Alice. “It’s a very strange time. Everyone is reassessing how much, ethically, they want to give away, and what. Data is the new oil – but it’s unlimited. So we have to change the amount we want to give to the cyber-world, because it's only going to grow. We have to go backwards, to move forwards.”

Liam, a 19-year-old student based in London, echoes this sentiment. He's had both a burner and a smartphone for three years, but in the past couple of months he's started mainly using his burner due to privacy concerns. “It freaks me out that I can Google something on a completely different device like my laptop, and somehow an ad comes up on my phone [on Instagram] immediately relating to that search,” he tells me. “It doesn't matter that I'm not up to any criminal activity. It's about consent, and the feeling of being watched, like a cog in a capitalism machine that you've got no control over.”

Without sounding too "iPhones are bad!”, a lot could also be said about our use of apps and their impact on mental health – but we've been having these conversations for years. From Instagram exacerbating anxiety and affecting feelings of self worth to the way scrolling through any timeline for hours gives us less time to do things we actually enjoy, we've long had a fraught relationship with the platforms that claim to make us more connected. But perhaps some of us are reaching a boiling point, and it's about realising there are other options. “I definitely thought I couldn't live without my iPhone before,” Remi says. “But that perception is false. You just carry on like before, but without feeling like something's waiting for you in your pocket.”

It's hard to tell whether burners will properly kick off. This is the era of TikTok and Depop kids after all. For every person who's ditched their iPhone for an old brick where the Snake game is their only 'fun' add-on, are hundreds more who can't wait for the new Google Pixel to drop. Because obviously smartphones can be great too – otherwise we wouldn't use them. We can take crystal-clear photos and send memes and get bagels delivered to our door. But as Alice points out, there are things we can do to meet halfway. Stuff like searching using incognito mode. Installing apps on our phones that limit usage. Using add-ons that get rid of metrics. “It's about changing the ways we interact with tech, so it isn't taking everything,” she says. “We can find a middle ground, without resigning ourselves to being data-mined constantly.”

@daisythejones

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.