Digital Minimalism, or Man Buys New Phone


I’ve always had an interest in digital minimalism, even before it had an agreed upon name: how can we have a better relationship with technology? How can we do more with less? What can we learn about tech by looking at what came before? It’s an interest that although persistent, tended to mostly be in the background. I’d always explore software that was less intensive and more focused on a singular purpose; personal favourites being tools like sent for making presentations or groff for writing documents. Essentially anything that follows the Unix philosophy.

But as much as I tried to use lightweight software in a mindful way, I figured that true digital minimalism couldn’t be achieved until I extended this thinking out into the kinds of devices I used as well. And so, around the start of 2021, I bought a new laptop - a near decade old ThinkPad X230. I remembered at the time that sense of uncertainty - surely this whole idea was dead on arrival. For someone whose entire work is digitally based and often quite intensive on the hardware - surely I’d need something at the cutting edge?

But in the weeks, months, and now years that have followed since I switched to the X230 - it’s been fine. In fact its more than fine, it’s the best laptop I’ve ever owned. The keyboard is endlessly satisfying to type on; it’s dimensions mean that it’s just suitable for carrying around without dominating your bag, but not so small that it’s a pain to work from; almost any component can be replaced by removing just a single screw - it’s a laptop that has never once got in the way.

Despite going all in on the desktop side, there was one area that I just couldn’t risk - my phone. It wouldn’t be surprising to say that, for many people, their phone is the most precious thing they own. It’s how they communicate, organise, effectively manage and live their offline and online lives. My thinking, and seemingly many others too, was that my phone was just too important to gamble on.

However. My previous phone, a mid-range Android so generic as to not even be worth naming, was showing that first glimmer of coming to the end of its usefulness. A battery that was starting to struggle through the day, a display that was starting to not register touches, a charging port that was a gamble on whether it would work or not. It seemed a good time to try something new. Now was apparently my chance.

And so, around the start of this year, after much deliberation, I bought a new phone - a Nokia C2 2E, a budget Android that comes in at barely over £50. There’s no finger print scanner or face unlock, no USB-C, the screen isn’t even HD. It offers just about 32GB of storage and doesn’t even have an automatic brightness sensor. There’s some very prominent black borders surrounding the display and the cameras are so grainy as to be almost unusable.

Taking the phone out of the box for the first time, I braced for the agonising delays and lags, the paltry battery life, the flimsy build quality; telling myself it would be worth it for the experiment, a learning experience at least.

A few months on and the C2 is the most fun I’ve had with a smartphone since I got my first one over a decade ago.

Using a phone that’s this budget I don’t feel constrained, I feel focused. There’s just enough space that I can install the odd app I only use occasionally but not so much that anything that vaguely takes my interest can be installed. Battery life is better than expected but just short enough to make every unlock mindful of its purpose. In the rare moments where web pages or apps lag, it’s a reminder that this is probably something better done on a desktop. And to top it off, in a strange twist, this will also be a phone with the best chance of longevity given that replacing the battery is as simple as popping the back off.

There are plenty of posts, videos, and books of people switching to a simpler phone and achieving some kind of enlightenment in their lives. Everyone will have a different experience but for me it comes less in a complete reevaluation of my life and more of a refresher on what I actually see a smartphone as - a tool. A screen large enough for easy to read text but not the kind of thing you’d want to watch video on. Enough processing power for day-to-day work but not enough for gaming or anything out of the ordinary. Enough space to store what matters but not just whatever comes to mind.

Technology tends to get a lot more interesting when the constraints are just right.