‘Dumb’ phones for a smart age: decoding the Nokia 3310

21 March 2017 | By Sign Salad
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Of late, much has been made of Nokia’s relaunch of the 3310 model, a so-called ‘dumb’ phone that first hit the market 17 years ago. With some consumers loving the move and others calling it a marketing ploy, one might ask what the 3310 phone stands for – and why it resonates so strongly – at this moment in cultural history.

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Overall, the 3310’s rebirth signals a bigger cultural turn towards the ‘logged-off’ life. With no touchscreen, a 2-megapixel camera, and 2G frequency that can’t be used in some developed countries, this is a phone that refuses to support frenetic, multiple-tab browsing. It sells because it takes you out of the game — leaving you with fewer app notifications, and more room for self-care and serenity. Echoing the Mindfulness movement, it plays off our culture’s concerns about hyperactivity and promises peace of mind.

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For others, the 3310 may appeal because it signals another quality that modern technology seems to have put under threat: personal security. If dystopian commentaries like Black Mirror are anything to go by, our fear of technology has only grown in tandem with our use of it: we worry about online fraud while shopping on ASOS, and take in films about mutinous AI while interacting with our Alexa devices. Given these apprehensions, it’s easy to see how the 3310 might signify safety with its limited connectivity, non-touchscreen interface, and famously indestructible, inelegant casing — designed to look “dumb”, it seems incapable of issuing a serious threat against its users’ safety.

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Lastly, perhaps there is something to be said about the 3310’s basic-ness. This is a no-frills phone that offers little more than texts and calls— the bare bones of functionality. Stripped down to the minimum, it comes without any additional features that might signify potential lifestyle aspirations – like high-definition cameras (signalling ‘online influencer’ status), or deep-diving capacities (for ultra-fit sports fanatics). Essentially, it is to other phones what normcore was to the fashion scene: something that signifies “freedom from” the influence of pre-determined lifestyle trends, and correspondingly, the space to build your own version of a meaningful life.

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In the mobile phone category, brands often try to woo consumers by outdoing each other —fighting to have the smallest camera or smartest touchscreen. But the hype around the 3310 proves that brands can also succeed by rejecting the usual standards and differentiating themselves. By understanding the culture in which they operate (and its underlying fears), brands can make wise choices about how to compete with their sleeker competitors, while still staying true to their origins.

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