Stressed by Smart Tech? Consider These ‘Dumb’ Devices
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Stressed by Smart Tech? Consider These ‘Dumb’ Devices

As our appliances and gadgets become more connected, they become more prone to unexpected bugs and glitches.

By Justin Pot
Tue, May 3, 2022 11:10amGrey Clock 8 min

ONCE, a broken bathroom scale just displayed the wrong weight. In 2022, it won’t even do that.

“My scale stopped connecting to Wi-Fi, which for some reason means it won’t even show the weight,” said Chris Hoffman, editor in chief of How-to Geek, an online magazine devoted to helping people understand their tech. In short, he’s an expert at troubleshooting broken gadgets. But when Mr. Hoffman’s scale went on the fritz, it just sat stubbornly broken on his coffee table, even after he’d read the entire manual, researched whether others had experienced the same problem, hounded customer support and coaxed the device through a complete factory reset. “I was left thinking ‘Where did I go wrong with my life?’” he said.

“Smart” spins on common home appliances have been available for many years. These clever refrigerators, televisions and air conditioners perform their base functions, but also use their ability to connect to the internet to unlock additional conveniences—letting owners, for instance, remote-control them from miles away. Generally, that level of interactivity was something you would opt into, by buying a robot vacuum, smart speakers or an Alexa-enabled microwave. But it wasn’t the default.

That’s changing. While some brands are aggressively bucking the trend and producing intentionally untethered devices, it’s getting harder to purchase appliances and gadgets that don’t need an internet connection merely to function properly. “I’ve gotten so many emails from readers who are looking for a ‘dumb’ TV,” said Mr. Hoffman. “Unfortunately, that doesn’t exist.”

While a TV that can’t access Netflix in the age of cord-cutting isn’t very useful, the trend has taken hold outside the living room too. Increasingly, said Jerry Beilinson, technology editor at Consumer Reports, “you can’t buy a high-end washing machine or dishwasher or dryer without it having Wi-Fi connectivity.”

When it comes to smart appliances beyond TVs, the benefits are less obvious. While it is convenient to zap your popcorn without pressing any of a microwave’s buttons, either via a phone app or through a voice assistant, when every device is, on some level, a computer, there are downsides. We’ve all heard stories about some household object that, a la Mr. Hoffman’s confoundingly sophisticated scale, stops working because the “smart” technology inside it breaks. Mr. Hoffman says he’s encountered washing machines that won’t let you clean your clothes until you’ve downloaded and installed a firmware update. “It is just annoying,” he said.

The problems aren’t always due to glitches or necessary security updates. Sometimes companies disable features intentionally. Mr. Beilinson said data collection offers a simple way for companies to make devices more profitable: “Adding Wi-Fi connectivity to appliances is extremely cheap and the data companies get out of it is extremely valuable.” Requiring that people connect to Wi-Fi in order to use features means more will connect. The brands are nudging, or arguably forcing, you to accept the intrusion.

For example, GE has engineered some of its ovens so that you can’t use the convection roast feature unless you connect them to Wi-Fi and download an app to your phone. This despite the fact that many residential ovens have had convection features since 1945, when the Wi-Fi in most homes was, shall we say, spotty. (A GE Appliances spokesperson said the company makes plenty of appliances that do not require Wi-Fi connectivity, but also wants to give customers the option of increased technological capability.)

The story is the same in the living room. Roku, for example, might be best known for its streaming sticks and smart televisions, but the company actually earns most of its money from the streaming platform it designed. According to its 2021 earnings report, the company actually lost $52 million from sales of hardware. The model works because of how effectively the company has been able to monetize its platform through licensing and advertising. Roku identified “targeting using first-party data” as its fastest-growing ad product last year, by which it means leveraging the information it gets from tracking your viewing habits to serve you new shows to watch or products you can buy directly from your TV. (Roku declined to comment for this article.)

Sometimes, it is still possible to opt out of this kind of tracking. Mr. Beilinson owns a garage door opener that could be controlled with an app, but he hasn’t connected the device to Wi-Fi. “I don’t feel like I need to tell a company every time I open the garage door.”

But more often than not, avoiding the downsides of smart tech requires awkward, costly workarounds. Mr. Hoffman said some people avoid connecting their TVs to Wi-Fi to ensure their viewing habits cannot be tracked. But then they must purchase an extra device to watch their top shows. “People who are really into privacy prefer the Apple TV box,” he said, pointing out that Apple considers its customer’s privacy a high priority. Others might rightfully bristle at the idea of spending an extra $180 to ensure a new TV doesn’t track their behaviour.

Deciding which devices you want to connect to the internet is a balancing act. But some signs suggest that people are seeking actively unconnected “dumb” devices. For example, in an earnings report last year, Fujifilm, the Japanese camera company, said it has made more money in each of the last five years from its line of Instax instant film cameras and accessories than it has from selling digital cameras and their lenses.

The analog trend is also manifesting in gaming. Wizards of The Coast, which makes the dice-rolling, pen-and-paper-based Dungeons & Dragons series and the card game Magic: The Gathering, saw a revenue increase of 24%, up to US$816 million, from 2019 to 2020. Even when Pandemic-induced lockdowns made in-person gaming impossible, many chose to invest in games that they could play in person, once restrictions were lifted. “There is a subset of people who are looking for ways to reduce the role of technology in their lives, to not always be so connected,” said Mr. Beilinson, “people looking for physical experiences.”

Startups are emerging specifically to cater to such people. One is reMarkable, which makes tablets for writing that might look, at first glance, like an iPad. The difference: no extra apps and a black-and-white e-ink screen. It is as close as you can get to a digital piece of paper, which is exactly the point. “When you’re writing and thinking your best thoughts, it is really important that you don’t get an email or a notification that takes you out of that,” said Henrik Gustav Faller, vice president of communication at reMarkable. “That stream of thought is something that we really try to focus on and really cherish.”

The 300-person reMarkable team, based in Norway, spent years developing the tablet before launch—reducing the latency on the screen and contemplating how much the pen should weigh. The end product has a few smart features—one gives users access to files on Dropbox and Google Drive—but not many. It appears the approach is working: As of 2020, reMarkable has sold over half a million devices. A company representative said sales increased in 2021, but they declined to release specific numbers.

The Light Phone II is a tiny brick with a similar black-and-white e-ink screen—and a similar philosophy. Designed by a 13 person team in New York City, it supports calls and texts, but no social media. Kaiwei Tang, co-founder and CEO, said that is because he believes our phones currently do way too much. That’s why there is no Light Phone app store; you can, however, download a few “tools” that let you do simple things like get directions or listen to podcasts. The phone, which launched in 2019, saw a 150% increase in sales from release to 2021 according to Mr. Tang. Investors include Twitter co-founder Biz Stone and Adobe chief product officer Scott Belsky.

These kinds of devices are made by and for people who are contemplating their relationship with technology and intentionally opting for simpler, less distracting devices. They offer a reminder that we should be able to choose how we interact with our technology, and how it interacts with us.

Everyone has a different threshold for what is and isn’t useful—and some smart devices might do enough to make the odd annoyance worth bearing. But since no company will make this calculation for you, Mr. Hoffman said it’s important to consider what you actually want: “Even if you love smart technology, not everything needs to be smart.”

The Best Dumb Tech

Eight pieces of gear that make the case for a future of less-connected devices

Light Phone II

It lets you make calls and send texts, but not much else. It’s designed to be used as little as possible, though you can add optional “Tools” like GPS navigation and podcasts.

The Mohu Leaf Plus Amplified TV Antenna

Free broadcast TV still exists, and it has been in HD for over a decade now. Cheap, powerful indoor antennas like this one allow you to rediscover the experience.


Like the iPod Shuffle for the streaming age, this device lets you sync songs over from Spotify or Amazon Music to listen offline. It’s great for working out, when picking the perfect playlist can easily become an excuse to dawdle near a squat rack.

Kindle Paperwhite

Thanks to a crisp, responsive screen and light body, the Kindle is a superior e-reader. Cheaper Kindles like the Paperwhite include some bloat like ads and a web browser. Both are easy to ignore, especially since the browser is harder to use than “Ulysses” is to read.

reMarkable 2

As close as you can get to a digital pad of paper. This thin tablet comes with a realistic-feeling pen, which you can use to mark up documents and sync notes to your phone or computer.


This digital typewriter—nothing more than a mechanical keyboard with an e-ink screen—lets you draft without distraction. To edit, you can send text to your computer.

The Fujifilm Instax 11

An instant camera like the Polaroids of old, it prints an actual physical photo that you can share with a friend by handing it to them. What a concept.

BN-LINK Mini 24-hour Mechanical Outlet Timer

Decades after the servers for smart plugs currently on the market shut down, this little mechanical timer will keep on ticking—and you can get two for 12 bucks.

Even a sceptic can appreciate some smart tech. Three winners…

Adaptive Central Air

The Google Nest Learning Thermostat can, by some estimates, reduce your heating and cooling bills by 10 to 15% by not using energy when it’s not needed. If you’re going to introduce smart tech to your house, it might as well be saving you money (and reducing your carbon footprint).

Secure Streaming

Apple TV is one of the few visual entertainment platforms that doesn’t track and monetize your viewing habits, according to privacy experts. Plus, these boxes will continue getting security updates much longer than your run-of-the-mill smart television.

Flexible Fixtures
Published Credit: NA

The Wyze Bulb Color is an affordable LED smart bulb that can make any lamp or sconce colourful. Customize the colour or intensity with your phone at any moment or schedule the bulbs to turn off and on at specific times then forget about them completely.


Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’

Americans now think they need at least $1.25 million for retirement, a 20% increase from a year ago, according to a survey by Northwestern Mutual

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What’s still keeping American workers out of the office?

At a time when restaurants, planes and concert arenas are packed to the rafters, office buildings remain half full. Thinly populated cubicles and hallways are straining downtown economies and, bosses say, fragmenting corporate cultures as workers lose a sense of engagement.

Yet workers say high costs, caregiving duties, long commutes and days still scheduled full of Zooms are keeping them at home at least part of the time, along with a lingering sense that they’re able to do their jobs competently from anywhere. More than a dozen workers interviewed by The Wall Street Journal say they can’t envision returning to a five-day office routine, even if they’re missing career development or winding up on the company layoff list.

Managers say they will renew the push to get employees back into offices later this year. The share of companies planning to keep office attendance voluntary, rather than mandatory, is dropping, according to a survey released in May of more than 200 corporate real-estate executives conducted by property-services firm CBRE, one of the largest managers of U.S. office space.

A battle of wills could be ahead. The gap between what employees and bosses want remains wide, with bosses expecting in-person collaboration and workers loath to forgo flexibility, according to monthly surveys of worker sentiment maintained by Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford University economist who studies remote work.

Escalating expenses

One reason workers say they’re reluctant to return is money. Some who have lost remote-work privileges said they are spending hundreds, or in some cases thousands, of dollars each month on meals, commutes and child care.

One supercommuter who treks to her Manhattan job from her home in Philadelphia negotiated a two-day-a-week limit to her New York office time this year. Otherwise, she said she could easily spend $10,000 a year on Amtrak tickets if she commuted five days a week.

Christos Berger, a 25-year-old mortgage-loan assistant who lives outside Washington, D.C., estimates she spends $2,100 on child care and $450 on gas monthly now that she is working up to three days a week in the office.

Berger and her husband juggled parenting duties when they were fully remote. The cost of office life has her contemplating a big ask: clearance to work from home full time.

“Companies are pushing you to be available at night, be available on weekends,” she said, adding that she feels employers aren’t taking into account parents’ need for family time.

Rachel Cottam, a 31-year-old head of content for a tech company, works full time from her home near Salt Lake City, making the occasional out-of-town trip to headquarters. She used to be a high-school teacher, spending weekdays in the classroom. Back then, she and her husband spent $100 a week on child care and $70 a week on gas. Now they save that money. She even let her car insurance company know she no longer commutes and they knocked $5 a month off the bill.

Friends who have been recalled to offices tell Cottam about the added cost of coffee, lunch and beauty supplies. They also talk about the emotional cost they feel from losing work flexibility.

“For them, it feels like this great ‘future of work’ they’ve been gifted is suddenly ripped away,” she said.

Parent trade-offs

If pandemic-era flexible schedules go away, a huge number of parents will drop out of the workforce, workers say.

When Meghan Skornia, a 36-year-old urban planner and married mother of an 18-month-old son, was looking for a new job last year, she weeded out job openings with strict in-office policies. Were she given such mandates, she said, she would consider becoming an independent consultant.

The firm in Portland, Ore., where Skornia now works requests one day a week in the office, but doesn’t dictate which day. The arrangement lets her spend time with her son and juggle her job duties, she said. “If I were in the office five days a week, I wouldn’t really ever see my son, except for weekends.”

Emotional labor

For some, coming into the office means donning a mask to fit in.

Kenneth Thomas, 42, said he left his investment-firm job in the summer of 2021 when the company insisted that workers return to the office full time. Thomas, who describes himself as a 6-foot-2 Black man, said managing how he was perceived—not slipping into slang or inadvertently appearing threatening through body language—made the office workday exhausting. He said that other professionals of colour have told him they feel similarly isolated at work.

“When I was working from home, it freed up so much of my mental bandwidth,” he said. His current job, treasurer of a green-energy company, allows him to work remotely two or three days a week.

Lost productivity

The longer the commute, the less likely workers are to return to offices.

Ryan Koch, a Berkeley, Calif., resident, went to his San Francisco office two days a week as required late last year, but then he let his attendance slide, because commuting to an office felt pointless. “I’m doing the same video calls that I can be doing at home,” he said.

Koch, who works in sales, said his nonattendance wasn’t noted so long as his numbers were good. When Koch and other colleagues were unable to meet sales quotas in recent weeks, they were laid off. Ignoring the in-office requirement probably didn’t help, he said, adding he hopes to land a new hybrid role where he goes in one or two days.

Jess Goodwin, a 36-year-old media-marketing professional, turned down an offer to go from freelance to full time earlier this year because the role required office time and no change in pay.

Goodwin said a manager “made it really clear that this is what they’re mandating right now and it could change in the future to ‘you have to be back in five days a week.’”

Goodwin, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., calculated that subway commutes to Midtown Manhattan would consume more than 150 hours annually, in addition to time spent getting ready for work.

Goodwin’s holding out for a better offer. She said she would consider a hybrid position if it came with a generous package and good commute, adding: “And I would also probably need something in my contract being like, ‘We’re not going to increase the number of days you have to come in.’”


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