Last month, the iPhone completed 10 years of its existence. Smartphones are a wonderful piece of invention. They are amazing. And they are terrible as well. It’s a central paradox of modern life: the devices that help us call people, find rides and dates, food and friends are the same ones that disconnect us from life that is in front of our eyes. The advent of touchscreen devices did wonders, changing how we interact with our devices and how we consume data and media on our phones. Smartphones, however, kill our attention span, give us the fear of missing out (FOMO) and turn the world into a series of torrential feeds that we try our best to keep up with. You have probably had grand visions of hurling your smartphone from the balcony and living life as your ancestors did, tech-free and stress-free. And yet, we don’t do it and our smartphones stay in our pockets.
This tension between a smartphone’s fantastic usefulness and its frustrating side-effects is well-documented. Digital detox was invented so people could ditch their gadgets, if not for days, then maybe for just a few hours. Much has been written about how people have checked into rehab centres for cellphone addiction. Some Airbnb listings now proudly announce the lack of Wi-Fi availability, a feature right up there with the hot tub and gas grill. So it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that—as per a new study from McCombs School of Business, University of Texas, Austin, USA—our brain power is significantly reduced when we are near our smartphones. The thrill of knowing you could possibly see a notification keeps you compulsively checking your phone, leaving you incapable of checking it only when necessary and putting it away when not in use. This obsession doesn’t just manifest organically. Rather, developers want this to happen and are designing products with the goal of shaping your habits and desires.
Meanwhile, the ‘smartphone emotional complex’ has given rise to a whole new class of products: gadgets that save you from your gadgets. The Apple Watch’s purpose, at least at first, was to quieten the constant buzzing and nagging from your phone. You can also drop $295 on a Punkt MP01, a phone capable only of calls and texts. Or take things even further with the Light Phone, a $150 gizmo about the size of a credit card that can store nine numbers, make and receive phone calls.
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These devices aren’t trying to replace your smartphone so much as free you from it. That was the idea led Kaiwei Tang to start working on the Light Phone a couple of years ago. Tang, a Brooklyn-based designer, started user research by asking people to swap their smartphones for an old-school Nokia or Motorola flip phone. Just for six hours, maybe the entire day. Everyone reported the same thing: after a miserable first hour, they felt more aware, relaxed and free. That told Tang he was on to something.
When the Light Phone made its debut in the world, though, a funny thing happened. People loved the phone, as well as the idea of “going light” without their smartphone. But they all said the Light Phone would be perfect if only it had this one thing. Tang today has a long and growing list of that ‘one thing’: some people want GPS to order an Uber or track their loved one; some want a camera to capture the moments they’re experiencing; music; text messages; near-field communication for buying stuff; and so on the list goes.
Let’s say you were in Tang’s shoes. You wanted to build a handset with all essentials and nothing else. Such a phone needs a microphone and speaker, plus some sort of a full keyboard—texting is too important after all. You’ll definitely need WhatsApp, as that has basically subsumed SMS. You can do without Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and email, which are what everyone who hates their smartphone hates about it. But you will need a camera, probably two, as nobody is going to buy a phone they can’t use for selfies. GPS and NFC are important too. As is built-in storage for music and podcasts, plus Apple Music, Spotify and Pandora; YouTube; a few games; and a Web browser, even though that’s an open window back into the social media morass. Pretty quickly, the handset sounds like a regular smartphone minus a bunch of really popular apps.
Ultimately, the problem with your iPhone isn’t the camera being too close to the GPS chip. It’s that you unlock your phone to check the weather, a notification comes in, you check your email, and then you blink and eight hours have passed and now you’re 700 photos deep in your ex’s Instagram feed.
So basically, Light Phone can be used as a second phone, one that allows smartphone users to disconnect from their apps while still being contactable via a phone call. Tristan Harris, Google’s former design ethicist and a long-time thinker about how technology affects humanity, calls these “leaky interactions”. Harris wrote a blog post in 2016, urging people to “reboot your phone with mindfulness” by turning off most notifications, moving apps off your primary home screen and putting as many barriers between you and the attention-sucks as possible.
The bottomline is there is no simple smartphone. Someone may want to easily browse the Web, someone else may want to get navigation guidance, play music and video, and someone may wish to take photos and video. The dream of a simple smartphone will remain as elusive as utopia. It’s the user who will have to turn the smartphone into a simple phone by switching off some apps.