To break a compulsive streak of pandemic nights spent emailing and tweeting from my phone while half-watching HBO on my laptop, I uploaded some PDFs to my reMarkable 2: comic book scripts, actually, for the graphic-novel passion project I’ve procrastinated on for years. The reMarkable, a tablet from a Norwegian startup by the same name, is designed for reading, writing, and drawing only, advertising its purpose as “helping you think.” Its implicit aim, beyond that, is to serve as an antidote to digital technology’s maniacal pursuit of our time and attention. While others very understandably obsess over another kind of vaccine, a tech antidote is what I’m in the market for.
Reading the book-like gadget in bed, without other electronics in the room, I experience something like peace. Instead of having UV lights blast my eyeballs, I switch on a forgotten invention called a table lamp. Flipping virtual pages with the flick of an index finger, I use the “Marker” to scratch ideas in the margins; I like knowing they’re instantly shared to my drive for access later.
Ditching the smartphone the next morning, I swap its SIM card into my Light Phone II, which, as the name suggests, is a much stripped-down version of the digital obsession we all carry in our pockets. It’s loaded only with some music podcasts I’m eager to discover. And close contacts can still reach me if the sky, which I suddenly have mental space to notice, should fall. I take a long walk. I see trees; I hear bass lines under guitars and vocals. Absent the phantom limb of endless connectivity, I alternate between blissful awareness and a twitchy impulse to check . . . something. Anything.
“That’s the question,” Light Phone co-founder and chief executive Kaiwei Tang asked rhetorically when we spoke recently: “Can we handle boredom? I mean, these are timeless questions, right? Like, what are we going to think about [if we’re not online]? The people we love. Our pain, our hopes.”
I’ve been experimenting lately with these two thoughtfully crafted and important new anti-distraction devices from small, independent startups. And I’ve been wrestling with the question they pose: Can a new wave of self-professed anti-tech, pro-human technology save us from our electronic compulsion? Tech addiction, after all, was a standard feature of pandemic life in 2020.
Having already suffered enough from the condition to seek formal treatment for it — in 2008 — I’m driven to find alternatives. But helpful as these devices could be, I worry they offer excuses to ignore the harder work we must do — affirming our full humanity in the age of digital surveillance capitalism. Because setting aside an anxiously wired existence for something slower and more elegant requires not just hardware but the vulnerability to accept ourselves and our sometimes-ugly flaws as they are, in a world that often suggests we shouldn’t bother to show up until we’re perfect. Beyond these welcome new devices, we need a collective conversation: What kind of relationship with tech do we want in 2021 and beyond? Once basic safety no longer requires us to be extremely online, will habit keep us wired that way despite ourselves?
I DON’T KNOW exactly when or how I decided I had an addictive personality, but it was before I hit puberty. Maybe it dawned at a Greek restaurant, when my parents agreed I was old enough for coffee after dinner. I declined, which in my family was like telling Santa you didn’t want any presents. I thought they were going to flip the table when I finally explained it was because I didn’t want to be addicted, like them.
I was an obnoxious little runt, but we were a small family of recent immigrants on both sides, all battling complex, intergenerational traumas. I couldn’t understand it then, but I was terrified to wind up alone, impoverished, as worthless in the eyes of others as I felt about myself. Priggish abstention, though an inexplicable insult to my liberal parents, helped me maintain a (false) sense of control. It held even through my teenage years, as my dad battled terminal lung cancer and neither of my parents could quit smoking.
I never did touch a cigarette or a drug, or even drink much. So it was odd, to say the least, to find myself in recovery meetings 12 years ago: in my early 30s, hooked on the Internet.
It’s 2008, I’m a few years into my now 16-year tenure as the humanist chaplain at Harvard, and I’m on the bus from my office in Harvard’s Memorial Church to McLean, Harvard Medical School’s psychiatric hospital. Feeling uneasy and more than a little ashamed to admit I need help, I’m dutifully headed to my weekly session of SMART Recovery, a wonderful recovery method pioneered by a Harvard professor as a secular, science-based alternative to the “higher power” and other religious concepts central to Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. But something about McLean’s hilltop neo-Georgian campus, on this cool summer night, frightens me deeply. Disturbing thoughts of New England Gothic literature blend with my child refugee mom’s stories of hospitalization for a few weeks in 1970, for suicidal ideation.
Slouching into one of those school chairs with tablet desks, amid an anxious circle, it’s my turn to share, following the heroin addict on my left and the alcoholic on my right — sorry, the individuals “managing addictive behavior,” as SMART prefers to call them.
Hands upturned in defense, I explain: how I can’t log off. How I just . . . refresh: email, Facebook, nytimes.com, ESPN . . . again and again, to escape tension and pressure as I struggle to fulfill a book contract. I describe how the longtime girlfriend who’d just (for good reason) dumped me used to complain — in 2006, when I had a Palm Pilot Treo and the iPhone was still just a glimmer in Steve Jobs’ eye — that maybe I should date the phone instead of her, since it was the last thing I wanted to see at night and the first in the morning. I reveal my fear that I won’t stop before I destroy more relationships and torch my writing career.
I’m thinking they’ll laugh me out of the room. And there is some bleary-eyed bewilderment at my story. But several fellow attendees kindly acknowledge that my predicament does bear similarities to their substance issues. Like them, I’m “using” to escape painful emotions. Like them, I crave both a state of dissociation and a dopamine high, because both help me avoid what I don’t want to face about myself.
Back to 2020: I’m holding the reMarkable 2 in my hands. It’s a sturdy and elegant machine, a bit smaller than a standard sheet of paper, just micrometers thicker than its USB-C charger port. It connects to Wi-Fi, and within minutes out of the box, you’re digitizing and uploading handwritten notes (with or without doodles that feel . . . remarkably natural to create), reading and marking up documents.
Light Phone II calls itself “a phone for humans,” meaning it’s designed to actually serve human needs, whereas smartphones have become tools of behemoth social media and telecommunications companies, to which we’re more products than people. Roughly credit-card-sized and no thicker than my Google Pixel 4, it’s an unlocked 4G LTE mobile phone with simple, E Ink based tools: texting, including group texts; alarms; a calculator; the ability to upload podcasts and music. Like the reMarkable 2, however, the real beauty of the Light Phone II is what it omits. Light Phone’s founders, who first marketed the device via a multimillion-dollar crowdfunding campaign, promise it will “never have feeds, social media, advertisements, news, or email.” Nothing to hook us for hours with infinite stimulation.
Still, if I’ve found my low-tech tech holy grail, why do I often ignore, even avoid, these simpler devices?
Tang, the Light Phone co-founder, told me many people are reluctant to settle into a “lighter” routine. As he discovered in his prior life designing for Motorola, Nokia, and BlackBerry and in a prestigious Google incubator for designers, algorithms in social media and other apps of mass distraction addict us intentionally, gaining “value” by monopolizing users’ time. They are “digital crack cocaine,” to paraphrase Julie Albright, a digital sociologist and expert on how we hyper-attach to tech at the expense of in-person human relationships.
“I’m addicted [to my phone],” admits Varun Soni, dean of Religious Life and associate provost for Campus Wellness and Intervention at the University of Southern California. Soni is among the world’s most admired leaders in my field of university chaplaincy, so this feels significant. “It is an addiction,” he continues, “and we don’t hand our kids cigarettes or alcohol or other things that might be addictive without properly educating them on healthy ways of engaging those things.”
Soni recently gave a speech to my colleagues, Harvard’s community of about 30 chaplains, in which he addressed our concern for our own students: Since the iPhone’s 2008 release, self-harm and anxiety rates have doubled on campus; anxiety and depression have increased exponentially among high school students; and almost every study shows that the more we’re online, the worse we feel about ourselves.
Psychology professor Jean Twenge, a prominent author on the digitally addled young people she calls “iGen,” wrote in a landmark 2017 Atlantic essay, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”: “It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”
Light Phone II won’t ruin your life, which means it could be the device of the year for the post-pandemic world. Once we’re free to get out again, to sit in a cafe with a friend, or with our own thoughts, smartphones will still be there demanding constant attention. The ability to choose a device that forces us to set aside such intrusions could be a life-changer for some.
Its text interface could stand a slight upgrade, however, so expect typos if texting heavily. That upgrade is coming, with new functions like hailing ride sharing, playlists, and the text-only version of Google Maps, though some of these could be delayed until mega-corporations like Lyft and Spotify deign to partner with the upstart company, whose staff numbers 11 and which is still based in a suite at a former factory turned incubator at Brooklyn’s Navy Yard.
THE QUESTION REMAINS, however: Can we really just slap down a few hundred bucks for new devices and become more evolved human beings? Of course not, says Emily Anhalt, a San Francisco-based clinical psychologist and co-founder of the world’s first “mental health gym.” Growing up in Silicon Valley, Anhalt developed an interest in tech culture and the psychology of the entrepreneur, observing how people who take up masochistic tasks like starting companies would flounder inwardly, waiting for a crisis to seek help.
“If it’s not our phone distracting us, it’ll be something else,” Anhalt told me. “We need practice sitting still with the uncomfortable feelings and thoughts that being human brings up. . . . [By] feelings, I mean the full spectrum. You can’t numb yourself to bad feelings without also numbing yourself to the good ones. To feel joy, elation, and peace, you also have to be willing to feel sadness, loneliness, grief, and anger.”
Anhalt’s comments echo Tang’s in describing his motivation to found Light Phone. Both even likened smartphones to fast food. “It’s better than going hungry,” said Anhalt, “but it’s not nourishing.” And Tang’s stance — as the rare tech CEO who seems to get that his product, while innovative, is at best a partial solution to bigger issues — makes me want to see him succeed all the more.
Light Phone II sales have risen nicely since May, largely among customers aged 24 to 36 who’ve spent their entire adult lives as smartphone addicts and want a digital detox. (ReMarkable also cited a successful May rollout, with a months-long waiting list.)
I picture these people as kindred spirits with the college students Soni has noticed at USC lately, downgrading to flip phones to focus on In Real Life time with friends and hobbies, or the Silicon Valley professionals Anhalt helps work on healthier inner lives and relationships at her “gym.”
Imagine what they — what all of us — could do, together, with such intentionality! Maybe, y’know, not nearly destroy our democracy again? Or just . . . be human.
Ultimately, Anhalt offered advice that my addicted, anxious younger self could’ve used, and maybe you can too, regardless of what electronic purchases are in store for you this year. “Almost everything in our society is a shortcut, a cheat code,” she says. “Just take the straight path through, and it won’t feel good all the time,” she explains. But feeling our feelings without panic or judgment, we can fold them into who we are, so we don’t need to constantly shoo them away.
“The only way out,” she says, “is through.”
Greg M. Epstein, the author of “Good Without God,” is humanist chaplain at Harvard and at MIT, where he is also Convener for Ethical Life in the Office for Religious, Spiritual, and Ethical Life. Follow him on Twitter @gregmepstein.