When I wake up in the morning, I reach for my phone. Or my arm does. It’s automatic. It feels like something between a lizard reflex and a chemical dependence — a bodily need to check: Gmail, texts, news alerts, DMs, snaps, stories, likes, everything must be checked. Things, after all, happen while we sleep. Other people have been using their phones and you need to see for what.
Or, at least, you feel like you do. It’s part of having a phone. Or, more specifically, a phone addiction.
There’s a disingenuous pang that comes with even using the word “phone.” “Phone” is just some dumb old noun enjoying an undeserved promotion. Our phones aren’t so much phones anymore, they’ve become something else entirely — each one is an untethered connection to the ether of the Internet, also known as each other.
Especially as Alexa and her artificially intelligent friends claim to make our lives more about freeing up our hands and less about gazing down into our palms, the amount of time we devote to tapping and swiping our tiny black mirrors is starting to feel conspicuously out of touch. And yet, we can’t stop touching them.
It’s become commonplace to hear exiled social media execs and Silicon Valley chin strokers decrying the societal ills wrought by the monster they set loose, but lately they’ve been adopting a darker tone. Like when Facebook founding president Sean Parker spoke to an AXIOS reporter last November, dishing on the dopamine hits at the heart of the FB experience: “It's a social-validation feedback loop . . . exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you're exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.” It sent a chill up my desk chair.
Or last week, when two major shareholders with over $2 billion in combined investment with Apple posted an open letter to the company, urging it to examine the “unintentional negative consequences” of its technology on younger users, from sleep deprivation and decreased attention span to an increased suicide rate, among other effects.
It’s become trendy in techie wellness circles to follow the tips of one Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist for Google and a founder of the nonprofit Time Well Spent. Among other insights into how to counter the addictive architecture of online experiences, Harris’s most popular suggestion has been to simply switch your phone to grayscale. By muffling the ways your phone uses contrast, color, and, for lack of better phrasing, sparkly stuff to recruit your attention, the phone becomes less of a dazzling gem to gaze into, and more of a utilitarian brick.
Clever phone hacks aside, some are calling on manufacturers like Apple to employ design to make their phones less addictive by implementing simple changes. Some of these measures suggest a soft touch: daily reports of usage to make users more conscious of the time they spend on their phones, for instance; or notifications that offer more mindful control of what warrants attention and what doesn’t.
There already exist a wide variety of phone management assistants to choose from. Moment tracks and reports usage, Onward uses AI and an aggressive granular approach to create anti-addiction programs for users, and Forest stakes the life of an adorable little animated tree on you leaving your phone alone for a few minutes. (Don’t let the tree die. Please?)
Others need tougher love. For some, phone addiction is a matter best left in someone else’s hands — along with your actual phone. Note the rising popularity of Yondr, a phone-surrender system that’s becoming an increasingly frequent presence at public events. The system, which employs small lockable fabric pouches to secure phones before patrons enter a “phone-free” space, started off as a way to stem smartphone videos at concerts. But the appeal of no-smartphone zones has found Yondr popping up in hospitals, churches, classrooms, and courtrooms — much to the chagrin of free speech advocates, and people who just want to see if Jim texted back.
“Our attachment to our phones isn’t all that intellectual. It’s much more a body thing, so it was always clear to me that whatever solution there is to this problem had to be itself physical and tangible,” Yondr founder Graham Dugoni recently told Wired.
He’s 100 percent correct. It is a body thing. Our phones are extensions of our senses, they’re how we see and watch and rewatch the world. They’re how we remember certain things and forget others. They shape our awareness by luring us into oblivion. They’re living, buzzing proof of our lives requesting our attention.
So yes, they’re a little hard to put down, take it from me. (No, really.)Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.