The case for single-purpose devices

We are so caught up in our daily lives with various digital distractions that we don’t realize it. Email, Slack, WhatsApp, Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, Twitter, you name it. The average person checks their phone 150 times a day.

150 times. That’s not good.

And, some of us, touch, swipe or tap our phone 2,617 times a day.

That’s insane.

I have a Kindle. I read books in there. I don’t want it to read emails, watch videos, browse the Internet, or do anything else other than allowing me to read a book. In fact, it should feel and look like a book. With no backlight, and a papery feeling.

I think there is a case to be made for single purpose devices. In an era of interconnected, always-connected lives, we need to know when it’s time to step off the digital treadmill.

This should be hardly surprising though. We, with our smartphones, are a bit like babies who just got a shiny new toy: we want to play with it, and we don’t know when to stop or how much of it is good for us. But because we’re adults, we think we know better. We really don’t, and science is showing us how true that is.

In 20 years, we were able to miniaturize 20+ devices in a single, slick-looking “phone” (a powerful general purpose computer). That’s an impressive achievement of technology and innovation, but it had unintended consequences.

Our always-connected, general purpose, magical boxes that can do everything are contributing to the “continuous partial attention” problem, severely limiting our ability to focus, and perhaps even lowering IQ. One recent study showed that the mere presence of smartphones damages cognitive capacity — even when the device is turned off. We are distracted, all of the time, never really paying full attention to anything, unless we physically plug off.

Justin Rosenstein, the engineer who created the Facebook “Like” button, instructed his assistant to set up a parental-control feature to prevent him from downloading any apps.

We really are like babies, and the wisest are simply recognizing this fact, taking actions accordingly.

I predict that in the future we will see more and more single purpose devices, tailored to specific experiences, which play one role and nothing more.

We can switch them off simply by setting them aside, or putting them in a drawer. Psychologically, it’s easier to put away something that‘s used for only one thing, and to set aside everything else and concentrate while you’re doing that one thing. George R.R. Martin writes with a 3-decade old DOS computer, that has no email, no internet, and no spell-check.

I actually like it. It does everything I want a word processing program to do, and it doesn’t do anything else. I don’t want any help. I hate some of these modern systems where you type a lowercase letter and it becomes a capital. I don’t want a capital. If I wanted a capital, I would have typed a capital. I know how to work a shift key. 
— George R.R. Martin

When a new tech is available and powerful enough, we start to put everything inside, and soon it becomes and overwhelming mess. We see that happening in technology all the time. It happened with cars, watches, computers, and web pages.

Then reason steps in. Behavioral scientists, UX and HMI designers begin to think deep of what should be there, and what should not.

Apple and other companies are starting to realize this, introducing a “Do not disturb” mode on phones and computers.

Apple’s “Do not disturb” on my Mac.

But the temptation is too big, when distractions are one click away, instead of one room away. I have uninstalled the email and messengers apps on my iPad, because I kept interrupting movies I was watching, or drawings I was making, to check if I received a message. Why? It’s stupid, I know. But the temptation was there, it was easy to do. “That makes me think of…” — open Safari and check. “Where did I see that actor before?” — go and check IMDB.

It took me way too long to realize that I was trading an encompassing, immersive experience, with a distracted, task-switching mess. The same film became less valuable, less interesting. The same book was less captivating.

We need to change a few things.

As technology becomes cheaper and more reliable, I predict that single-purpose devices will make a comeback and become widespread again.

They will help us mentally differentiate the cognitive tasks and associate specific behaviors with physical objects, rather than abstracting everything in a single magical device that does everything, but that also leaves us trapped in a stream of constant distractions.

Less is more, almost always.


Hi, my name is Federico Pistono. I am an author, angel investor, technologist, and researcher.

I try to fix problems.

I’m head of Blockchain at Hyperloop TT, building the future of transportation.

I consult for large companies on innovation and exponential tech, and I’m available for keynote speeches.

Sometimes I post on Facebook. 
I think out loud on Twitter. 
I make educational videos and ramble on YouTube.

More on my website.