Note on the Distraction Free Phone / Attention Economies / more++
From the banal to the high-holy refined, the “distraction” free phone is an intriguing artifact of our current cultural project, which strives to take as much attention away from inward, reflective practice, or outward, social presence practice, into solipsistic thumb-swiping consumptive habits. These phones give the appearance that folks want to save themselves from technology with technology. That through the injurious medium salvation will occur. Excuse the polemiscism just for a minute, I promise it’ll be worth it.
What this is note is ultimately about is attention and the attention economy — what your hands and eyes are doing, and what’s occupying your brain.
Simone Weil wrote “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer.” Attention is a powerful act; and everyone knows it, which is why the stacks viciously compete for our attention on their media channels, consuming their content. Wired’s must-read interview of Tristan Harris here offers great context for how we’re being constantly manipulated and trained into engaging with anything-but-the-here-and-now.
Remember the Jitterbug?
Unequivocally the OG in this front, the Jitterbug was hardly a phone, more of a blunt object in a world of chainsaws. You could scroll through predefined contacts to place a call, or just hit the main button for the operator, who would look through your contacts and place calls for you. I doubt that they would answer questions (side note — does anyone else remember when you could text google — 46645 — from your dumb phone and ask questions and get directions? 2004/2005? Earlier? Simpler times. Human-ness.
The Jitterbug. A simple object, devoid of the ability to check email, play an Ocarina, or participate in anything remotely social outside of a direct, singular connection to a human being. These phones were marketed towards the elderly, and perhaps children. The company is still around; they’ve advanced a little bit, perhaps evolving as the techno-literacy of the clientele has moved along social currents. There are buttons, though no apps, and you can text.
The copy is amazing. It’s nearly antagonistic about smart phones, calling them “alien technology” with “cryptic icons”.
The Jitterbug Flip cell phone is designed to be a simple cell phone, not some sort of alien technology that you need to decipher in order to use it. When you’re ready to dial, you can flip open the cover and use the large, easy-to-see keys or simply tell your phone who to call. You’ll hear a familiar dial tone that tells you that it’s ready for you to make a call. Its voice dialing capabilities will connect you with the right person.
Even the advanced features are easy to use if you choose to take advantage of them. Menus use simple YES or NO buttons instead of some cryptic icons. And, if you need help, friendly U.S.-based operators can be reached simply by dialing “0” anytime…day or night.
Before our ironic all-knowing selves chuckle and move on, it’s worth noting that the elderly and the technophobic aren’t the only ones who see the problems inherent in carrying around a hyper-connected supercomputer in your pocket.
The Siempo phone approaches this space — it’s a tool for managing your habit rather than going cold turkey. It’s actually fairly “smart,” and takes the familiar shape of a rectangle with soft-cornered radii and a full-color screen, but includes a suite of tools that enable the user to limit access to certain apps and filter messages and notifications. The hardware here hardly makes a difference — the phone looks like it was designed from a feature book at an ambiguous electronics CM in Shenzhen. Siempo, though, died before it was born. Through Kickstarter, Siempo raised roughly 10% of their target — $53,080 / $500,000 goal. Quite short, and why? Likely because it was never hardware to begin with; Siempo was at best an OS, and likely an app, the hardware being unnecessary to the core mission of managing your access to distraction. But an interesting entry into the vernacular; a failure also perhaps because it confirmed to the morphological characteristics of the current genre of phones. There was nothing inherent to the hardware that made it a barrier to entry, no clever moments of industrial design that created opportunities to tune attention. Worth noting here that the website for Siempo and Light Phone could be interchangeable. It’s not about the tech, but about the nature that you’ll be able to experience and the places you’ll have the patience to be (but how will you get there?); a vernacular of low-resolution, slightly washed out with a touch of grain images borrowed from Kinfolk and catering to a vision of a less-distracted and less-busy world.
The Punkt MP-01 phone is where things start get interesting. The MP-01 is a strong stand against the trends of infocapitalism and the attention industry. There is no possibility of sending an email, of listening to music, of engaging with social media. It’s a tool for talking and texting, designed by Jasper Morrsion and released late in 2015. It has a basic calendar and alarm as well, but that’s the extent of it. The phone was designed as an option, a second device; something that you could use (likely, at least) in addition to, but not as a wholesale replacement to your smart device. Which is to say, it could certainly perform as a primary tool, but given the needs and requirements of the phone in our current world, it would be difficult to manage without one. Or so we are lead to believe, and we are inclined to follow the path laid out before us, the one of least resistance.
The Punkt phone, compared to the Siempo, is a pristine specimen of design. Echoing Braun in its heyday, the details from high-performance paint designed for cameras to carefully laid out typography are all considered as a holistic designed system, softly but strongly establishing the quality of the thing. The phone is balanced and restrained. Its understated form proposes calm, in contrast to the harsh stark tension of an iPhone. The phone even when off is lively, not burdened by the inert death language that silent glass speaks. We cannot do the things that we want to do because of the inherent and designed limitations of the tool; the tool teaches us that we cannot, and thus we do without.
The final example in the hardware space is the Light Phone, which successfully completed a Kickstarter, raising $415,127 on a $200,000 goal. It’s about as a simple as a phone could possibly be — a tool with the sole purpose of being a nearly-emergency level communication device. No texting, no calendar, nothing except the core ability to be reached. Despite shipping at least 3400 phones (per Kickstarter numbers) there are few reviews available, and the few that are out there don’t say that’s all that great. Bear in mind that Apple has sold over 1.2 billion iPhones, so roughly 1 Light Phone for every ~353,000 iPhones. There’s a long road ahead. It’s a statement, but perhaps a little too dumb in our day and age, too trite and powerless, with the ephemeral quality that speaks to a consumable device, something that looks one step above a dev. kit.
At best, the Light Phone and the Punkt MP-01 are auxiliary devices that are marketed as solves to complicated lives — tools to assist living a certain version of a life that’s not true to the reality of the day-to-day. The Light Phone’s instagram page is filled with ambient imagescapes signaling escape, distance, soft freedoms; that your time and your self will be transformed with this tool. It’s an aspirational lifestyle, a connection to a hyperreal.
Quickly noting that there are a whole suite of apps in this space that regulate how much time you can spend on a phone, regulate access to certain apps, track usage, etc. etc. etc. Forest is cute — if you look at the phone while your tree is growing it dies, a quasi-Tamagotchi, feeding off your inattention.
So back to attention.
The adage of time is money holds true. The time and energy we spend time clicking through videos on YouTube and scrolling through instagram feeds has real dollar value. How might we create tools and systems that enable us to detach, that enable us to want to detach, from these dominant systems, and increase joy and focus in the here and now, and to perhaps perhaps perhaps facilitate enjoyable presentness in the current moment. The tools that I’ve written about above are akin to training wheels for the mind. They are ways and means to practice un-training, a break from the infinite media streams that accost us from all angles.
Studies are increasingly demonstrating that there’s an inverse relationship between the time that we spend on participating in digital media and social systems, and happiness. We have forgotten how to be with ourselves, alone.
Remember this one? People Would Rather be Electrically Shocked Than Left Alone With Their Thoughts:
For 15 minutes, the team left participants alone in a lab room in which they could push a button and shock themselves if they wanted to. The results were startling: Even though all participants had previously stated that they would pay money to avoid being shocked with electricity, 67% of men and 25% of women chose to inflict it on themselves rather than just sit there quietly and think.
The abstract from Science, a peer reviewed journal:
In 11 studies, we found that participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts. Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative.
Contemporary media systems are designed to take us out of the now. They have the dual purpose of entertaining us while monetizing our attention and focus by delivering us from presentness. We need more tools to create more opportunity space to practice mindfulness and presentness. The objects that surround us are increasingling complex and interconnected. With this interconnectivity comes an info-scape that demands attention and maintenance. It’s critical as we move forward in our vast social project to reconnect with ourselves, and engage in activities that reflect our true desires. We must learn to re-engage in practices that have no potential for monetization, but instead are one for personal and social good. It’s unrealistic that we will go back to simpler times, and I don’t advocate for that. What I do believe is that we are in a nascent state of understanding platform capitalism and the infoscape that it manifests. We’ve collectively created and engage with far more media that can ever be digested by the species. We don’t know what the long term effects are, and only will once we’re experiencing their effects and after-effects.
Moving forward in, I’ll write about the tea house and tea ceremony as archetypes for spaces and practises that enact a moment of radical presentness through physical media. The purpose is to look at historical examples to create a repository of reference material that we can draw on for ethical objects designed for The Long Con.