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Will Mindful Technology Save Us From Our Phones—and Ourselves?

At what point does the cycle of new products and upgrades reach the point of diminishing returns?  A minimalist tech movement is gaining steam, but not without a cost.

Ringer illustration

In September, Apple announced the iPhone XS, XS Max, and XR, which boast upgraded cameras, faster processors, and bigger screens. Earlier this month, Google showed off the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL phones, both equipped with its AI-powered Assistant technology and augmented reality stickers for photos. Per usual, the latest and greatest phones are more advanced (and more expensive).

But there is a phone announcement you may have missed: Last week, a San Francisco startup introduced a new smartphone called Palm. The $350 Android phone can run apps, but has a decidedly last-generation (or last-last-generation) camera. It has only one button, to access the home screen. Most notably, the Palm is tiny—about half the size of the iPhone X—and literally fits in your palm. (The name “Palm” was acquired from TCL Corporation, which owned the naming rights from the personal digital assistants of yore.)

The Palm is the latest entry into a new genre of hardware, one that attempts to limit the barrage of digital add-ons that consumers increasingly expect to find in their devices. The Palm is a relatively gentle step in this direction: The phone is available only as an additional device to your primary Verizon smartphone. The idea is that a user can leave their notification-overloading real phone at home during times they want to be more present IRL. For the smartphone owner, it’s the equivalent of having a cabin for weekend escapes.

The Light Phone 2

Those seeking even more tranquility can try one of Palm’s feature-free competitors, the Light Phone. About the size of a credit card, the Light Phone makes and receives calls, but does little else. Cocreator Joe Hollier says the first-generation version, like the Palm, was intended to be a second phone that users would turn to when they wanted to “go light.” Unlike the Palm phone, though, there is nothing “smart” about it. “It was designed to be used as little as possible,” says Hollier, who compares it to a pet rock. While some users initially experienced smartphone withdrawal—what if they needed their GPS or had to Venmo a friend?—Hollier says that they eventually found it empowering to navigate life without relying on their device and its constant interruptions. Light Phone 2 is currently available for preorder on IndieGoGo for $300, and while it can be used as a second phone, it can also be the only phone for people who want to ditch smartphones entirely.

Smartphone sales are dropping. Earlier this year, tech analysis firm Canalys pegged smartphone shipments down 6.3 percent year over year in the first quarter of 2018 in Europe. The companies that took the biggest hit were Samsung and Apple. “We are moving from a growth era to a cyclical era,” Canalys analyst Ben Stanton said in a news release. “This presents a brand-new challenge to the incumbents, and we expect several smaller brands to leave the market in the coming years.” Last year, Apple sales dipped during the holiday season for the first time ever. In February, global research firm Gartner announced a 5.6 percent decline in global smartphone sales in the fourth quarter of 2017 from the fourth quarter of 2016—the first year-on-year decline since Gartner started tracking the global smartphone market in 2004.

We might just be in the midst of smartphone fatigue. “After years of success, the smartphone sales growth formula has hit something of a stumbling block: new features like facial recognition haven’t energized demand to the degree they have in the past,” a Goldman Sachs analyst wrote in July. Increasingly, customers seem to be complaining that smartphones are innovating for the sake of innovation, making their devices harder to use (and more costly) in the process. While the Goldman Sachs report was bullish on its prediction that advancing technology will eventually refuel consumer interest, it also notes that people are now more driven by what they’re able to make or accomplish with their devices, rather than automatically accepting every new cycle as an “upgrade.” It’s a significant ideological switch for consumers, one that should worry device makers.

There have been warnings about technology overload for years. In 2006, a Harvard Business Review article addressed a phenomenon called feature fatigue. “Consumers can now purchase a single product that functions as a cell phone, game console, calculator, text messaging device, wireless Internet connection, PDA, digital camera, MP3 player, and GPS,” the paper’s authors wrote. “The BMW 745’s dashboard alone has more than 700 features. Appliance maker LG Electronics sells a refrigerator with a TV in the door. (The ad copy on one retailer’s website sums up the value proposition: ‘Why integrate a TV into an LG refrigerator? Why not?’) It’s a kind of arms race to escalate the functionality of formerly single-minded devices.”

The article, written only a year after the original iPhone launch, feels almost nostalgic now; it’s quaint to think of a time when it was revolutionary that one device could text, make calls, take pictures, and navigate. But the authors’ advice still seems relevant today: “The first step for many companies may simply be to take stock of the complexity they have built into their products and the toll it is taking on their customers.” A 2005 Marketing Science Institute report on feature fatigue suggested “that firms should consider the development of a larger set of highly segmented products with a limited number of features rather than loading all possible features into one product,”

Amber Case, a cyborg anthropologist and the author of Calm Technology: Principles and Patterns for Non-Intrusive Design, has been talking about calm tech—the kind that helps people focus on what’s important and does not panic them—for years. She was ahead of the curve—so ahead of the curve that when she gave her original talk about calm technology four years ago, it wasn’t all that well-received. “In 2014, this was not a highly rated talk,” she says. “‘Wow, you’re talking about alerts, who cares?’” Suddenly, it seems people—and brands—care. (Her latest talk found a more open audience; she now travels the world speaking about the topic.) Case says she figured she was about three years early to the intersection of mindfulness and tech, but now it’s clear that the broader conversation is here to stay. “In a couple years, on a daily basis we will be expected to process as much information as a World War II military general—and that’s supposed to be the norm,” Case says. “And that’s not OK. Things like binge-watching, which are unhealthy behaviors, becoming normal is not good for us.” (Don’t tell that to Binge Mode fans.)

Chip makers are one culprit for overloaded tech products. “They said, ‘Oh my gosh, look at how many chips we sold’ when they started to put everything into mobile phones,” Case says. “‘Let’s do another order of that, because we’re required to by the stock market and our investors to increase the amount of chips we’ve sold.’” That cycle created the “put a chip in everything” culture, also known as the Internet of Things, a once-promising and then often-mocked market. You may appreciate the do-everything capability of your smartphone, but “everything does not need a chip in it,” says Case. She isn’t suggesting that technology is bad, but that it’s reached a tipping point when the upgrading process is no longer aiding human life, but in fact competing with it. Eventually, she says, diminishing natural resources will create a shortage of chips, which will necessitate a reconsideration of the hardware upgrade cycle. “Products should evolve over time, they should get better over time,” she says. And they should fail gracefully—they need to work even when the internet does not, because the world isn’t going to be gifted more bandwidth. It’s finally time to start working within some constraints, and in the process rethink the human experience.

As can be expected, there’s an entire cottage industry capitalizing on the technology mindfulness trend. There’s “wellness wear” (examples include a $65 sweatshirt that declares “Airplane Mode,” and a T-shirt that reads “Look at Me, Not Your Phone”) and $34 “digital detox” bath salts you can buy at Anthropologie. (From what I can tell, they are just regular bath salts.) And that’s just on the accessory side. There is also the growing market for unplugged retreats, where participants give up their smartphones and Wi-Fi for a few hours to a few weeks in order to rewire their brains. A Wired article from May took a look at a digital-well-being session called “Sustenance Sunday.” The host, consulting agency Mindful Technology, posits on its website, “What would you do differently if your client was the human race?” In the same day as participants were asked to put their phones in a box and engage in meaningful eye contact during conversation, Mindful Technology founder Liza Kindred mentioned that her business’s carefully curated (and grid-abiding) Instagram account (full of platitudes like “love thy neighbor as thy cell phone”) was “blowing up.”

Using technology to try to free people from it doesn’t mean Mindful Technology and companies like it are necessarily being hypocritical, but it does speak to the trickiness of the disconnecting movement and the market orbiting it. Brands have to use and engage with the current state of technology to sell what’s hopefully a more mindful future.

Clearly, the biggest names in technology are paying attention. At its yearly developer conference in June, Apple introduced a new feature called Screen Time. The tool was launched in response to increasing criticism of smartphone design that seems to be more addicting than useful. Both Instagram and Facebook recently introduced features to alert users when they’re all caught up on content. And Google announced its own digital well-being efforts at I/O in May.

Light Phone cocreator Hollier says that all of these initiatives are in part a response to consumers. When he launched the original Light Phone four years ago, he also had to educate people about the effects smartphones have on us. “Now, that’s just a given,” he says. “A ton of mainstream awareness happened over the last four years.” And the frustrations with smartphones are only multiplying. “There’s something for everyone to be mad at, whether it’s privacy and security, the environmental impact, what social media is doing to empathy in children, or productivity,” says Hollier. Brands may be beginning to address these issues, but Hollier notes that it’s also just savvy PR to try to distance themselves from the problem. He points to the new Palm phone—which, to be fair, is one of his competitors—and how it uses famous faces like Steph Curry and the hashtags #LifeMode and #LiveInTheMoment to promote its device, all while requiring consumers to use the Verizon messaging app, which is terrible for privacy. “But,” he adds, “It’s still good. That’s how change happens. More alternatives is what we always wanted. Why can’t someone just make a beautiful phone that respects you? I felt like there weren’t enough choices, so at the end of the day this is a good step in the right direction.”

Substitute Phone
Klemens Schillinger

As the mindful tech movement builds steam, it’s also worth considering who it’s available to and who it leaves behind. The option to be disconnected implies choice, and it’s not one that everybody can afford. “I do think being able to be disconnected in that way is a luxury,” says Hollier. He notes that he knows of some celebrities who use the Light Phone as their only phone, but only because they have personal assistants who act as human smartphones for them: running their overly active Twitter accounts, taking photos of them, and fielding constant emails. Hollier says his company is working on a service plan for Light Phone that would make the phone and data more affordable for users. So for “something like $30 a month,” someone could own a beautiful, nonintrusive device — if, that is, they’re willing to go totally smartphone-free. While the price is right, the choice to go so off the grid isn’t available to all. These issues of class echo (or even intersect with) those of the minimalist lifestyle movement: The popularity of the KonMari method inspired a generation to declutter everything from their closets to their camera galleries. On the surface, it’s about living a simple life, but examine it a bit closer and it’s about living the perfectly presented lifeand it isn’t cheap.

But Hollier hopes that technology minimalism at least will start to yield more affordable—and beautiful—options. Seeing that direction through to its necessary end is another alternative product: the Substitute Phone. It is little more than a totem, a physical object that does nothing more than replace the feel of having a smartphone. The only “feature” of the Substitute phone are five round balls that line the bottom. “The stone beads which are incorporated in the body let you scroll, zoom, and swipe,” the product description reads. “There are no digital functions. Thee [sic] object, which some of us describe as a prosthesis, is reduced to nothing but the motions. This calming limitation offers help for smartphone addicts to cope with withdrawal symptoms.” It costs €195, or $222.89.

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