The Slow Phone Revolution
Soon after Apple's introduction of the first iPhone just over 12 years ago, "smartphone" quickly became a household term. These smartphones improve people's quality of life: they are useful for travelling, they allow us to get work done on the road, and they keep us connected. However, 12 years later, it's hard to find a single person who doesn't have one of these devices in their hand half of their day. Smartphones have become addictions. Many people can't hold a conversation without glancing down at their phone. Kids with smartphones no longer know what it's like to be bored – letting their mind roam and strengthening their creativity.
Smartphones are undeniably valuable. When travelling to a new place, you can open your phone and instantly see a high-fidelity map of your surroundings including your current location and nearby points of interest. A phone keeps you connected with your family no matter where you are in the world. A taxi is just a tap away to take you wherever you need. In fact, these phones are so useful that it is now difficult to imagine living life without this constant connection to the digital world. These benefits are truly life-changing but there are also downsides. Advertising companies are working hard to capture your attention at every moment, we are bombarded with negative news stories constantly, and we are conditioned to seek external validation from networks like Twitter and Facebook.
Our phones do so many things, but do we really need all of these features? At what point are we no longer using tools with intention but instead habitually checking services that don't need to be checked?
If I were to take a fresh perspective on what a smartphone needs to be an list the must-have benefits, it would look something like this:
- GPS and map software
- Instant messaging and/or SMS
- Voice calling
- Contact list
I think the following features are not necessary:
- Web browser
- Infinite scrolling anything
If you really need reply to an email immediately isn't it reasonable to pop open your laptop to reply? Or can the email just wait until the next time you're using your computer?
I love a good video game but, generally, the quality of games on smartphones are quite bad. The games are mostly glorified slot machines for kids. Apple, for instance, is trying to combat this trend with Apple Arcade but the monthly fee model does not appeal to me.
Luckily, there is actually a new trend of smartphones being created which offer the bare minimum functionality and nothing more. Mudita, for example, is building a phone with the following qualities:
- E-Ink display
- 1-2 week battery life
- Meditation timer
- No email
- No camera
- No web browser
- Internet tethering
- GPS and maps (eventually)
I would describe this phone as exactly what I need. The E-Ink display would reduce the amount of blue-light I stare at on a daily basis and the lack of scroll and attention-grabbing apps would help me live in the present.
The Light Phone is another example of a simple "smartphone" which does just what you need but nothing more. The Light Phone team uses the following phrase to describe their product:
A phone is a tool, and it should serve you as the user, not the other way around. The Light Phone II is a phone that actually respects you.
And they're right. When I count the number of apps on my phone that are actually useful to me beyond turning my brain off after a long day, the number is surprisingly small.
And finally, if you need a tablet, but want the focused experience of reading or writing, there is the reMarkable tablet. Yet another E-Ink screen for reading and writing. In particular, this tablet's pitch is that the writing experience feels just real paper and that there are no distractions.
I'm a big fan of this trend in devices and I hope they become more popular. While I think we've all benefited as a society from the advent of smartphones any pocket computers, I feel we can draw the line between intentional tools and feeds that capture and sell our attention.
I think about the speed at which our world transformed with the invention of the smartphone, and I imagine a world where something like augmented reality or a brain-computer interface becomes commonplace. We need to be intentional that we are building tools to augment the human experience and not empowering corporations to sell us things are sway our opinions.