Performatively aspiring towards arbitrary benchmarks of self-improvement is a way of life that unites us all. “I really want to get back into fiction,” a friend of yours might muse, even though they’ve spent the past four months ignoring the several unopened novels that sit on their bedside table. “I’ve been thinking about going vegan,” a coworker might abruptly inform you, even though, by “thinking,” they mean “actively trying to bury the twinge of guilt they’ve felt since watching a series of harrowing documentaries two years ago.”
Whether a given person has any desire to realize these stated ambitions is incidental. Rather, the point is simply to tell people about these goals in order to reap a fraction of the social rewards self-improvement commands, without having to do any of the actual work of self-improvement. We all participate in this behavior, too: to present as more conscious than we really are, to bridge gaps in conversation, to will this vision-board version of ourselves into existence. In reserving the right to do so, we collectively enter into an unspoken agreement not to hold one another accountable to specifics. It’s a perfect system.
I myself am guilty of indulging in this social loophole, but of all the unfulfilled promises I’ve made to do things like regulate my sleep schedule or start meditating, the ones that stick in my mind the most all have to do with the Sisyphean task of cutting down on my smartphone usage. “I just feel like my phone is so bad for me,” I’d say to my friends, before going home and spending the next six hours refreshing Twitter like it was the solution to the planet’s resource crisis. But unlike my other toothless plans for self-improvement, I actually ended up following through on it. Following an incident last Diwali where I was called out by an uncle for checking my email in one hand while passively waving a lit sparkler in the other, I decided my smartphone habits had grown untenable. Driven by this embarrassment, I eventually located the “accessibility options” in my phone’s settings menu and changed its color scheme to grayscale, in the hopes that this would help me stem my subconscious addiction.
It’s worth noting that I took this recent step in concert with a broader societal pushback against smartphones. A few years ago, I started noticing an uptick of texts from friends that began with the line “sorry for the late reply,” before jumping into some technique they’d been experimenting with to limit their screen-time. People at parties started expressing reservations about mobile “gamification,” as if this wasn’t a word they’d heard for the first time two weeks earlier on a podcast.
An entire genre of article began gaining popularity, rising up from content farms before spreading to more and more reputable publications, in which writers would attempt to help readers to cut down on their phone time through “hacks,” recommending various products and apps, and offering lifestyle tips centered around things like mindfulness and presence. Editors commissioned personal essay after personal essay about one person or another’s quest to unplug, the most infamous example of which was written by Farhad Marjoo of The New York Times, whose righteous conclusions about the value of disconnecting were all undermined by the fact that he spent almost the entirety of his digital sabbatical posting on Twitter. I read lots of these articles, most frequently on my phone, and I suspect that others did the same. It was all very tedious.
Devoid of color, my phone is no less functional, but it’s now drab and joyless enough to inspire a second layer of thought every time I mindlessly pick it up and start scrolling through YouTube or Twitter.
It was through consuming this content, though, that I first learned about the benefits of switching your phone to grayscale and decided to give it a shot. Upon switching over, I felt the effects of this transformation immediately. This wasn’t like the time I deleted the Twitter app in a desperate bid to stop checking it, which merely resulted in me checking Twitter using my phone’s browser. This felt more substantive.
A few months down the line, I can confidently say that my initial assumptions about this filter were deeply flawed. To the extent that it’s helped me at all, it’s mostly done so in superficial ways that haven’t quite precipitated the sustainable lifestyle changes I’d been hoping for. Devoid of color, my phone is no less functional, but it’s now drab and joyless enough to inspire a second layer of thought every time I mindlessly pick it up and start scrolling through YouTube or Twitter. Occasionally, this flimsy firewall is obtrusive enough to break me out of my conditioned patterns of behavior, but just barely. Overwhelmingly, I still feel like the dog in Pavlov’s experiment, except there’s now an intermediary step between the ringing of the bell that once made me salivate and the arrival of my meal: the sound of fireworks (or, for the purposes of this metaphor, some other stimulus that dogs hate).
On that last point, I should note: although I’ve ultimately decided the trade-off is worth it for the marginal gains in productivity it’s resulted in, I absolutely hate the feeling of using my phone in grayscale. Every time I unlock it to Google a reference or put an item on my calendar, it feels like I’m using my phone in the sunken place from Get Out. For as effectively as it’s highlighted the staggering amount of time I once wasted consuming an endless stream of mind-numbing garbage, it has also accomplished the opposite, highlighting how intractable my phone is from the more productive realms of my life, too.
At some point or another, my phone became the primary device I use to consume information, and, eyesore or otherwise, I rely on it to search out things to read and potentially write about, to keep up with friends, to stay entertained, and to do most everything in between. Conceivably, this would be much less of a hindrance if my phone’s color display was a strictly decorative feature, but quite obviously, it’s used for practical purposes, too. Each day, I’m reminded in new and increasingly irritating ways how much routine smartphone functionality is predicated on a user’s ability to distinguish blue — or, for that matter, any color — from gray. Online shopping is categorically out of the question, and using Google Maps to look at actual maps becomes convoluted. But the more I get used to seeing colorless videos on WhatsApp and Youtube, the less jarring it all feels. Inevitably, there will come a point in the not-too-distant future where I’ll grow so desensitized to the grayscale filter that I’ll no longer consciously recognize its presence at all, and my phone usage will grow rabid again.
If our phones were so physically hot that they painfully burned the flesh off our hands every time we used them, I’m certain we’d all own a pair of protective, phone-handling gloves.
That I’m so close to reaching this point already makes me wonder if, collectively, we might be asking the wrong questions about what makes our phones such pernicious time-sucks. When you zoom out and remember that these devices are miniature computers, perpetually linked to our identities, livelihoods, and communities, and that we keep them in our pockets, it’s hard to imagine any cosmetic hurdle we wouldn’t jump through to get our fix. Theoretically speaking, if our phones were so physically hot that they painfully burned the flesh off our hands every time we used them, I’m certain we’d all own a pair of protective, phone-handling gloves.
The tools we use to consume content affect us in ways far too profound and subconscious to be disrupted by anything as trivial as an aesthetic overhaul. Writing about television in his 1964 book, Understanding Media, the media theorist Marshall McLuhan lamented, “The new media and technologies by which we amplify and extend ourselves constitute huge collective surgery carried out on the social body with complete disregard for antiseptics.” Consider that television didn’t suddenly grow more intoxicating in 1965, the year prime time TV made the leap from black and white to color. It already was, as McLuhan wrote a full year earlier, a medium that “ressures [us] towards the need for total human interdependence.” The big leap was being able to bring moving, talking pictures into your home. Having them in full color was just the icing on the cake.
Put simply, it’s absurd to put the onus on us, the individual consumers, to control our compulsive smartphone habits. Whereas McLuhan wrote that media becomes intractable in society “with disregard for antiseptics,” tech companies have gone one step further and entrenched the smartphone into our lives through the deliberate introduction of toxins, both metaphorical and, sadly literal. The questionable lengths companies like Facebook and Google will go through to optimize their interfaces around parameters of user retention and user engagement have been well-documented. Every one of their seemingly trivial design choices, colors included, is data-driven and user-tested for the purposes of lowering resistance to adoption. There’s even credible research to suggest that these devices are designed methodically so that their functionality is intuitive for babies!
If any of this sounds exceedingly fatalistic, it occurs to me that I might be getting a little ahead of myself. For the moment, the application of grayscale still seems to be helping me straddle the razor-thin middle ground between being debilitatingly addicted to my phone in all its vibrant glory and being helplessly dependent on this soulless iteration of it. For how much longer this continues to feel like a meaningful distinction, of course, remains to be seen.
As recently as a month ago, I decided to put this to the test. I restored the colors to my phone, just for a moment, to see if my monochromatic training wheels were still having a discernible effect. I’m only exaggerating slightly when I say that it felt like I’d emerged from an extended stay in a sensory deprivation tank. I was so overwhelmed by the beauty of the colors that simply looking at my phone’s screen directly felt too indulgent. My fingers filled with warmth as they glided across a keypad that had felt cold and sterile for so long. Within seconds, I was over-stimulated, and I remembered why I’d cut myself off to begin with.