A relatively recent strain of thinking about technology says that are social media and smartphones, more than anything else, are violating any sense of “time well spent.” Tristan Harris, the Google “design ethicist” turned Big Tech critic, is the idea’s most well-known exponent. He believes that the cumulative effect of disinformation, algorithmic curation, intrusive advertising, and all the other ills of the internet amount to a deadly new and serious problem: “human downgrading.”
While I think that particular phrase is unsatisfying and gauche — are human beings of lesser quality now than we were before? — I understand the problem to which it refers. White collar workers and students (who are, mostly, white collar workers to be) stare at computer screens during their professional hours. And during those hours, as well as before and after, we are also glued to our phones. Life can take on the form of a cascade of dumb things I see people do on a YouTube playlist, and dumb things that I see them do on my Twitter feed. TikTok influencers are even now racking up clout by telling their audiences to do things other than spend time on TikTok.
While the particular perils that Harris is warning about are a more recent phenomenon, developing ways to “hack” these systems that compel our attention is an old trick. Years ago, in high school and college, I used a popular computer app called “Self Control” to keep myself from wandering over to Twitter while writing papers. Before laptops, one might have done something as radically focused as going to a library to work.
Justine Haupt, an astronomy engineer in New York, has developed her own, private kind of resistance. A devotee of the flip phone, Haupt built her own mobile rotary phone, explaining in an interview with Wired that she simply likes the aesthetics of rotary dialing (hard agree, it looks tight), dislikes tapping on a touchscreen, and prefers being left alone.
“I just don't like being that connected,” Haupt said. “I don't want to have to respond to people at any point of the day.”
Haupt initially didn't have plans to commercialize her cool design (she posted the full details for how to build a rotary cell phone, free for anyone to use), and it was to her surprise that the schematics and pictures of her project went viral in mid-February; she has since started selling phone-making kits online. I think some headlines about her rotary cell phone shed some light on why. ”A rotary cellphone is what you need to cure your mobile addiction,” reads an Android Police headline. “Someone Built a Distraction-Free Cellphone With a Working Old-School Rotary Dial,” noted Gizmodo. “This retro-looking rotary cellphone is free of modern-day distractions,” said the blog of the DIY tech hardware company Arduino.
A flip phone is usually the cheapest thing at the AT&T or Verizon Wireless store, and using one has become both an effective way to resist the smartphone onslaught and make a statement about how you are resisting it. The resurgence of dumb phones, as evidenced by the mountain of trend pieces about celebrities and plebes alike adopting them, is about more than their utility; there is a reason Motorola has (unsuccessfully attempted to revive the Razr flip phone, albeit with a $1,500 price tag.
I would also say the same of products at the higher-priced end of the spectrum of anti-distraction technology and tools. The Freewrite “typewriter” launched in 2014, for example, and which costs at least $390, is also branded as a “distraction-free writing tool.” Having typed out a few sentences on the device, I can attest to its ease of use: it’s like using an AlphaSmart word processor, and its unfortunately twee writing screen (famous authors and quotes grace the screen when not in use) makes for comfortable writing and reading. Haupt, when asked about what disliked in smartphones, emphasized how she disliked the lack of tactile feedback that such phones provide. In this sense, her rotary phone is to smart phones as the Freewrite is to a MacBook keyboard.
But anti-distraction tools, whether hardware like the Haupt phone and the Freewrite or software like Self Control, remain fundamentally reliant on the context in which they are used; they are no bulwark against free will. A sufficiently motivated person can simply shut down Self-Control, and start visiting forbidden websites. There’s nothing to stop you from checking your cell phone while using a Freewrite, to prevent you from responding to a work colleague who is “just checking in,” or from quickly refreshing your Twitter feed.
The aesthetics of distraction-free hardware, consciously or not, are rooted in nostalgia as much as they are in functionality.
Anti-distraction tools such as these can be effective, in the same way that driving a Ford F-150 pickup truck is an effective way of carrying piles of dirt or whatever people who use pickup trucks carry around in them. But many people do not buy a truck because they use it for such purposes, they buy it because it’s comfortable to drive, and they like how it looks and what it says about them. The aesthetics of distraction-free hardware, consciously or not, are rooted in nostalgia as much as they are in functionality: the rotary phone and the portable “typewriter” have not been in common use for decades, but the virality of Haupt’s phone and the apparent sales success of the Freewrite suggest that people long for an older, less distraction-prone time.
Activists who resist this assault on attention spans, like Tristan Harris or the academic Tim Wu, are part of a loose movement of Silicon Valley insiders turned rebels against the establishment (I interviewed a large group of them for New York Magazine in 2018). While there is wide variance among their individual political prescriptions, the technology critics Moira Weigel and Ben Tarnoff have identified their mission as “a bid to become tech’s loyal opposition,” people fighting from the inside to change Silicon Valley. In many cases, they have a willing audience: tech executives themselves, at companies like Facebook and Google, are now limiting their own children’s screen, fearful of the potential harm that it might do. In January 2018, Mark Zuckerberg announced that a new metric for how Facebook would evaluate engagement would be “time well spent” — the very criterion that Harris himself came up with the year before.
Harris and his cohort at the Center for Humane Technology are not on a buddy-buddy basis with big tech conglomerate leadership, but they ably represent how anxieties about the deleterious impact of technology can be repurposed by tech companies themselves. Justine Haupt’s rotary phone suggests a separate DIY approach, an open-source invitation for others to disconnect. The Freewrite is an easier, more expensive alternative. What they both lack is a sense of the politics of distraction, how the only way to actually end mass distraction is to completely remake the conditions that allow it to flourish in the first place.