Do we need more apps to save us from phones?
I hit on the theme last year in issue 25 when I brought up my least favorite ad campaign ever, at least for a non-lethal good. I had written about the Windows Phone 7 ad campaign that said, “It’s time for a phone to save us from our phones.” It wasn’t that time, and it wasn’t that phone.
In 2019, it’s possible to market a phone as a device with controls baked in so that the default settings minimize its usage. In 2010, however, Microsoft was on a mobile losing streak, and it desperately wanted people to use its devices at least as much as people used iOS or Android handsets. Microsoft brought to mind its old rival Apple, but where Apple intentionally incorporated George Orwell’s writing into one of the great ads of all time, Microsoft’s tagline unintentionally feels like one Orwell would have written in a novel.
If phones won’t save us from phones, will apps save us?
Last week’s column on curing your phone addiction generated far more feedback than usual, which I appreciate. There is a rough correlation between how much time it takes to write a newsletter and how much feedback it generates, and last week’s column was practically a book. Thanks to everyone who made it through to the end and found some inspiration or at least amusement in the tips. Even the most absurd tips were based on the books referenced and some apps I’ve come across that try to address the same issues as those books.
One reader, Bill L., cringed with the examples in tip #3, “Associate checking your phone with something you don’t like.” This is an idea I ripped off from Sparrow, an app which tries to turn something you don’t like (e.g., a tweet by Trump) into something that’s positive for you (e.g., a donation to Moms Demand Action). The app focuses more on having purchases lead to donations, such as shopping at a grocery store and then donating an additional small percentage of the purchase to Feeding America. Adapting Sparrow’s sets of rules to combatting your own ‘bad’ (or at least unwanted) digital habits is a very short step.
An idea I didn’t write about last week was how to fake yourself out. You might have come across noPhone in the past which is a fake phone just to give you the sensation of carrying a handset-like device in your pocket. Consider it a security blanket for grown-ups. Days ago, I then saw Product Hunt feature Detoxify, which creates fake social app icons for your screen so that you can get all the pleasure of tapping a white ghost on a yellow background but none of the… what are people even using Snapchat for anyway? Is the dancing hot dog still a thing?
One service I have spent some time with is Freedom. Say you delete apps like Facebook and Twitter on your phone but then still go to the mobile web versions and scroll away. Sure, I didn’t expect Chrissy Teigen to be that good at Twitter either, but what, you think John Legend married her just for her looks? As I write this, it is killing me not to check what Teigen has tweeted lately. But I won’t because Freedom is on my PC and my phone blocking me from using those sites or apps at certain hours I choose.* Freedom is a paid subscription, but even if you’re making a $15 hourly wage, you can easily get a couple of hours of your life back by installing and running this app, so it can quickly pay for itself many times over. I also added this to my recommendations of 100+ tech tools in the Productivity section.
*This is a partial lie. I turned off the app when I was at CommerceNext last week and forgot to turn it back on.**
**I didn’t forget. I wanted to. Disconnecting is really, really hard. It’s kind of like how I’m a vegetarian, except during meals.
Instead of more tech though, I will end with a story.
My wife and I took our kid to the Mets game for her five-and-a-half-birthday Monday night. (This needs a little bit of explaining. As a kid, I always liked the idea of my half-birthday. When my daughter turned three-and-a-half, I made the mistake of celebrating it with her in some small way. That evolved into a much bigger ordeal including spending half a day baking a four-layer cake from scratch. We can’t invite her friends over though because other parents will kill me if their kids find out about half-birthdays from my kid. For many reasons, do not read this newsletter to young children.)
Anyway, we were at the game, and I received a text from my old boss, someone I had the pleasure of learning from for the better part of a decade. She saw my wife’s Facebook post about going to the game and checked to see where we were sitting. We all wound up meeting and catching up after not having done so in too long, even if we had some email and Facebook exchanges more recently
It was a wonderful surprise, and for both my wife and I, it brought back everything social media is supposed to do well – rekindling connections, getting people together in person, and subverting democracy.
No, I have to stop. There is a lot of good that comes out of Facebook and its peers. While my family was at the Mets game, my parents were meeting up with a relative we discovered through 23andMe – a very different kind of social network, but part the broader genre. Thanks to social media, we might take for granted how often these encounters occur.
Maybe we need to go back to as analog an approach as we can tolerate, and then push that further. Maybe there are degrees of it too, just as some of us can have one drink and be fine for the night while others can have one drink and then trigger the worst symptoms of their addiction. With mobile handsets and social apps, we’re just starting to figure out our limits.
For me, I’ve found that hearing others wrestle with this has made it easier for me to do so. That’s why I’m trying to share as much as I can publicly, including my failures. Is it so wrong to hope that there are apps to save us from our phones? And is it so naive to rediscover the best uses for these digital and mobile and social technologies, even if we try to limit certain harmful effects?
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