The New Wave of Mindlessly Forced Mindfulness

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I was out to dinner with some new friends in the Mission, a San Francisco neighborhood known for it’s hipsters and hoodies. We had all just arrived, and were quietly browsing our menus when the guy to my right slid his cell phone in the middle of the table. It was a strange move, but I assumed he was showing us a picture, or something. I was about inquire when the rest of the table followed suit. Without a word exchanged between the group, there were suddenly seven phones in the middle of our dinner table. In response to my highly confused stare, someone explained to me that it was a game. Everyone put their phone in the middle of the table, and the first person who took theirs out had to buy a round of drinks for everyone.

My confusion did not dissipate. Instead it escalated, and was compounded with pangs of shock and disbelief. The fact that this game was acceptable made my head spin. These people were friends, weren’t they  supposed to want to engage with each other? Was no one else even mildly insulted that the entire group had to publicly incentivise themselves to choose conversation over Facebook? I was all for the commitment to a No Phone Dinner, but remained deeply unsettled by the publicly forced approach. I did not put my phone in.

It’s commonly accepted that we’ve become dangerously addicted to our cell phones. According to Psychology Today, nomophobia – the fear of being without your smartphone – affects 40% of the population. At least 38% of people admit they regularly check their phones during dinner (and that’s only the people who admit it). But as studies continue to uncover the negative effects of a constantly connected world, people are now making a more concerted effort to “disconnect” from their tech-entrenched lifestyle.

Enter a new wave of inventions specifically designed to prevent us from using our cell phones. My recent dining experience was a modest, home-grown approach, but there are many companies focused solely on this issue. A perfect example of the echo chamber behavior that Silicon Valley is known for, many startups are now determined to help the average tech addict cut back. The most common platform for this is the mobile app. Companies like tXtblocker allow you to set time and location restrictions for you phone, while more restrictive options like iZUP, completely disable your phone except to dial 911, or a few other pre-approved numbers.

Other approaches are less discreet. The latest in phone-prevention technology is a device called the Napkin Table, developed by a few industrial design students at Tunghai University in Taiwan. The Napkin Table is essentially an elongated bib, whereby one person wears each side of the device. This “table”, which seats two, is meant to create a more mindful dining experience. By strapping yourself to your dinner companion you are forced to pay attention to one another, and resist the urge to grab your phone, lest your meal plummets to the ground.

Alternatively, if you’re dining with more people, or, say, you don’t want to balance your entire dinner set on a napkin, you could address the issue via wardrobe. A Japanese designer recently launched a full line of clothes that blocks your phone from receiving any signal, again, aiming to create a more mindful social experience. For the small price of looking like a character from The Matrix, you can eliminate the temptation to reach inside your pocket — for there is no need to check if nothing can get through. Unless of course you take your phone out of your pocket, then it’s all fair game. And you’ll still look like Neo.

Mindfulness, a concept rooted in Buddhist meditation, now commonly found in secular practices, is defined as a state of being conscious of the present through moment-to-moment awareness. This heightened awareness is meant to evoke a stronger connection with the self and one’s environment, eventually leading to increased satisfaction. These “mindful” technologies, however, are forcing and artificial end state and desperately missing this point.

We have admirable ambitions to decrease the presence of technology in our lives. However intermittently removing cell phones merely scratches the surface of the problem we’re trying to address. We’ve become reliant not simply on technology, but on the constant stimulus and distraction it provides. These new products may keep phones out of our hands, but they’re certainly not out of our minds, as they lay piled in the middle of the table, or as we attempt to sit comfortably in a getup fit for the Starship Enterprise. We’re escaping our cell-phone distraction by imposing a new kind of distraction, without truly learning to be comfortable on our own.

Recently Louis C.K. famously and brilliantly discussed his dislike for cellphones and the importance of letting yourself feel alone. “You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something,” he explained in an interview with Conan. “That’s what the phones are taking away, is the ability to just sit there. That’s being a person.”

Cell phones are the ultimate enabler to our stimulus addiction. But as we try and remove ourselves from their control we should understand what we’re really trying to achieve. It’s not just about being without a phone for thirty minutes. It’s about learning to be comfortable with your own thoughts, no matter how boring and lonely that might feel, and to appreciate that feeling for the emotion it reveals.

This need for constant distraction is the crux of the problem, and our excessive phone usage, though initially a cause, is now in many ways just a symptom. It’s fantastic that we’re making efforts to acknowledging our addiction, and encouraging mindful interactions. But we should be mindful in our approach as well. These new gadgets may be a Band-Aid for less phone time, but they’re ultimately perpetuating the same problem they’re trying to fix. It’s important to internalize why we want to put our phones down, and consciously chose to step back from technology, without having to mindlessly depend on more technology to do it for us.

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Emily is an international development professional and freelance writer who has worked and consulted with a variety of nonprofits and social enterprises tackling economic, health, and gender related issues. She is a strong believer in the power of using markets to create change. Prior to her work in the social sector, Emily worked for growth-stage technology startups and spent years as a management consultant. She holds a degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Cornell University, and an MBA from the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley.

One comment on “The New Wave of Mindlessly Forced Mindfulness

  1. Wonderful – thank you – and now…I’m going to sit outside…alone.