SALT LAKE CITY — Amid all the new gadgets and high-tech toys, the best gift to give someone this Christmas might just be a heart-felt, smartphone-free conversation.
"What is most important is that families and individuals and businesses carve out sacred spaces; the car, the kitchen, the dining room," Sherry Turkle, a professor of the social studies of science and technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote in an e-mail. "Habits are formed by creating places where we know that we reserve ourselves for conversation."
Healthy conversations begin, says Turkle, by setting aside the smartphone with its unending stream of alerts, notifications, tweets, posts and snapstreaks. Studies have even shown the mere presence of a silent phone nearby can distract us from tasks and conversations at hand.
Turkle, author of "Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age," is one of the leading voices in a growing movement toward more mindful tech use and more real-time, face-to-face conversations.
Movement agitators are also calling on tech companies to redefine success, from the number of hours users spend on their apps to improved individual well-being.
Tristan Harris, formerly a Google design ethicist and now founder of the nonprofit "Time Well Spent," is hopeful that in the future, "we will look back at today as a turning point towards humane design," he writes on his website, "when we moved away from technology that extracts attention and erodes society, towards technology that protects our minds and replenishes society."
For consumers, that doesn't mean Christmas shopping has to be devoid of technology or that smartphones must be abandoned. In fact, a growing number of companies are creating products designed to address these very concerns.
Harris' site lists a handful of platforms and apps that focus on what's "best for people," and he encourages designers to reach out to him with new beneficial products. And Turkle writes in her book that there's nothing wrong with using and improving our technological tools, as long as they don't "get in the way of our looking at each other."
Three years ago, a common response to Joe Hollier and Kaiwei Tang's business model was: "wow, that's the stupidest idea ever."
But today, thanks to the "overwhelmingness of the smartphone," the artist/product designer duo has sold over 10,000 Light phones and has a waiting list for their $150 credit-card-sized device with no screen, no apps, no internet browser and no texting.
In fact, the Light phone is designed to be used as little as possible, says Hollier, who worked inside a Google incubator, but tired of trying to create apps that would solve problems the world didn't know it had.
With Light, a second phone that gets forwarded calls from the user's smartphone, someone can be reachable but not distractable.
Even Hollier found that when he took his smartphone with him on vacation — to listen to music in the car — he ended up checking his e-mail the second his girlfriend went to the bathroom. Not the quality of life he wanted.
A recent Deseret News survey found that among heavy social media users (five to eight hours a day), 43 percent reported experiencing relationship troubles. However, among those who were on phones an hour or less, only 28 percent indicated relationship problems.
This is why Hollier and Tang believe it's time to turn technology back into tools that respect the user — like Hollier's camera, which doesn't call for his attention, but does its job well, then goes back into its case.
"It's "serving me, not enslaving me," he says.
After they launched the Light phone, Hollier said they expected orders from fellow artists and designers who appreciate "undistracted time" to create, but they also struck a nerve with parents, who loved the idea of a distraction-free phone for their kids.
Other customers see the phone as a "badge of competence," Hollier says, like, "I'm on my Light phone tonight — I don't need to check Instagram."
And it's easy to "go light" without having the actual phone, he emphasizes. Hollier recommends installing a stand-alone alarm clock beside the bed, which means no more reading stressful e-mails within the first 30 seconds of waking up — like Hollier used to do when his phone was his alarm.
He has also changed notification settings on his phone to "do not disturb," so he's not responding to every ding and chirp.
"We encourage people to just be conscious," Hollier says. "We don't have to bring our smartphone everywhere."
The power of voice
If Petter Neby had been a writer, he would have written a book. Instead, the Norwegian-born entrepreneur created the company Punkt. (German for point or full stop/period) where each chapter is a new product.
"The overriding idea is taking control of tech," Neby said via Skype. "We want to keep this continuous awareness of what technology does, showing also that there are very good technologies that actually do help us, if we are in control."
The Switzerland-based company offers three main products that help users reclaim control in today's age of "overconnectivity," — a landline phone, an alarm clock and a mobile phone — all sleek in design and clear in purpose, says Neby.
"Something to say? Call," is their website's tag line for the landline phone.
"Tired? Sleep," is the mantra for the alarm clock.
"Distracted? Focus," proclaims the mobile phone website descriptor. At $295, the MP 01 can call and text, nothing else. (Some complaints on Amazon stem from the requirement for a 2G network, which is not available in all countries/areas.)
Thanks to the prestige of their British industrial designer, Jasper Morrison, their first launch of the landline phone resonated well with design lovers, says Neby.
But when their clock and mobile phone came out a few years later, Neby says the company's mission became strikingly clear: to "live better, connect more."
While smartphones and social media offer the allure of constant connection with hundreds of people, researchers have found that our over-interest in them may actually harm our most intimate relationships.
Focusing on a phone rather than the person in front of us is called "phubbing" or phone snubbing, and can lead to weakened relationships, lower self-esteem and feelings of isolation, explains James A. Roberts, a professor of marketing at Baylor University.
"I think people … really are giving a second thought about how they’re using their phones (and how they're) impacting their life," Roberts says. "But them doing something about it is difficult. It's a habit, if not an addiction."
One way to break the habit is to turn the phone back into a single-purpose object, says Neby, a device to help facilitate communication with a specific person, rather than a smartphone, which for Neby represents an "infinite situation."
So, when Neby has a question or wants to talk with someone, he calls, not emails, them. On weekends, Neby's smartphone (which he still uses) stays in his office until Monday morning. If someone really wants to reach him, they can call his Punkt. phone.
"We have forgotten how useful it is to actually pick up the phone," Neby says with a chuckle. Phone calls offer vocal inflection, intonation and other helpful cues that are missing from texts or e-mail.
"Society doesn't really work (through) machines and infrastructure that enable movement," he says. "Society works because we are human beings, we are social creatures and that connection can only be created through real interaction."
Live in the moment
Two years ago, Graham Dugoni was peddling a pouch door-to-door that would turn any venue into a phone-free space.
A bar in Oakland, California, gave his product a try in 2015, and then comedian Dave Chappelle used it for his winter 2015 shows in Chicago and loved it, said Kelly Taylor, marketing director for the San Francisco-based company. Now, every Chappelle show is a phone-free show, thanks to the Yondr pouch.
The locking neoprene pouch is Yondr's way of helping phone users disconnect from their phone and reconnect with the world around them — without actually giving away their phone.
When someone goes to a Chappelle show, certain government buildings, phone-free concerts, rehab centers, corporate retreats or even some weddings, they're presented with a pouch as they enter.
The put their phone inside the pouch, lock it and pop it back into their purse or pocket. Because alerts and calls can still come through, if someone needs to answer, they can walk out of the venue to an unlocking station, usually in a lobby, take care of things and lock the phone back up to enter.
In one upscale New York celebrity wedding where guests were presented with Yondr pouches, the groom told "The Knot," a wedding planning website, it was one of the best decisions they had made. "We lived in the moment," he said. "No one was worried about their phone or posts on social media.”
After the event, pouches are unlocked and dropped into bins as people exit — like 3D glasses after a movie — and they're shipped back to a warehouse in San Jose, California, for cleaning and repairs before being shipped to the next place, says Taylor.
The company has hundreds of thousands of pouches they rent to users across the country — entertainment and education being their top customers, says Taylor. Yondr is working with 500 schools to create entirely phone-free schools.
Such disconnecting is totally possible without a pouch — simply leave the phone at home — but that's difficult for some people whose phones are almost like an extra limb, Taylor says.
In the last year and a half since Taylor has been with Yondr, she's seen the conversation about phone use and connectivity shift dramatically, and people are much more interested in their product and company mission to "be here now."
"People are beginning to feel the unrest and angst that 10 hours a day in front of a screen can do to you," she says with a laugh.
"I feel like Yondr is here to fuel the movement to help people to experience and encounter the world in a open and adventurous way," Taylor said. "It’s about human interaction happening in real space and real time."