As mobile eats the world, our connectedness to our devices continues to rise at dramatic rates. Stand on any street corner in a big city and more than half the people who pass you are glued to their phones. As effective as technology is at enhancing communication and productivity, our addiction to it brings collateral implications, not all positive. Yet, it’s a trend that shows no signs of slowing down. According to Zogby Analytics, 86% of millennials say their phones never leave their sight, day or night, and 80% say it’s the first thing they do when they wake up. Recent data I’ve read suggests daily smartphone usage ranges from 90 mins to 3 hours per day. Yesterday, according to the Moment app, I spent 3 hours 57 minutes on my iPhone. Ugh.
According to Pew Research, the vast majority of this time is spent "staying connected" via messaging and social media. While the general population feels that their phones are more “connecting” than “distracting", younger adults seem to feel the distracting effect more acutely. Among 18-29 year olds, 37% described phones as more “distracting" than “connecting" versus 28% of the broader population. This is telling. As younger people become more connected with their devices, they often become less connected with their surroundings, which studies suggest is correlated with being more easily distracted and experiencing greater difficulty with tasks that require focus and concentration. Apart from the cultural implications, there are physical dangers posed, like texting while driving, which is already suspected as the cause in numerous automobile deaths.
Among app developers, the bulk of innovation has been aimed at harnessing this trend by offering new ways for people to connect and access products or services on demand, driving deeper and deeper engagement between users and their devices. At the same time though, there’s a contrarian theme emerging that uses technology to reduce our connectedness, and, in some cases, take us back to the analogue world of an earlier era which valued the uniqueness of the physical touch. In some cases, these products aim to explicitly regulate our smartphone usage in favor of better physical/virtual balance. A few years ago, some friends involved with a group called Reboot introduced the concept of “Sabbath Manifesto” which coincided with the first National Day of Unplugging that captured a part of this spirit.
More recently, a number of mobile apps have emerged riding this contrarian wave. Below are a few of the products and services that have caught my eye which aim to either take us from the virtual back to the physical or transport us to the simplicity of an earlier era before technology competed so voraciously for our attention:
Gracious Eloise combines the efficiency of word processing with the personalization of hand-written notes, offering tools and APIs to turn any computer-generated text into natural-looking handwriting. Given the number of communication mediums at our disposal these days, popularity of hand-written notes has waned, but Gracious Eloise brings back this uniquely personal touch.
Pager and Heal use a mobile app to deliver on-demand doctor house calls. House calls are a relic of the past, but arguably the best experience for consumers and these apps are bringing them back using mobile dispatch technology that makes it more workable for doctors.
Meditation and Mindfulness apps like Buddhify, Calm and Stop, Breathe and Think are behavioral tools that help users practice mindfulness and take regular time-outs from their hyper-connected life. I am testing two of these apps now with positive results.
Moment and Berlin-based Offtime form part of a category of apps that help users measure, regulate and restrict usage of their smartphones - the very devices by which these products touch their customers. The irony runs thick, but there’s something eye-opening about better understanding usage patterns and volume of attention we pay these devices.
As smartphone usage continues to grow reaching ever-new levels, I expect we'll continue to see some reversion in the opposite direction and personally, I welcome it. By directing some of the innovation into contrarian pursuits like restoring the humanity of the old-fashioned house call or regulating time spent on our devices, this new direction represents an exciting and culturally positive opportunity.