I recently overheard the following conversation at a bar: a girl asked to use the establishment’s landline because her smartphone had inexplicably stopped working. She picked up the phone, which, despite being new, looked like an ancient and comically large artifact from a distant past. She turned to her friends in amazement and proclaimed, “Wow, I feel like I’m in the 1990s again.”
I include that charming anecdote because it happened during the week I was using the Light Phone, a small, credit card sized phone that can make and receive calls (forwarded from your smartphone) and save a few numbers to favorites—but nothing else. No texting, no internet, email, apps or sophisticated touch screen. The Light Phone has one button that turns it off and on and one port to charge. When it turns on, it glows like a futuristic calculator. It’s a nearly invisible object that, unlike tablet-sized smartphones, slips so easily into your pocket you might forget it’s there. And that’s the point.
I used the Light Phone for a week, and as its makers intended, nearly forgot it was there.
It’s not meant to be a primary phone, but a less chaotic and streamlined extension of your smartphone. That's why, in my opinion, it was so effective at helping me disconnect.
I’ve tried other modes of unplugging, for work and for my own sanity, and I’ve usually found that the allure of my smartphone—even if it’s on airplane mode—undermined my efforts to create space between me and the digital world. It's like looking at a candy bar while trying to finally “eat clean.” It doesn’t work, and if it does, it feels like a struggle and makes you more aware of the very thing you’re trying to forget.
The Light Phone removes the need to sequester your phone in a drawer or turn it face down while you will yourself not to care. It works because it doesn’t operate on the pretense that unplugging in a hyperconnected world is feasible (because for many of us, it’s not). It keeps you connected—just without all the bells and whistles.
I decided to keep my iPhone at the bottom of my bag for the week I used the Light Phone, even though it’s designed to let you stay reachable. It didn’t seem feasible to be without my smartphone entirely while also commuting and going about my normal life.
Using the Light Phone wasn’t glitch-free. Like all new technology, it had bugs. I had a hard time setting it up, and once it got rolling, the sound quality left something to be desired. I found it difficult to use in a city as loud as New York. (One friend I talked to on the phone told me I sounded like I was trapped in a box.)
But with no apps to entertain me and no texts to send, I was left with little but the ability to make actual phone calls. I was reminded of the simple power of hearing someone else’s voice. I normally use my phone throughout the day and make connections, but they’re shallow. A quick Instagram message or Twitter tag makes it feel like I’m in constant contact, but neither party is actually getting much out of the interaction. And even if I open my phone to actually text a friend, I wind up down the rabbit hole of Instagram or Twitter. Often I find myself on apps I don’t remember opening, a feeling akin to walking into a room only to immediately forget why you entered.
With the Light Phone, I felt actually unplugged. It wasn’t a digital detox, just a healthy and reasonable break from the abyss that is the the home screen. I still needed my smartphone—there was no doubt about that. But I used it deliberately and specifically, to connect with a friend who was coming into town and for maps, for example.
The most interesting thing about the experiment was the effect the Light Phone had on people around me—both digitally and in person. For one, telling my friends I was using the phone made them more deliberate about contacting me.
Even telling them felt like a sort of freedom I haven’t experienced in years: feeling like I could still be reached—and setting a precedent for friends that if you wanted to talk to me, you had to call—was something I’m considering doing even now that I’m done trying the phone.
And the Light Phone is a conversation starter. When I pulled out the thin phone at a restaurant, people were fascinated. It’s the first time I can remember ever having technology lead to more conversation, not less.
Ideally, I would take the Light Phone on a camping trip or to a concert, somewhere that I really wanted to be in the moment but still needed to be able to make phone calls in case of an emergency. But even in a city as crowded as New York, it cut out a lot of noise, a lot of digital clutter, and it did so without feeling like I was putting myself through some sort of rigorous obstacle course just to prove I could be screen-free.
Read more about the Light Phone here.