Raise your hand if you’ve ever tried to talk to someone over dinner but ended up delivering more of a monologue because your companion was face-to-phone the whole time. Smartphones have made connecting over food a thing of the past, with meals today going more like this: scroll—then photograph said meal—then scroll some more, with a side of conversation. But a gadget called Socialight wants to help by forcing you and your meal mates to make a choice: either resist using your phone or sit in darkness, according to a recent piece about the product on Fast Co Design.
Socialight is a “phone activated table lamp,” creator Kevin Cook, a Products of Design student at School of Visual Arts in New York, told me over email. When you put a phone on the flat base of the lamp, “a magnetometer detects the device’s electromagnetic field and turns on the light,” Cook wrote. If you take your phone off the platform, the bowl-shaped light turns off.
The wittily-named gadget was inspired by the “phone stacking game” that was trending a few years ago, according to a blog post Cook wrote about the product. (If you aren’t familiar with the game, you and your friends go out to dinner and stack your phones on the table. If someone can’t resist the siren call of their smartphone and removes it from the stack, they’ll have to foot the bill.) Socialight works in a similar way—the incentive in this game being avoiding sitting in darkness.
While Socialight is a fun way to reconnect over meals, the fact that we need it is rather bleak. Cook is a User Experience designer—meaning he designs products based around the needs and desires of the people who will end up using them—and he told me about the challenges of designing in a world filled with persuasive technology, where ubiquitous things like smartphones are designed to be addictive. We have addicting tech, but the technology to help us break that dependency is still in its infancy.
“I think there’s stark hypocrisy in the type of work I do as a designer that needs to be addressed,” Cook wrote. “As User Experience designers, we claim to be human-centered, but it seems nowadays, the digital products we create and use are anything but.” (Cook pointed to similar opinions on this topic by people like Sherry Turkle, an author and academic who notably directs the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Initiative on Technology and Self and Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist who partnered with Thrive Global him on a special section called Time Well Spent.)
Cook wrote that if designers like him “claim to be the ‘voice of the users,’ we’d better be thinking about if the products we create are actually making their lives better.” Part of that involves designing solutions that don't shame people for their existing use of technology. Cook wrote in his blog post that “the objective is to create distraction free spaces for deep connection that elicit joy, not restriction.”
Cook also told me that he could see Socialight working in restaurants and in homes to help the whole family set tech boundaries. (It’s not currently available for purchase, but Cook sees a future where the product is used by the average person.)
While of all of these uses seem viable, I was struck by a more practical thought: Socialight could help me get my friends to stop using their phones at dinner without nagging them about it.
I admit that I'm on my phone a lot, as are my friends and family. But I make an effort to be phone-free at meals, which is hard to do when someone you're with pulls out their phone and scrolls through Instagram or Twitter before your food arrives. Your options in this situation are limited: you can resist and go defiantly non-digital, twiddling your thumbs and exchanging knowing glances with fellow patrons whose friends are also on their phones. You could call someone out by asking them to put their phone away, or my personal favorite, send them a picture of them looking at their phone to show how rude it is. But it can be awkward to ask friends to unplug. Plus, I’ve found that people often get defensive and feel the need to explain away their scrolling as work-related. (Which by the way, isn’t a good excuse. Stop answering work emails at dinner.)
The phenomenon of snubbing whoever you’re with in favor of your smartphone has a name: “phubbing.” Not only is phubbing rude, but it’s affecting our relationships. This Business Insider piece points to research from Baylor University that found “46 percent of people in romantic relationships have been ‘phubbed.” The researchers found that checking your phone in front of someone signals that you’ve “checked out of the conversation and that you aren’t fully invested in what they have to say,” Kristin Salaky writes for Business Insider.
But if there’s a gadget, a non-human intervention, to help us get back to the people in front of us, it could help alleviate some of the anxiety that comes with asking people to disconnect. It incentivizes you to not be that person who plunges you and your dinner companions into darkness, leaving you ironically lit only by the eerie, bluish glow of a smartphone.
Plus, what Socialight is offering, in a sense, is nostalgia. It’s helping illuminate your meal by removing what is arguably the most recognizable modern form of artificial light: that of our screens. But that symbolism is what makes Socialight sort of beautiful. It’s offering us a way back to a better, more connected past.
Read more about it on Fast Co.