Breaking technology addiction
"We realized that being more connected via technology couldn’t be the thing that makes us happier, so we set off to build a product that could inspire and encourage people to take a break. We think people will be happier living in the present."
Like a fly, drawn to and trapped by the alluring LED screen.
Like a Pavlovian dog, drooling at the chime of the notification bell: in class, in bed at 3 AM, driving, and even when there is no phone in my pocket at all.
Last year, I decided to turn my phone off. And, for 8 months, I lived without a GPS, social media, or any escape from awkward situations; forced to shed my emojis for IRL emotions.
I'm a member of Generation Z, meaning that I practically grew up with a smart phone in my pocket. You could say that I know my way around technology but, in fact, I don't know my way around without it.
Living without a phone was refreshing, but it was difficult to completely say goodbye to technology. I still had to set an alarm to wake up in the morning; I still had to communicate with classmates; I still had to function in a society that's increasingly enabled by technology. I found myself relying on my laptop more often than not.
Undoubtedly, we live in a phygital age, one in which our physical lives are practically inseparable from our digital ones. However, I also realized that there are practical tools our devices provide, and that beyond those tools, phones are not improving our lives—rather, they're demanding our constant time and attention.
Something I wish I'd known about during my no-phone journey: well, that Vitamin Water was offering $100,000 to go phoneless for a year. But also, the Light Phone, made with just the bare essentials: calling, texting, an alarm, music, and a set of downloadable tools like a calculator and calendar.
Now in its second iteration, the Light Phone has successfully raised $3M+ via two crowdfunding campaigns. Supermaker interviewed Co-Founder Kaiwei Tang to learn more about his vision for living light in this age of peak technology.
Where did the idea to start Light come from?
The first catalyst was joining Google’s 30Weeks design incubator. We were seeing people build mobile apps, wearables, and Internet of Things products all claiming to “give you your time and life back” but we just didn’t feel like that was the case. Most of the tech products we were seeing in the incubator were designed to fight for your time and attention.
I feel like our minds are always somewhere else. We are constantly distracted by our technology. But what about the things happening around us? What about the person sitting right next to you?
It’s quite common now, you see people sitting right next to each other in a restaurant and they make no eye contact or conversation because they are on their smartphones. You take your kids to the park and instead of spending quality time with them, you start checking emails on your phone; you go to a concert and instead of enjoying the live performance, you look at it through your phone and take videos so that you can share them on social media.
We realized that being more connected via technology couldn’t be the thing that makes us happier, so we set off to build a product that could inspire and encourage people to take a break. We think people will be happier living in the present. That’s when we started building the Light Phone.
Light Phone respects the user’s time and attention. It is designed as a tool that empowers us, not the other way around.
You call Light Phone a phone for humans, what does this mean? Why is this important today? And, what does Light perhaps signify about the role technology should play in our lives?
When we first started Light, many of the press and media outlets called us the “anti-smartphone.” I always want to clarify that we are not anti-technology or anti-smartphone, we are just trying to be human about how we create technology.
I think technology is really great in so many ways. For example, you can video chat with your family from a thousand miles away, listen to amazing music from every corner of the world, or view photos of space, stars and galaxies, etc. in the palm of your hand. But when we wake up and go to sleep with our smartphone, spend more than 8 hours a day on our screen, or wait for people to share/like/comment on a photo we posted instead of really enjoying that particular moment, it has become an addiction that distracts us from experiencing life.
Why are we bringing our mini-computer wherever we go? What if all you want is to take a walk down the street, watch your kids play in the park or just try to focus and be creative?
Technology should empower, not enslave us. We are human and we are vulnerable. Our technology is using our vulnerability against us. We designed Light Phone so people can have an option. You can choose to leave distraction behind, but keep the essential tools.
In my mind, this is a step forward from “dumbphone” or “smartphone.” It’s similar to how we use a screwdriver, or hammer. We use the tools to get the task done quickly then back to living life. We don’t swipe or stare at our tools for hours.
You're a designer by trade (and your co-founder an artist). I'm curious to ask how you've carried this into Light. How important has design been, and how have you approached it?
Design to me is not a skillset or service. It’s at the core of everything we do. The way we approach problems and empathize with user’s feelings [allows us to] be intentional about every action we take, down to the last details. Everything we do here at Light is related to design, from our product to our website, content, customer service, investor slides, and even our hiring.
I think a global technology movement is happening to really address this problem of smartphone addiction. Our society has suffered so much from smartphones, attention sucking apps, and social media addiction. It is time for us to offer a different option, a different way to design, create and sustain technology products.
Light Phone is a reaction to this trend that technology companies design products to enslave users. We are no longer the customers to technology companies, we are the products. This is a business model that has a significant impact on our wellbeing and we are hoping Light Phone will become an alternative for smartphone or feature-phone users.
What was the design process for creating the Light Phone?
We tested our hypothesis even before we started developing Light Phone: the idea that people would enjoy disconnecting from the internet. We gave users a flip phone and simulated the call forwarding experience with carrier level dialer codes. We began testing what “going light” would feel like.
Everyone described an initial anxiety that was a little bit more intense than we all expected. It felt like you were missing something, touching your pockets anxiously. However uncomfortable that feeling might have been, there was always a point where you forgot to think about what you might be missing out on and you got lost in the present world around you. It is quite special.
We also learned that if you went “light” with friends, that initial anxiety didn’t really happen because you were preoccupied with enjoying the time together. It was only if that friend stood up to go to the bathroom that you might habitually reach for your phone and forget that you had in fact intentionally left it at home.
Multi tasking is addictive and it is exhausting. Our attention spans have been rapidly decreasing over the last few years and are now less than that of a goldfish. This is why a short break from connectedness is able to have such a profound impact on us. In fact, no one really used the phones at all throughout our testing. The value lied in the lack of having a smartphone, the lack of having access to the internet, not in what the phone we were going to make would be capable of doing. The more invisible, the better.
We took these learnings into our design of the Light Phone. For example, in thinking about the form factor we asked, “What is it that everyone has with them all of the time?” A credit card or ID. There will always be a place for these objects and they seemed like the most universally invisible form factor.
We got some credit card shaped plastic blocks cut out to live with the form factor. They were literally white plastic cards that did nothing, and we fell in love with them. It gave us the idea to make the phone look like a blank white card when off, and to try to make the interface light up through the casing.
Conceptually it made sense, too. If this phone is designed to be used as little as possible, then the fact that there is no “screen” and that it is blank most of the time is perfect.
Light Phone 2 still has no feeds, social media, advertisements, news or email, although there are a set of "tools" that users will be able to add and use, which is more than the original Light Phone. How do you intend these tools to be used? Are there any boundaries to what these tools will be and how they can added?
After tens of thousands of Light Phones and years of customer engagement, we’ve learned that a lot of our users really enjoy going light and want to do it more often. The FOMO (fear of missing out) is real but once you get over it, the feeling of being in the moment is really profound. Our users want to use Light Phone as their primary phone but the lack of a few essential tools—for example, texting, ride-sharing, directions, etc—makes the experience less ideal to use it as their only phone.
We designed Light Phone and the tools on it in order to inspire and encourage people to breakaway from the internet and all the noise and distraction. Intentionality of our design is critical to us. The tool has to be utility. No advertisement, no infinite feeds (social media, internet browser), no distraction or noise. Getting a taxi home via a ride-sharing app after a lovely dinner with your partner doesn’t seem like a distraction to us.
The original Light Phone was only intended to be used as a casual ’second phone’ or as a complement to your existing smartphone. Light Phone II, however, is designed with the intention of being a fully functioning phone, whether it’s your ‘only’ phone or ‘second’ phone. It gives you the peace of mind knowing you have the right tools with you, but not all the noise, distraction, and manipulation.
Do you think Light Phone alone will significantly change people’s relationship with technology? How?
We always want to remind everyone that the Light Phone is not some magic solution that will automatically cure you of your vulnerabilities to the smartphone, and that using the Light Phone is not always “easy.” It takes some self-awareness and discipline, and it’s likely a holistic approach for which the Light Phone hopes to inspire.
There is an initial anxiety many users describe when first using the Light Phone. The choice to bring the Light Phone instead of your smartphone, however, can be empowering as you overcome the infinite excuses you might be able to make for why you’d need a smartphone.
Overall, our users describe their light moments as incredibly refreshing. There is an awareness that is gained in taking yourself away from the smartphone. Perhaps you might feel that you were more addicted than you realized, and that even upon returning to the noise of your heavy phone, your perspective and relationship with the device has changed. The Light Phone helps you to appreciate your life, taking you away from the streams of advertising that will try to convince you that you are not enough and need to buy more to feel complete. Users have described the benefits to their productivity. We have a lot of creatives—artists, musicians, writers, photographers—who use the Light Phone as they find inspiration and create new work.
Our research certainly told us that going light is a powerful experience, and if one can find and maintain a more healthy relationship with their smartphone, or the internet at large, there are likely to be many health benefits.
So far, I'd say it seems that you've built more than a product, you've built a movement, with two successfully raised crowdfunding campaigns. Can you talk about your fundraising strategy, why you chose crowdfunding and where you go from here?
We wouldn’t be where we are right now without our backers from our crowdfunding campaigns (Light Phone I on Kickstarter, and II on Indiegogo). Most of them have stayed in this journey with us for many years which is truly amazing.
Going Light or leaving your smartphone behind wasn't a familiar concept to the market at the time. But the success of our campaigns actually gave us