• Digital Detangler

The App Buffet


When I was a kid and my grandparents visited for the holidays, inevitably they would take the family out to K&W. If this restaurant does not exist where you live, allow me to paint a picture. It is a school cafeteria for adults. You get a tray as you enter and slowly slide it down a shelf, stopping occasionally to have a hair-netted server slam a scoop of something southern onto your tray. At the end of the line, you pay and find a seat in an area that for no reason at all is carpeted.


Being a kid going through that line was amazing. I could have anything I pointed at for dinner. Well. Almost anything. You see, there was this moment when a kid asks a server for something where the server would cast a glance at the nearest adult asking, should-I-really-give-this-food-scoop-to-your-child? And that tiny moment between the server and my parents or grandparents made a big difference in what I ended up eating. Desserts maxed out at one. Same went for pretty much everything a kid would want. Vegetables were the solitary exception.


I was scrolling through my smartphone recently and had a revelation. There is no glance between the server and my parents allowing or denying my choices. If I make choices that are only good in the short term (another selfie, another political argument, another viewing of friends' pictures) at the expense of my more virtuous self, I end up feeling terrible later. No one is going to stop me.


Why does this happen? There is a mismatch between the way we think when we install apps versus the way we use apps. When we install an app, we are trying to get some benefit out of it. Even if it isn't super healthy - say an app that notifies you when a celebrity is nearby - so be it. After all, who knows how often I'm just missing a Jake Gyllenhaal sighting. Then later when you want to send a text to a friend, you see that icon sitting there beckoning you, getting just as much real estate in your app buffet as all the other apps, including the one you originally intended to use.


In this sense, the way our smartphones are set up right now is relying on a long-undermined, hyper-rational view of how humans make choices. The idea being: you'll use what you intend to use, and if you get distracted then maybe you didn't really want to send the text in the first place. We need a way to redesign the app buffet before we get to our phones hungry for distraction. The good news is that this already exists.


  1. Cold Turkey - this app, also available on desktop, strictly enforces rules you set for yourself. Lately I've been shutting down my internet access before noon (you can blacklist(free)/whitelist(paid) a handful of sites to take the edge off, if totally disconnecting is too hardcore). I got this idea from Jack Reeves of Homescreen Zero and it has made me so much more productive.

  2. Siempo - this app, currently in beta for Android, rebuilds the user interface to prevent distractions and encourage you to use your phone mindfully.

These apps aren't for people who kind of care. They are for people who recognize they've been eating three dessert meals at K&W for years and want to find a better balance. This is never simple, for good reason: the world is not simple. But these two tools are part of the solution, a solution I'm excited to be a part of.


Upcoming talks:

Nashville - January 29, 2018 - University School of Nashville - Register here Digital Wellness: Reclaim the Carefree Life your Smartphone Stole from You

© 2019 by Digital Detangler.

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