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Google’s big plan to fight tech addiction: A piece of paper

Paper Phone is not a joke—it’s part of the company’s “digital well-being experiments.” Digital detox experts aren’t having it.
November 1, 2019
google special projects experiments digital wellbeing two people a man and a woman in white shirts with paper phone on table
google special projects experiments digital wellbeing two people a man and a woman in white shirts with paper phone on tableSpecial Projects and Experiments with Google via YouTube

Google’s big plan to combat tech addiction involves some basic origami.

Announced this week, the company’s new “device” involves printing out information that would normally be accessed through a phone—directions, phone numbers, games, and more—on a single piece of paper that’s then folded into eighths. Et voilà, the Paper Phone.

Paper Phone is not a joke. It is real.

“It hopes to give people an alternative solution to carrying a phone all day by offering information on a printed piece of paper,” says Emma Turpin, team lead at Google Creative Lab. “We think it might be a useful experiment for people to try.”

The road to the Paper Phone started with the team “interested in the idea of a digital detox,” according to Adrian Westaway, director of “technology and magic” at a design studio called Special Projects in London, which teamed up with Google on the initiative “Many of the people we spoke to about this were terrified at the idea of leaving their phone behind,” he says.

So the team created Paper Phone as a way to, as Westaway puts it, “[be] without your mobile phone for a short period of time in a gentle, empathic way.”

Paper Phone is the latest in Google’s attempt to address criticism that it is contributing to a tech addiction epidemic. (Other projects include Unlock Clock, to see how often you unlock your phone, and WeFlip, where all members of a group turn their phones off together.) The company—along with other Silicon Valley giants—has come under attack for creating products that encourage mindless tapping, scrolling, and constant phone checking over human connection.

But there’s a difference between feeling an anxious need to refresh your Instagram feed and using your phone for an activity that arguably makes your life easier: ordering groceries to cook a healthy meal, splitting payments with your roommate, or even doing that one thing phones were originally designed to do—call someone.

Westaway says the team was aware of the risk of losing out on a phone’s valuable traits and tried to address them—they included  a cut-out space to fit a contactless card after Westaway lost his credit card while using a prototype and had to reorder it.

Digital detox experts feel Google is reinventing a paper product that’s been around since long before the smartphone: the day planner. Tiffany Shlain, author of 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week, was confused as to why a person would opt for Paper Phone over a small, portable book full of essential information. “It’s pretty great,” she says of the old-fashioned device.

Westaway readily admits that Paper Phone was “heavily inspired by personal diaries and agendas” and includes blank areas for jotting down ideas. “The challenge for us was to find a balance between pure practicality with a small element of delight,” he says.

But Julie Albright, whose book Left to Their Own Devices: How Digital Natives Are Reshaping the American Dream tackles the complicated dynamics between young people and technology, says Google is confusing digital well-being with ditching your phone. Albright says a phone and digital well-being can coexist.

“Digital well-being is striking the proper balance between our time spent on devices and our ‘outside’ physical, social, emotional, and spiritual needs,” she says. “The problem with people using their phones too much is that time spent on social media, gaming, texting—[that’s] supplanting other healthy activities, like exercising, spending time in nature, or socializing in an unmediated fashion with friends and family.”

Albright says the better way to detox is just to be more critical and mindful of how you are using your phone. She suggests the creation of “sacred spaces” where phones are banned and human connection is encouraged—dinner, for example. For those who want to try digital detoxing, Albright suggests starting off by buying an alarm clock and keeping your phone away from your bedroom. Writing things down in a day planner or notebook wouldn’t hurt either.

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