Google’s paper phone targets the wrong digital detox problem

paper phone digital detox Google
One of these is a paper phone. Can you spot it? Image credit: Google

Google’s“Paper Phone” app allows you to print essential app content on paper in the name of digital detox. It might be more effective if they detoxed their business model instead.

Earlier this week, Vivo revealed its plans to produce lower-cost 5G smartphones next year, but that wasn’t nearly as interesting as last week’s latest phone from Google that is made entirely from paper.

Yes, really.

Well, okay, not really. Which is to say, the Paper Phone isn’t strictly speaking a phone. Or a device. It’s an Android app created by UK-based design studio Special Projects for Google’s Digital Wellbeing Experiments division that looks for ways to combat smartphone addiction.

The Paper Phone app is designed around the notion that one reason people are addicted to phones is because they use them for things that are integral to their daily activities –meetings, shopping lists, navigation, Sudoku, etc. The app essentially enables users to select what things on their phone they might need for the day, and then print it out in a layout that folds nicely into a rectangle roughly the size of your smartphone.

You can even turn the paper phone into a payment device by sticking a contactless payment card into a cutaway space designed especially for such a purpose.

If all this sounds naff, this demo video may help you to get your head around this idea.

You can also download the app to your phone and fool around with it if you wish.

So yes, it’s a gimmick, albeit a cute one. However, Google seems to be taking it seriously, as experiments go, according to their blog post:

We hope this little experiment can help you try a digital detox from technology and help you focus on the things that matter the most.

Google has also posted the code on GitHub so that developers can think up other ways for people to take certain apps offline in the same way.

Still, even if Google thinks a paper phone has merit as a digital detox remedy, there are some obvious flaws. For a start, if you need to make phone calls – or if your primary focus of mobile addiction is YouTube videos – the Paper Phone isn’t going to be much help.

More to the point, according to Technology Review, at least two experts on tech addiction and digital detox aren’t impressed with Paper Phone, with one remarking that it’s essentially a repackaged daily planner booklet, only not nearly as good, while another said that Google is missing the point of digital wellbeing, which is not about getting rid of devices and digital apps completely, but ensuring people don’t use them at the expense of healthy real-world interactions.

Ironically, Google’s Digital Wellbeing department already has other tools better designed to strike that balance, from the Unlock Clock (which measures how long your phone’s screen is unlocked) to Desert Island (which turns off all the apps you don’t really need to be using that day).

But then, Google’s whole digital detox push is ironic, given that the business model of the very digital world Google has helped develop is to make apps as engaging and addictive as possible. Google’s YouTube, for example, employs an algorithm designed to keep you on the platform watching one video after another. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, games and many other apps are intentionally designed to capture your attention and keep you scrolling and watching for as long as possible.

If Google wants to do something about tech addiction, it could think of ways to make existing mobile apps less addictive. But that would disrupt its own business model, so the its alternative strategy is gimmicks like paper phones and tools that essentially push the responsibility back to the user. Or failing that, there’s always digital detox holiday camps.

But as techno-socoiologist Zeynep Tufekci has been pointing out for some time now:

“Competing to distract us is the point of many of our digital tools. Maybe it’s not us but our phones that need detoxing.”

And she doesn’t mean printing out paper versions of them.

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