Six Months of the Light Phone II
In mid July of 2022, I finally decided to get a Light Phone II.
For those unaware, the LPII is a minimalist, e-ink smartphone, looking to condense the benefits of modern technology without the stuff they consider detrimental. It has very limited functionality and lives up to its' name by being particularly light and non-invasive. I'd been considering the move for a while, but seeing one in person was the final push I needed to give it a go. Since then, it's been my primary device that I've used in place of my smartphone, and I want to report back on the experience.
This is not a review of the Light Phone II as a device. If you want that, I can give you the short version: While aesthetically and ergonomically beautiful, this device is an overpriced, underdeveloped, buggy mess of a phone. I still think it's great for its' flaws, but just because it exists in its' own lane doesn't make it exempt from being compared to other phones, and there are plenty of areas that it underdelivers in. The prohibitive price point of the phone (as justifiable as it is if you read up) not only somewhat undermines the ethos of the company, but it makes the other technical issues with the phone that much more painful. But as previously mentioned, this is not a review of the physical phone, and I don't want my grievances with the software to get in the way of the point I want to make here.
I'm much more interested in the actual effects that using a phone like this, which I would argue have been an overwhelming positive in my life. When I think about what the team behind the Light Phone endeavoured to address, the most apt word would be habits. Both our long term and short term habitual behaviour has been completely transformed over the last ten years. As a society, we're only just starting to come to terms with the profound effect of being as online as we are. Our attention, motivation, even the very essence of our being, is being funnelled through recommendation algorithms, and it's fundamentally changing who we are. It's arguable that our ever-growing reach of access is a good thing. I, for one, often argue that myself. But more commonly, we find ourselves in the middle of a tug of war between multiple vast entities, constantly vying for our input, our attention, our performative engagement. This is what the Light Phone is attempting to address. This device is an attempt to define what's good about the information age, distil it, and isolate it from what is harmful. Think of it like processing the raw material to get to the precious metal you actually want.
The big question is; did the Light Phone team succeed? Is this a device that can successfully be a staple in your daily life in place of a smartphone? I like to think that I'm a decent case study in the usefulness of this phone. Before buying it, I watched a handful of reviews from lifestyle YouTubers, all of whom had tried the phone for something ludicrous like two weeks before deciding to give their opinion on it. Just enough time to claim to have made some genuine habitual changes without needing to provide the receipts. Not only have I used the phone for longer, but I think I've put it through its' paces more effectively. I've travelled across the country with it, I've used every functionality within an inch of its' life, and most importantly I've treated it as a default more than an experiment. What I'm trying to say is that I think I have a leg to stand on when it comes to judging the effectiveness & viability of this phone.
For the sake of being thorough, I want to try and categorise our regular habits when we engage with technology. These are the following:
- Consumptive habits
- Creative habits
- Passive habits
Obviously these are not the only things we do with our tech, and these categories might lack some nuance, but hopefully they'll provide a framework for the discussion I want to have here. Let's start with arguably the largest of the three, consumptive habits.
Our consumptive habits are related to how we receive pieces of information from the internet. Again, to haphazardly categorise (or in this case subcategorise), I want to particularly look at the regularity with which we are presented with information, the sources of information, and the level to which we accept or question a piece of information.
The regularity of consumption as a concept should be self explanatory. I'm willing to bet that the vast majority of us sleep with a smartphone on a bedside table, and don't question the hygeine of that device too thoroughly. This usually means that intrusive information is likely our first point of contact with the world on any given day. That may be painting in broad strokes somewhat, but I'm certainly speaking from extensive experience of checking Twitter first thing in the morning.
This isn't to say that you can't be discerning about what the first thing you interact with in the day; I'm just going to go out on a limb and assume most people aren't discerning. Either we check apps purely out of muscle memory, or a stray notification guides us there. (There is a whole discussion to be had about curation of notifications, but I will not be opening up that can of worms today.)
This is the most immediate noticeable change with using the Light Phone. There's an inherent distance between the user and everything else first thing in the morning. The only information you'll be receiving upon waking up would be if someone had called/texted you. Otherwise, it's just you! There's an inherent slowness to the start of the day using this phone that I've come to really enjoy, because I think it's where the deliberate restriction of the device is best showcased. As soon as I'm out of bed, there are myriad options to do whatever it is I need to do, but it reinforces late night and early morning as time that should be spent less connected. It really hammers home that much like food, extraneous information is not something that belongs in the bedroom.
To take this away from the extreme ends of the day and into the regular parts of it, I want to talk about the sources from which we get information. Being open to algorithmically decided content is to open yourself up to sources of information that are potentially unreliable at best, and maliciously wrong at worst. I say maliciously wrong because there's plenty of media outlets who are more than willing to espouse incorrect information for the sake of engagement. This can also apply to outlets that are quick to respond to something without verifying it, already undermining the potential truth in a situation. To poke the notification bear again, seeing people's devices that have notifications enabled for news apps dealt my psychological damage long before I switched phones.
The reason this conversation is relevant to this phone is because it's not feasible just to live in a cave; at some point you need to get informed about what's going on out in the world. The reason this phone factors in is because when you're shielded from the attempts to pry your attention from you, you have the power to decide when and how it's placed. This doesn't just apply to news, but it applies to any behaviour you might have partaken in not because you want to, but because it's either a muscle memory or socialised into you by big tech.
A supplementary argument for this is the degree to which you judge and question information. Again, I want to avoid painting in broad strokes, so I can only speak on my own experience here. When I was much more immersed in the internet than I was (I say this because I certainly still am), I was much more prone to believing the first thing I read about any given situation. Not just believing them, but repeating them to others. It didn't matter how much contradictory information was out there on the topic, because I'd already established my position, and alternative points of view were simply things that I tested against what I already held to be true, as opposed to opinions I could factor in to adjust my world-view.
In the information age, I don't think we attribute as much value to being first as we should. I think the act of being the first to capture someone's imagination, or to persuade the as-of-yet unpersuaded, is a vastly powerful position to be in. I've certainly been in places where the first piece of information to reach me on any given topic wasn't the best, and instead of questioning it, I was questioning everything else that came subsequently, as if the dubiously sourced tweet I read the hour prior was the actual version of events and everything after that was just trying to contradict it.
The other consumptive habit I'll touch on is that with media, especially music. I've been having a great time going back through my hard drive and picking out specific albums to revisit on the phone, giving more time and attention to them. Media preservation is good, and paying rent to have access to art you love should not be your default behaviour or the default expectation of how we are to engage with art. It's detrimental to the people making it and the fans of it. The question of making stuff leads nicely onto my next topic.
Before I actually discuss this category in depth, I want to start with my personal thesis:
If you post anything at all online, that is a creative act.
Short form posts like Instagram stories, Tweets and Tik Tok videos are an artistic act of distillation and curation. Facebook statuses, blogging, any kind of text-based communication are acts of expression. It may not feel like they are, but I believe that this is one of the core motivators for broadcasting ourselves in the first place. Any act of selecting and fine-tuning what side of ourselves we decide to present is an ongoing act of making something akin to art. Not all of this art is created equal, but I think it's an interesting way to perceive this set of behaviours.
The reason I believe this is important is because I think there are people creating who don't know why. Or, they're creating with a motivation that has been chosen for them by people who don't have their best interest at heart. I'm sure everyone has had a brush with the kind of faux-motivational content creator that gives you a schedule for when and what to post to maximise engagement, based on whatever the trend on the platform currently is. The tragic part of this is that these people are as behind the curve as anyone else, and no social media guru, however savvy they claim to be, are actually able to predict what internet trends will be. As Super Eyepatch Wolf once pointed out, imagine the implications of someone actually being able to "hack" a website's suggestion algorithm. That site would be unusable overnight, because people would be able to share whatever trash they want and know it would hit the front page, or your personal timeline. The reason I bring this up, is because people who deem themselves in the position to give advice, simply aren't. They're simply preying on your anxiety in the face of the unknowable maw of the internet to turn a quick profit.
As soon as you're chasing a wave on the internet, the wave has already broken, and will soon dunk the people surfing it back in the sea with the rest of you. Don't act like scrambling after the wave is the savvy thing to do, because it isn't. Stay put, doing the thing that you're doing genuinely, no matter how uncomfortable it might be seeing people catch waves. Those aren't your waves to catch, I promise. That doesn't mean you'll catch a wave that's as big, or that takes you as far, but the confidence that you are doing what you're meant to be doing, and not following in the wake of others, is the only thing you can count on in this weird watery metaphor. To re-enter the real world for a second, if making Tik Tok videos is a great way to express yourself, do it by all means, and embrace the medium and all its' qualities because that's what your art is. But if you're thinking of getting into Tik Tok because there's a potential gold-mine of attention to be found there, you're never going to strike said gold. There's a famous adage that wanting to be a politician should disqualify you from being a politician; the same should be true of wanting to be famous.
By now I think you can see a pattern emerging, not just in my opinions, but how those opinions translated into buying this odd little yuppie tamagotchi that sends texts. It's that distance creates intent. The difference in what I create, and more importantly why I create it has been hugely noticeable. I'm not capable of posting Instagram stories, so I don't. I don't see what the trends on social media are, so I'm not rushing in some strange futile bid to engage with them. This doesn't mean I don't have the option to post what I feel is genuine, you're reading one of those posts right now.
It also doesn't mean my relationship is perfect at all. I still have a smartphone lying around, and there are a few things that this micro-kindle cannot, and should not, do. But that phone is also the portal to all the things that have previously filled me with the kind of unease I've been used to avoiding. The difference now is I feel that unuease the moment I come into contact with any of the triggers built into this phone. Some days are better than others, and I'm able to turn the phone back off and get on with my day, but as someone who's been on the internet since the internet has been a thing, I'll never be immune. All I can do is build up my resistance, and choose to interact mindfully.
If I'm to give advice in the act of creation online, it's to take a genuine pride in everything you put out. Post genuinely, not for the potential of clout, and you'll find yourself less interested in the performance metrics. You'll also be broadcasting a self that the right people will engage with, and when your time comes to have a larger slice of influence, it will be for the right reasons.
The other thing I would say is to get out of the habit of working for free. If Daniel Ek says that it's good for artists to be posting on Spotify monthly, what he means it's good for Spotify to have monthly uploads from millions of artists, and he's rigged the game accordingly. Some of us get a fraction of the fortune, while Spotify reaps the lion's share of our effort. This can be expanded to anything we do online. Jon Ronson talks about the cathartic nature of taking down the "main character" of Twitter on any given day, without considering the vast profit we're generating for the companies we put the work in for. To quote Jaron Lanier (because of course a guy like me would); if you're not paying for the product, you are the product. This doesn't mean you shouldn't engage in the areas that genuinely bring you joy. It just means you need to do it because it's for you, and not for anyone else.
The last piece of creative advice I'd give is to not get high on your own supply. If we're rolling with the idea that social media posts are highly addictive (which I don't think it's a stretch to suggest), there's nothing wrong with having a posting presence while also not consuming the thing yourself.
Where the other two habits I've spoken on are to do with our behaviour on our phones, this is much more to do with the behaviour around our phones; whether or not we check them in the first place, and the frequency with which we do so. I was picking up my smartphone an unnerving amount of times. Sometimes this was for (what I deemed to be) purposeful activity, but I was doing so an equal amount to seek out purpose in any given moment.
To briefly mentioned the problem of notifications once more, I only had them enabled for messaging apps, so I'd know that I'd directly contacted. While this is always the way I'd suggest people set their devices up, it's also a double edged sword, because I ended up manually checking lots of apps to ensure I hadn't missed out.
Suffice it to say, this behaviour all but disappeared upon using the light phone regularly. If there's nothing there for you, there's nothing to go and seek out, so there's no reason to use it outside of the handful of music/podcast/notes functionalitie. Social media will conjure a nothingness in you, a gap that needs filling, and then entice you with the premise that it also has the thing that will fill the gap. The absence of this practice and its' effect on my regular daily mental well-being has been the largest benefit of having this phone. There are other passive benefits, sure. I could talk about how I read more, or I write more music, or I think I'm a better listener, but all of these are small change in the face of being rid of this horrible gut feeling I've been used to having. The feeling that if I just kept digging through the void hard enough, I could find the one scrap of it that made it worth all the digging.
There's a problematic word that the internet puts too much stock in that I've been avoiding quite intentionally - productivity. I don't believe in productivity for productivity's sake. It's a concept that quickly winds up eating its own tail if left unattended. If you do all of your grunt work efficiently, the act of filling your free time up with more grind (charitably called "hustle") is a self-defeating way of living. If you're creating this space in your life, it should be lived experience. To offer an alternative word, I'd opt for presence. Yes, work is done with more focus with one less set of distractions, but I also feel more attentive in other areas.
My other big finding - "shower thoughts" have nothing to do with being in the shower. That's your brain reacting to having freedom to wander without tight boundaries or parameters, and the fact that we only experience this in the pockets of time we're not in contact with the internet is a shame in my opinion. Let your brain out the shower, and you'll have that experience more regularly and effectively.
Lastly, don't outsource your serenity to people who don't care about you. Find it yourself.
Despite everything I've just said, I'm still on the side of techno-optimism whenever I can be. I'm just more intent on techno-mindfulness, and I think that's something I've been lacking in for far too long. I want to engage with art I love, and communicate with large communities dedicated to things I care about, and see dank memes. I just need to know that's what I want to do, not what I've been told I want.
I really like the idea of "Tech Veganism", in that you decide deliberately what you want in your diet, because you are the one who finds it nutritious/valuable. This varies from person to person as well, so there's no wrong answers. The important thing is that you ask yourself.
I think having an internet presence to some degree or another is unavoidable now, and getting this phone wasn't an attempt to shirk any of it, it was simply to re-examine my relationship with it. In the single best video on YouTube, CJ the X describes our involvement with the internet as something intimate, personal and immersive. It's not just that we're interfacing with something, it's that there is a part of our soul that manifests there. I happen to believe this is true, and something to take in stride instead of something to be scared of. If our internet presence is truly an extension of self, and soul, treat it with the reference and respect that you treat any other aspect of your wellbeing. It's more important than ever to make sure that the digital space you inhabit is the one that you actually want to inhabit, not just something that you've been told is the best for you.
I think it's a vast oversimplification to act like the age we're living in doesn't have huge benefits. With the help of social media, I've found life-changing work opportunities, grown friendships and explored aspects of my personal identity, all of which have been unequivocally important and beneficial. I think the problem is the point where it ceases to be symbiotic. When it becomes a constant, and your intentions are co-opted by people who don't care about you. I was of the generation that grew up along-side the internet, when it was being tweaked and figured out. Nowadays, it's different. There's a whole science to getting engagement, and there's a ubiquity to it that there hasn't been before, and we're still decades off of understanding the ramifications of long-term exposure to this being a place where you live.
To engage with the internet on our own terms has the potential to be hugely empowering, but everyone needs to decide what their own terms are. It may not take a phone the size of a credit card with a battery life of like 3 hours, and in fact this is further than I suggest most people go. I have a low-risk enough life that I can get away with it, and I've enjoyed it thoroughly, but I don't think the benefits are limited to this device whatsoever. It's the thinking it encourages that is the real benefit, and the thing I hope I've shared in some capacity over the course of this admittedly long blog.
I implore you to keep researching, and creating, and connecting with others, because right now we're able to do so in ways that have never been achieved before. But do it because that's what you love, and not because it's what others want you to do. Do a thing that is entirely unbroadcastable. Do something that is absolutely broadcastable, and don't broadcast it. Broadcast the most authentic side of yourself not because of the exceedingly slim potential pay off, but because broadcasting yourself is the unique privilege we have in this era of the information age. Do it because you love it, not because you can. Do it because you want to, not because you've been told to.
tl;dr: For all it's flaws, I like this phone.