Phone-Free Spaces

Last night I went to a comedy club that required guests put their cell phones into a case made by Yondr. Yondr cases lock your phone inside, and can only be opened by a special device. The idea here is to create “phone-free spaces” where people can enjoy themselves without the temptation to check their phone, and performers can perform without seeing a sea of smartphone lit–and barely paying attention–faces.

It is pretty clear that we are addicted to much of our technology. We check our phones, on average, 150 times per day. We are on Facebook (presumably mostly on our phones), on average, for a sixteenth of our time awake, more time than we spend exercising or reading, and almost as much time as we spend eating. I often feel actual shame when I use my phone in public, but sometimes that doesn’t deter me from doing it. So, being forced to not use my phone at a public venue is great (though usually I am good about not using my phone at such events). Perhaps these venues are playing a role in scaling back our use of our devices. I surely welcome that.

At the same time, I can imagine that there might be negative consequences of products like Yondr. One obvious negative consequence might be the ability to which we are able to respond to emergencies; in certain situations, such as recent attacks/shootings at concert venues, quick texts or phone calls might save lives. It also seems likely that certain personal emergencies might be harder to respond to when one’s phone is sealed. These consequences are pretty clearly negative. The relevant question seems to be: are these negative consequences outweighed by the value–to performers and guests–of fewer phone interruptions? I’m not sure.

When talking with friends about the consequences of a phone-free space, one reasoned as follows: years ago, no one had cell phones, and so we just weren’t able to respond to emergencies easily. So, phone-free spaces are just spaces from 20 years ago. This reasoning might be initially compelling. But the underlying assumption here is that, because something was acceptable years ago, it is (or can be) acceptable now. This assumption seems clearly false. (Many) Years ago, dental work was much more painful than it is now, and our acceptance of that level of pain then says little about our acceptance of that level of pain now. Really, I think the conversation has to be about how weighing benefits and harms. But I have no idea which side wins.




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