Folding Smartphones May Fix Your Distracted Mind
In Microprocessing, columnist Angela Lashbrook aims to improve your relationship with technology every week. Microprocessing goes deep on the little things that define your online life today to give you a better tomorrow.
I miss my old Razr phone. It was a lavender-tinted pink, which at the time seemed very sophisticated, and because I was among the first in my 11th-grade class to get one, I experienced my own short-lived burst of cool as people crowded around me, oohing and aahing at the new technology. Though we all continued climbing the ladder each year into more complex mobile technology, I am still nostalgic for that little pink brick I could flip open with a snap to hammer out a T9 text.
The phone I have now, the iPhone XR, is… fine. It has a big screen, which I like. The battery life is impressive (if I don’t have the Twitter app installed, anyway). I am also hopelessly welded to it, married to it, in a way that’s kind of disgusting. All I need to do is hold the phone in front of my face and suddenly the whole world is a tap away. It’s so easy to consume a steady, consistent dose of rage and terror and Photoshopped influencers and work emails and animal videos and texts — often at the sorry expense of whoever I’m talking to, in the flesh, at that moment.
The physical design of the iPhone, and most other popular smartphones currently on the market, is constructed to make interaction as easy as possible. On its face, this is a good thing — a well-designed product is a product that seamlessly fits into your life — but as we all know by now, it comes with downsides. Could a new generation of folding phones, which add a physical barrier between the user and that alluring smartphone screen, discourage unhealthy habits and help us connect to the people in front of us?
The first test of these questions comes in the shape of a reinvented Razr, among others.
“Anyone who thinks phones are getting boring — show them this video,” says Marques Brownlee, the popular tech YouTuber, in a video about the new Razr, which, he claims, “really is something special.” The phone looks much like the original (though Motorola isn’t making a pink one at the moment — come on!). It’s a similar size, it’s sleek, it has that “chin” at the bottom of the phone where the top panel nestles into the bottom, and, of course, it folds. There are two significant differences: On the front panel is a small screen for showing notifications and the time and for controlling a smart assistant; inside is a larger screen, seamlessly spanning the entire length of the phone, for doing anything you’d want to do with any other smartphone.
“Sometimes devices can be too efficient.”
“Everyone knows the feeling of closing this phone — snapping it shut after a phone call is gonna be super important,” says Brownlee in his video. “It slaps is what I’m trying to say. It’s nice.” While there’s plenty that I’m excited about with foldable phones—the prospect of a big screen that can fold up into something I can tuck into my jacket pocket is almost too much for me—it’s that snap, which at first glance may seem inconsequential, that I believe could be one of the most game-changing aspects of these new devices.
Marcel O’Gorman is a professor of English at Canada’s University of Waterloo and the founding director of the Critical Media Lab, which studies how technology affects society and people. He thinks the new folding phones may change how we interact with our devices and with each other — in positive ways.
Mobile phones, O’Gorman says, promote ritualistic behaviors we begin to take for granted once we’ve been using them long enough. Folding and flip phones have “the potential to create counter-rituals that could supplant some of our current smartphone habits,” he says. “Another way of looking at the flip phone is in terms of a ‘counterfunctional object.’ Sometimes devices can be too efficient, and we need counterfunctionality to strike a balance between undesired use versus productive nonuse.”
Because a flip phone requires that you open it when you need to use it and close it when you’re done, it introduces a counterfunctional action. A folding phone is basically the same — the only difference is that the new crop of folding phones, like the Razr, have a small screen that will show you notifications and the time. (Some, like the controversial Galaxy Fold, actually offer full smartphone functionality on the outer display, removing the counterfunctional aspect altogether.) This counterfunctionality provides a small stopgap between your phone’s relentless need for attention and your willingness to attend to it.
A 2011 study from the Helsinki Institute for Information Technology found that a large part of our smartphone usage consists of quick checks, rather than sustained use. This repetitive, habitual use is made possible by how accessible and easy smartphones are to use and often leads to even more time spent on the device. (A brief glance can easily turn into a long scroll.) Laptops, on the other hand, see longer but much less frequent use, according to the study.
That satisfying snap when you close your phone? That acts as a clear signal to the person you’re physically with that you’re done using the device.
A phone you have to first open and then enter a passcode or scan a fingerprint to use is a bit less accessible than the always-open smartphone you might be reading this on. Think about it: If you’re at lunch with a friend and a notification buzzes on your phone, are you a little less likely to interact with it if there are a couple intervening steps? (“Hold on, let me just flip this open, type in my password, and read this.”) Anecdotally, I can say that since getting a phone with Face ID, my usage frequency has climbed a bit. Were I to get a folding phone, I anticipate it would climb back down, and even if the difference was minor, it would be meaningful to my brain, which is currently in the process of being melted by relentless news and hot takes about the Democratic primary.
This could potentially lead to a decrease in “phubbing,” which is a term researchers gave to our unfortunate habit of ignoring the people we’re with in favor of whatever is happening on our phones. Phubbing, as I’ve written previously, can have detrimental effects on relationships, whether it’s a boss who phubs their employees or a romantic partner who phubs during dinner. But the counterfunctional behavior of having to open the phone before using it could deter people from phubbing. And that satisfying snap when you close your phone? That acts as a clear signal to the person you’re physically with that you’re done using the device and are prepared to more fully engage with your real-life conversation.
John Hunter, a postdoctoral scholar in psychological science at the University of California, Irvine, has researched phubbing and says he could see folding phones acting as a buffer against it. “If I was using my phone while talking to my wife and then obviously flipped it shut, she would be able to see that purposeful action of flipping it shut and the shift of my attention towards her,” he says. “So it may make the conversation partner feel like they are being attended to a bit more, which could increase feelings of connection, well-being, and belongingness.”
There’s a downside, though: Like snapping your gum, that oh-so-satisfying clap when you close a folding phone might be, well, irritating to other people. “If people might just get into the habit of flipping open their phone while you’re talking to them — instead of opening it with a click or a touch — it might make something like phubbing even more annoying,” says Jeremy John Marty-Dugas, a PhD candidate at the University of Waterloo.
It’s worth noting that there hasn’t been any research on folding smartphones’ impact on attention and social interactions; these phones are simply too new to know for sure what kind of effect they’ll have. It’s just too soon to tell, as the technology itself is still so new, and research is yet to emerge.
I am, in any case, hoping (against hope) that Apple eventually designs a folding phone so I can be partially liberated from my digital prison with the quick snap of an ended text conversation or mindless Twitter scroll. As the technology continues to improve and becomes more commonplace, perhaps we’ll even start seeing fewer sad couples phubbing each other at dinner the next table over. Wouldn’t that be a relief?