We don’t need to tell you that technology addiction is a massive problem that comes along with modern life. It happens to also be a pretty tough nut to crack, because we actually need the devices we use to operate in everyday life. Tech companies are finally grappling with the problem, but their only answer seems to be more tech; tech that tackles our tech habits more through shaming than proactive measures.
Until now, that is.
Atbay, a new startup out of Asheville, North Carolina, wants to take a different approach. They have a solution that revolves around positivity, intentionality, and quite literally, light. We sat down with Atbay co-founder Russell Frelinghuysen to get the details on their answer to the iPhone addiction: Candle.
Can you tell us a bit more about Atbay’s philosophy?
Our business philosophy is trying to build physical tools to help people control their digital technology. We’ve tried to use the products that are already on the market to help people get off their phones or spend less time on their phones, but we found that it’s kind of annoying that a lot of those solutions are actually on your phone. You’re having to go into your smartphone – this thing that you’re trying to get off of – to then set limitations for yourself, which can be a distracting process.
I refer to them as “digital sirens.” Every time you pick up your phone there are always things that are calling you to engage with them whether that be social media or news alerts or things like that. It’s really easy to be sidetracked, so that’s sort of an imperfect solution because these technologies use the same stimuli that the addicting aspects of a phone use. They’ll send you more notifications, and these notifications will say ‘get off your phone’, but it’s still breaking your time and concentration. It makes you feel really guilty, and you end up not using the app or deleting it from your phone because you’re constantly interfacing with this piece of technology that’s telling you how bad you are.
So how is Candle different?
We wanted to create something really simple and beautiful that rests in your environment, that creates a moment of awareness where you can reflect on your intention to unplug, and then actively put your phone away. That actual physical action over time will hopefully create a ritual around unplugging at home.
How does Candle work, exactly?
Right now, the way that it works is you plug in your phone and a little light comes on. It’s designed so that that candlelight flickers forever unless either you turn your light off when you’re going to bed, or you disconnect your phone. That candlelight is a purely positive form of reinforcement.
That’s so simple. Is it actually effective in curbing tech use?
People ask, “It’s just a charger with a light! How is that going to keep me off my phone?” But when you use it, it’s really such a subtle, beautiful reminder that is really quite strong because you don’t want the light to go off. We’ve made it so that it’s this soothing, very pleasant experience and when you use your phone, that experience goes away.
This is also a pretty tactile experience. Is there a deliberate concept behind that?
The beauty of building a physical product is that we as humans like touching things, and we respond very well to behavior change that is physical and happens over time. We wanted to meld the experience of unplugging with natural materials so that when you were setting this intention and enacting this ritual, you were feeling this more grounding experience than the whole tech experience that you get from most other products.
What’s the idea behind the design of Candle?
Here’s this technology product, most of them are usually made out of plastic or metal. You think of Apple, which is sleek and sexy, but it is sort of cold in its own way. Changing the design to something that was warm and natural, that would support activity that follows from the same emotion.
So, back to function: It really seems like one of the biggest factors here is this idea of promoting a positive approach to unplugging as opposed to a harsher, more negative one.
It’s one of these things that behavior-change products get into a lot, where what they try to do is get you to understand your bad behavior; to kind of shove that in your face until you feel guilty enough to change your behavior. For most people that guilt will build up, especially with these devices that we need to use. It’s just this imperfect data and it’s a constant reminder of guilt versus the reinforcement of a positive action. So instead of saying “Good job, you’re putting your phone away,” it’s saying “Here’s how much you’ve been on your phone.” The agent of change there is guilt instead of empowerment. With Candle, though, every time that you plug in your phone and that light comes on, that’s an empowering experience because it’s immediately telling you good job and redirecting your attention.
Do you think there’s a middle ground between these two approaches, at all?
There are parts of iOS that I think are really valuable and can even be used with our product; things like scheduling Do Not Disturb periods. Say you want to create a ritual of unplugging every evening at 7 pm because that’s when you cook, and you just want to not be distracted. You could schedule your Do Not Disturb mode to come on every day at 7 pm and last for two hours, and then that would work nicely with our product where you plug it in and then you reduce all stimuli.
You mention creating a ritual. How important is it to make disconnecting a ritual as opposed to just an occasional habit?
This idea of ritual is based on three bigger parts. The first being a prompt, and that can be a time or something that happens that is signaling the start of a ritual. Then there is some physical action that you do with some meaning. The last one is your reward, which in this case should be an activity that, in your mind, you’ve previously said, “I don’t do this anymore because I get distracted on my phone and browse social media, but I really love doing this thing.” Having that reward pre-defined before putting your phone away and not just saying “I wanna get off my phone, is hugely important, because then you already have something that you’re directing your attention toward, whether that be cooking or running or writing in a journal, whatever that activity is that you want to do more of.
Candle is available on Kickstarter here.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.