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Phones Should Be Like Toothbrushes (emptyyourcup.substack.com)
55 points by aae1807 8 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 62 comments





> Your toothbrush is the greatest tool of all time. You only use it when you’re supposed to for as long as you need to and then let it go.

I use my phone to play blitz chess online (I'm a chess player; if you play chess, you shouldn't focus exclusively on blitz, but it does have its place eg. to help quickly practice new openings)... to listen to podcasts (for instance when I'm washing the dishes - no dishwasher where I live right now, now that's quite a setback)... or to read articles on Hacker News, for one. Do I need to do any of these? No. Certainly not in the same sense as I need brushing my teeth. But these are my pastimes. I also don't need reading a book, listening to a radio show or going to standup comedy. It's entertainment.

A smartphone is not like a toothbrush, and there's no reason why it should be. Its applications go beyond bare necessities by design.


> to listen to podcasts [...] or to read articles on Hacker News, for one. Do I need to do any of these? No. Certainly not in the same sense as I need brushing my teeth. But these are my pastimes. I also don't need reading a book, listening to a radio show or going to standup comedy. It's entertainment.

That's the thing: The apps that take up most of the average person's smartphone daily usage[0] are designed to exploit your psychological imperatives and vulnerabilities, so they can literally entertain you for as long as possible--that is, to divert the user from other, more intentional activities that are much more costly in terms of conscious preparation and effort, by means of frictionless, persuasive design[1].

Being able to entertain oneself by using an electronic device is not a bad thing per se; however, smartphones have enabled corporations to dictate our behavior during every single hour of our waking lives, turning it into a mindless, constant consumption of entertainment. Many people's lives have become a never-ending pastime. Our attention, our time, our true beliefs and desires are all we've got to develop as a person and lead a fulfilling life. We should think critically of something that permeates our lives as heavily as smartphones and their apps.

[0] All the people ranging from 10 to ~20 years old that I've recently met significantly exceed the 2.5 hours of smartphone use per day that the article mentions. That only illustrates my own experience, but I believe it's something to think about.

[1] https://captology.stanford.edu/about/about-the-lab-1.html.


> Being able to entertain oneself by using an electronic device is not a bad thing per se; however, smartphones have enabled corporations to dictate our behavior during every single hour of our waking lives

I see it as a mere externalization of responsiblity for being, well, lazy.

Somehow I'm never browsing Facebook or Instagram for pictures of cats and the like. I guess they must have overlooked me when they "dictated" behavior to people.

> Many people's lives have become a never-ending pastime.

Yes, ever since we no longer work in the field for 15 hours a day ;) There are pastimes, and there are pastimes though. It's pointless to pretend all are equal - in terms of intellectual or aesthetic stimulation.

> We should think critically of something that permeates our lives as heavily as smartphones and their apps.

I agree.


> Somehow I'm never browsing Facebook or Instagram for pictures of cats and the like. I guess they must have overlooked me when they "dictated" behavior to people.

It's great that the methods Facebook uses don't work on you, be it because their "product" just does not interest you or because you have above average self-control. Other people are not as lucky.


My point is that adopting such point of view is a form of fatalism that leads to erosion of self-control.

Realizing that your and other's self-control has limits does not erode it any more than realizing you are not Usain Bolt keeps you from walking. But pretending it has no limits means we rely too much on it when instead we should reduce the need for it. It also means we expect people to resist manipulation when they simply can't.

But "someone tries to manipulate me" is a quite different mindset than "someone dictates my behavior turning my life it into something mindless" (to slightly paraphrase the comment I originally responded to). Perhaps it's a matter of phrasing that irked me.

But the issue is not that someone tries to manipulate us, but that they – partially – succeed. So saying that they “dictate our behavior” may be hyperbole, but aside from that, it's the better mindset. Denying a problem exists is rarely useful.

Of course if you understand “dictate” as “dictate to the extent that I cannot resist”, then you might as well deny the issue you believe you can't deal with anyway.


> Many people's lives have become a never-ending pastime.

How is that different from people spending time watching TV back in the 80s and 90s? Nothing new. Most people have never been very productive with the free time they have.

The main difference with a smartphone is that the access to content, at any time, is 1000 fold better than TV. But the behavior of wasting one's free time is pretty much unchanged.


>How is that different from people spending time watching TV back in the 80s and 90s? Nothing new.

You couldn't put your TV set in your pocket and take it out to watch a show whenever you liked in the 80s and 90s. Many people use their smartphones while driving, for example; that goes to show the clear difference in accessibility and what it entails.

>But the behavior of wasting one's free time is pretty much unchanged.

That's absolutely true. Nonetheless, I'm personally not okay with anyone exploiting that.


Well, yes... so? Yes it is more accessible. Yes its more interactive.

Your narrative of evil corporations manipulating mankind into obedient consuming of entertainment is basic cheaping out on simple human flaws - we want to relax, we can be horribly inefficient and achieve nothing and still be OK with it. We are all like that to some extent, in certain times.

Advertisement being pushed is just extension of marketing that has been around since TV. Its just industry adapting to new means, nothing more.


>Your narrative of evil corporations manipulating mankind into obedient consuming of entertainment

Those are your words and your personal characterization of what I said, not mine. I see what you are trying to do.

>Its just industry adapting to new means, nothing more.

Are you implying that these practices, which can have awful consequences (distractions are the number one cause in car accidents[0], and they have skyrocketed as of late; I wonder why...) shouldn't concern anyone? That we shouldn't think critically about it even though it has been influencing our lives like nothing else before in the last decades?

Look, I'm not trying to force anyone to stop using their smartphones; you can do whatever you want, of course. I'm just trying to voice my opinion on a matter that I believe to be of extreme importance.

[0] https://www2.safetyserve.com/articles/distracted-driving-fac...


> Nonetheless, I'm personally not okay with anyone exploiting that.

It goes both ways. People use apps to be entertained, share information and pictures because they want to. They download silly games to play during their commute. It's consensual. Nobody is forcing anyone to do anything.


>Nobody is forcing anyone to do anything.

You could say that about smoking as well; it wouldn't make it less addictive, though. The same applies to smartphone apps: they are deliberately addictive, and not transparent about it, unlike the tobacco industry--at least in Europe, which is where I live.

I'll say this: everyone can go to hell in a handbasket if they want. However, the deep consequences all of this will have in the mid-to-long term will be devastating. That's my take on it.


> You could say that about smoking as well; it wouldn't make it less addictive, though

At the end of the day it's not addictive enough that people can not decide to stop it by themselves. Smokers can get rid of their habits by using nicotine patches until they are ready to completely off, and smartphone users can do many other things instead of checking their smartphones if they so wish.

Note that everything is addictive to some degree, that is precisely why people talk about "hobbies", "passions" and so on: music, sports, games, movies, and even work if you are really into something that is intellectually stimulating and rewarding. At the end of the day we all decide what addiction we prioritize versus others.


I did just as much mindless idling before regular access to computers and a phone. I did it pacing around, staring out the window, and watching bad TV.

> Your phone does none of these and that’s why it’s a lousy tool at best.

A phone is not a lousy tool, from the perspective of it being a tool it is actually quite effective at what it does.

> People now spend 2.5 hours on their phones, daily. That’s 17.5 hours a week and, unless you work part-time at a call center, that’s way too much.

This is a silly point, in my opinion. It is not the quantity of time spent on a phone that matters but the quality. If I call my grandparents each weekend for 30 minutes is that already reaching my quota for phone usage that day?

I think this article is a rushed thought that should have been polished. The core issue with phones, it seems to me, is not the phone itself but the self-control of humans that overuse it.

I know people who scroll through social media for hours on end, in my opinion that feels like a bad use of your time.

But what stops someone from reading a book? Or connecting with their distant family? Learning math? Keeping track of their life?

_So_ much can be achieved with a phone, we have got to stop treating it like a Devil's implement.


> _So_ much can be achieved with a phone, we have got to stop treating it like a Devil's implement.

I agree, that is why it is not the phone that is the devil tool itself, but what's on it. Broadcasting tools like Instagram are the most time consuming and addictive without actual benefits. Using those tools are actually detrimental to mental health [1].

Thus I believe without understanding what makes phone usage harmful to both productivity and mental health, we are bound to fall into the same traps with other technologies.

[1] https://www.salon.com/2019/01/30/a-gold-standard-study-finds...


>Thus I believe without understanding what makes phone usage harmful to both productivity and mental health, we are bound to fall into the same traps with other technologies.

That's a wise statement. I really do think that there's a great opportunity for software (and hardware) developers to build tools that enhance our well-being offline while being as non-intrusive as they can be.


Instagram can have benefits, like helping you attract a mate or improving your photography.

I meant without actual benefits in the context of being addictive

> I know people who scroll through social media for hours on end, in my opinion that feels like a bad use of your time. >But what stops someone from reading a book?

Honest question, why are phones usually seen as lesser than books? Imho, fiction books have as little value as people write off to phones, but i just don't see people complain this much about their kids wasting their time reading books too often. (Not trying to attack fiction books either haha)


Given the caveat that such studies are often looking for particular outcomes and thus suspect, there are a pile of studies documenting benefits of reading, including (for several of them exclusively) fiction. We either do not have, or have the opposite result, from studies on phone usage.

Given that phones are now just general purpose internet-connected computers, I would expect them to have orders of magnitude more variability in outcomes based on actual individual usage, but it's not identically the same cultural panic that happened when mass market fiction entered the market.

It should be noted however for those not aware, that if you give people decontextualized quotes describing the behaviour of readers when mass market books were introduced, they assume they are current and describing smartphone usage.


I actually meant reading a book on the phone :)

As in: "The two hours someone spends on a phone could be reading books, is that so bad?"

Not quite sure why some would see reading on a phone as lesser, maybe because its tied to the rest of the addictive phone environment?


most of my phone time is spent listening to audiodrama and books. on average i spend more time on that than watching tv.

Could you recommend some audio-drama? I'd love to listen to something like that!

uh, direct recommendations is a hard question. it depends on what genres you like. there is tons out there. here are a few resources to get you started:

http://www.audio-drama.com/

https://www.reddit.com/r/audiodrama/

reddit is a good place to get notified about new releases

if you like star trek, check this list: https://startrekreviewed.blogspot.com/2009/06/247.html

that's what got me started with other science-fiction audio drama.


Getting a smartphone a few years ago was a great change of my life. I can now catch up on boring emails, tech support, and GitHub issues while being in a place otherwise doing nothing. Typing on my phone is only about 1.5x the effort as typing on a keyboard. So when I'm in front of a real PC, I can get straight to the useful work like programming without an hour of catch-up per day. This results on me taking walks and going to social events more often even when I have heavy workloads.

I'm a quite impatient person, so if a friend wants to meet for lunch and is 20 minutes late for whatever reason, I'm no longer annoyed/bored because I now just read articles or play dumb phone games for 20 minutes. That situation would drive me crazy before I had a smartphone, but now I'm always more relaxed wherever I am because I have a super convenient personal assistant and time-burner.

There are humans out there that make irrational decisions, but I think for most people, if they willingly do something, it's because they have evaluated that it gives them net benefit. Assuming that most people have no control of themselves is definitely wrong.


Exactly.

Regarding people, you need to spend time with them and its not true that 100% of that time is useful. While you previously did absolutely nothing, now you can do infinitely many things of various complexity and usefulness WHILE STILL BEING HALF-PRESENT. You have more choices. I am also VERY IMPATIENT, and with phone stuff that were driving me crazy are now not a problem at all.

The article is completely meaningless - the two things are not comparable.

Many people like to do mostly meaningless stuff - watch reality shows, read the newspapers, read pulp fiction, watch sport events every day with a lot of emotions. Phone is another medium, nothing else. People will find ways to do such things on any kind of medium.

One thing is more concerning - time doing nothing (boredom) is reduced a lot with a phone because its so effective in accessing stuff from everywhere. During such times human brain can practice imagination and problem solving (there is nothing detracting ATM).

Simply turning off notifications and real time sync is enough - I usually check for a mail 3 times a day manually and sync the phone even less then that (not only on phone but on Desktop too). I think that method works pretty good.


We're forgetting how to "do nothing", and honestly I think that's a bad thing. I relish the opportunities I get to just sit down and do absolutely nothing, daydream and let my thoughts wander. As a form of meditation or reflection, it lets me gather my thoughts and relax.

I’ve never really bought into the argument that if we set aside our phones, all that liberated free time will go towards “something useful.”

People aren’t going to spend those 2.5 hours a day learning a new language, or coding a side project or whatever, they’re going to find something else that’s mindless and entertaining like sitting in front of the TV for 2.5 hours a day.


There are 2 things to take into consideration. One, phone apps (the problematic ones) are extremely more addictive than TV. Two, once you make a little effort to resist the urge of entertain yourself with mindless stuff (which is considerably harder when we're talking about phone apps), your dopamine resets and it becomes easier and easier to do whatever you really want to do instead of distract yourself.

I'm inclined to disagree to a degree. I don't use my phone for anything but Messengers and Twitter (apart from the "utilities", such as Uber or an alarm) - and have deleted by Twitter account a while ago.

After doing that, I find myself looking at my phone out of habit/boredeom, but realize I removed the last time wasting app (I got rid of reddit about a year ago) and turn the thing off again. This results in me doing things I consider to be a better investment of my time.

Yes, that might be watching a show on TV - but I found that to be more engaging than mindlessly scrolling through people's opinions I ultimately don't care about (as Twitter, as opposed to say HN, rarely spawns intriguing thoughts).

Also not having a simple distraction available does result in me being more likely to spend time on more "important" things, might it be yard work or a side project. But it certainly depends on one's personality and preference.


I think the quality of Twitter can be excellent if you're following "the right" people. I'd be happy to recommend some users who post incredibly intriguing content if you're interested.

I would be interested in that.

This reads like a "those darn millennials" post, both in how the author seems to think everyone should act like him, and in how out of touch with the way other people actually do things he is.

First off, phones aren't really phones anymore. They're computers. For many people, they're the primary or even the only computer they own. It would sound a lot sillier if he said "people are spending 2.5 hours per day on their computers, that's way too much!"

Second, who the hell is he to say how we should be spending our time? Or how we should be using our pocket computer-cum-worldwide-instant-communication-devices? So what if I'm getting distracted by notifications? Maybe they're from my close friends and family members who live hundreds of miles away, yet whom I am able to converse with regularly without seriously interrupting my daily work, because text communication is much less disruptive than an actual phone conversation. Maybe they're reminders for me to get up out of my chair on a regular basis and move around so I can stay at least moderately healthy at my sedentary job. Or reminders of what piece of work I'm supposed to be working on during this part of the day, so I don't get lost down a rabbit hole and lose hours unproductively. Hell, maybe they're notifications to take my life-saving medication that I'm otherwise too absent-minded to take at the right times.

So sure, I've set my phone on vibrate, because a soft "bzzt-bzzt" is unquestionably less disruptive to the people around me than the Final Fantasy victory fanfare playing every time a reminder goes off. And I've disabled notifications from apps that just want to get me to spend more money on them. But leave my phone at home? That's the second most absurd thing in his piece.

The most absurd is the notion that your toothbrush prompts you to stop using it when you're done.


...the author also uses the buzzword 'mindfulness'.

I thought this had peak-memed about four years ago but apparently not, interest in the concept of 'mindfulness' is marching ahead:

https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?date=all&q=mindfuln...

The problem I have with the word is that there are always better words to use. Being 'aware of one's surroundings' rather than 'mindful' makes more sense to me as I am not initiated into the cult of 'mindfulness'. The word is like insisting that people do yoga instead of anything else involving physical activity. For people that have the 'mindful' meme in their head the use of the word resonates, but for those of us that are suspicious of the word it is a turn off.

There is a certain amount of grandstanding with the use of the 'mindfulness' word, it implies someone knows better when they probably don't. They are holier than thou as they can do this 'mindfulness' thing. They are in touch with some spiritual understanding that also needs kale and yoga.

In the premise of the article is that the person with the phone/toothbrush is the most important person in the known universe. What they are doing is also totally important.

But life is not like that. If you have a relative in hospital you will be desperate to answer that phone. Same if you have some romance or job situation needing a deal to be closed. How can anyone be so aloof that they are not wanting to get messages?

Well one answer is that none of us really are that important. Six billion or so people could phone any one of us up at any moment in time but it is actually only a small handful of relatives and friends that do call. "Hi Mum!" as the saying goes.

So what better than to create a false narrative for yourself where you are that popular and so famous that you need to close down your communication channels as if you were the Queen of England? Don't let people email you and suggest they reach out over a 'tweet'. Now we have these instant communication devices, heaven forbid anyone actually use them. Have no phone just because if you had one then recruiters could call it. Have no email because if you had one then someone might send you spam.


I get the point, but "like a toothbrush" is a stretch. Dentists think none of us spends enough time with the toothbrush.

I was afraid this world be a "lower cost" or "more disposable" article. Phones need to be the opposite of a toothbrush in that case.

There is no reason a phone should begin to fall apart in two years. Software updates should make old devices faster, not slower. Batteries and cameras should be easily repairable/replaceable when they go bad.

More standardized parts, more open sourced drivers, more UEFI or device tree, more easily setup for 3rd party operating systems.

..and 3rd party systems (Plasma Mobile, Ubuntu Touch and such) would potentially mean more control over data, notifications, privacy, location, battery and efficiency.

So in all cases, not at all like a toothbrush.


Dentists are like Linux fans. You tell them you brush with some toothpaste and they'll say "that one's bad, you need to try this toothpaste or it doesn't even count".

(I'm a Linux fan too).


Well, we've read the article. That was the objective of the metaphor.

Just as a data point, I looked at the article title and the comments here and decided not to bother reading the article.

> People now spend 2.5 hours on their phones, daily. That’s 17.5 hours a week and, unless you work part-time at a call center, that’s way too much.

Says who? "Too much" is not a quantifiable amount. There's a time and a place for everything.


My phone (iOS) is perennially on Do Not Disturb + let calls through. In my life, calls are super rare, and 99% when they happen I want to know. Everything else can wait until I check my phone. Sure, sometimes I check it often when I'm bored, but when I'm concentrated / in the flow I am never interrupted.

I can't believe most people keep notifications on, and sometimes at full volume. It would drive me crazy.


I think it just comes down to how you manage notifications. I keep mine on for slack, email and sms. I disable notifications in slack unless you @me or dm. Texts are used by family and extremely close friends, very rarely. Email is for work and I need to be notified immediately. I get maybe 50-100 emails a day, 98% of which I receive while I'm sitting in front of a computer and can safely ignore on my phone.

I'm in pretty much the same camp here. One day I was chatting with a collegue and he asked if he could call me to work out a problem and I realized I had no idea where my phone was, the battery was dead when I found it. I hadn't even used for a few days.

The majority of my time spent looking at my phone is for 2FA , taking a photo, or bored somewhere waiting.


Same.. usage may vary, but I have only kept notifications for messaging (but none on "groups" and I user "Favourites" for the calls/messages while on DND. Everything else sits in absolute silence as it should (for me).

Sorry but I have a small business, active family, 2 kids (1 teen and 1 tween) and silencing my phone, or putting it away for long periods of time just doesn't work. I don't spend as much time on my phone as the article claims is "average" (thanks screen time!) but it's simply unrealistic for people that have a busy, dynamic life.

Every single day is a symphony of coordination between myself, my wife and my kids. Schedules change, buses are late, appointments are rescheduled - going "offline" would seriously effect my ability to operate on a daily basis.


I understand the dilemma, however people used to manage life just fine before cell phones became a thing.

You can make a plan for the day, everyone does their thing, you don't have to be available 24/7. If your day-to-day life is a constant flurry of schedule changes and time-critical communication, maybe that needs to change. Being constantly on edge like that is a surefire recipe for stress.


> If your day-to-day life is a constant flurry of schedule changes and time-critical communication

You must not have kids, or much going on. I'm not saying it's chaos, or that everyday is that insane, but it requires coordination. "Blanket advice" like this I find only applies to a small percentage of people. Just the kids alone* make my day pretty nutty, both have hobbies, practices, games, after school events, play dates, sleepovers, they forget things, they need to be picked up because "so and sos" Mom is sick or late - I have doctors appointments which also require multiple prescriptions, I have client meetings, they too are busy and reschedule occasionally. Again, not every day, but enough that using my phone like a fcking toothbrush is just insane. Sorry for the rant.

I have only TWO kids. My peers, with 3 or more would laugh maniacally at this suggestion.

Edit: I apologize, I realize I simply re-stated my original comment, adding more detail. TLDR; I disagree with your assertion ;-)


And yet, people did all of those things just fine before cellphones were ubiquitous. What I'm saying is that all of this stress of modern life is artificial and unnecessary.

The primary problem of the phone is that it's a lineal descendant of a technology that was unavoidably based on "stop what you are doing and pay attention to me". (Contrast telegrams, from the same era.)

It's not just that voice calling necessarily interrupts you (or if you arrange that it goes to voicemail, this is considered rude), it's that the whole mental model of a phone is a thing that interrupts you.


Maybe if my toothbrush was a little more like my phone, I wouldn't forget to brush my teeth twice a week...

Not trying to promote electric toothbrushes, but what worked for me is to get an electric one, keep the charging dock right next bathroom sink, with the toothbrush latched on, so you have the visual queue/reminder to brush them 100% of the mornings/nights.

Could buy one of those fancy electronic ones with a mobile app that can set notifications. Irony…

I always say that any use of screens, given their captivating mimetic and sensorial nature, should be preceded by a clear intention regarding what will they be used for. Moreover, I wholeheartedly agree on the fact that electronic devices--any kind of devices, really--should only be used for as long as they are required to accomplish the task at hand, which has ben decided a priori. Anything that deviates from that is effectively dictating our behavior to a harmful extent.

Use it twice a day and get a new one every three months or so?

Imagine how great our oral hygiene would be if toothbrushes were more like phones.

... flossing away during meetings, on the bus etc.


My toothbrush has bluetooth... and an iPhone app...

(https://www.oralb.co.uk/en-gb/products/electric-toothbrushes...)


The endgame is whole population wearing AR headsets so that corporations control your whole vision and hearing. Everything is consentual of course! Nobody is forcing you. But everyone is wearing them anyway.

> Kill vibration.

I did this a while ago. What happened was I ended up checking my phone significantly more due to FOMO. Hiding your phone is a better solution, since it's more out of sight.


"2.5 hours on their phones daily?". Sheeeat. Before lunch, maybe.



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