Turning Your Phone Off as a Technological Gesture of Affection

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Ingrid Zweifel

As a senior at Parsons The New School for Design, Ingrid Zweifel was hunting around for a thesis project. She knew she wanted to explore how technology has changed the way people interact. One day, she met a woman who gushed about great blind date she’d recently had. “She said to me, ‘He left his phone at home for me. I was, like, oh, my God, that is beautiful,’” Zweifel recalled. A thesis was born.

Zweifel’s project began with buttons stamped with the phrase “I left my phone at home for you.” The response to the buttons was so positive that she stuck with the concept. Starting on Nov. 25, Thanksgiving Day, her final product will be available in stores: a kerchief with the inscription “My Phone Is Off For You.” (More on Time.com: Bye-Bye, Baby: Why Selling Your Crib Hurts)

What’s special (and innovative) about the kerchief is that it blocks cell service. By wrapping your phone in the “Phonekerchief,” you are rendering yourself digitally unreachable — for the benefit of your companion.

I received a link to Zweifel’s project from my friend Saul, who’s heard me more than once evangelizing about my own self-imposed policy of “cell phone-free Sundays”: no texting, no emailing, no checking the map. My phone is turned off, or usually not even with me.

Zweifel says she banishes her phone from the dinner table every night, even if she’s just eating something quickly by herself. (More on Time.com: Joel Stein’s Day of Unplugging)

“Unlike breakfast or lunch, which you often have at work, dinner is a time with meaningful people in your lives — family and friends, so it’s a perfect time to put your phone away,” she says, adding: “And Thanksgiving is the dinner of all dinners, so I love that [the Phonekerchief’s release is] happening on Thanksgiving.”

My own cell-phone-free policy was borne not out of respect for relationships with intimates, but out of a longing for interactions with strangers. One day, a year after I’d purchased an iPhone, I realized that I hadn’t gotten lost once. In a whole year, I hadn’t asked for directions from a store owner or stumbled upon a new street. Because of my phone, I wasn’t interacting in the three-dimensional world; I was simply following my 2D avatar, a blue dot on a Google Maps interface. I was missing out by taking the easier route.

“What I’m seeing is a generation that says consistently, ‘I would rather text than make a telephone call.’ Why? It’s less risky. I can just get the information out there. I don’t have to get all involved; it’s more efficient,” said Dr. Sherry Turkle, a psychologist, professor and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self in the PBS/Frontline documentary Digital Nation. (More on Time.com: Eureka! The Beauty of Free Time)

“There’s this sense that you can have the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. The real demands of friendship, of intimacy, are complicated. They’re hard. They involve a lot of negotiation.”

Digital efficiency also means the relegation of friends and loved ones to one slice of attention in a life spent multitasking. But multitasking shouldn’t be confused with efficiency: data suggest that multitaskers overestimate the amount of attention they can really pay to each task (or person). A 2009 Stanford University study of chronic digital multitaskers found that people who checked their email compulsively were less able to absorb information and — counterintuitively — were not as good at switching between tasks, compared with people who weren’t chronic multitaskers.

Further, the multitaskers overestimated their abilities. So, for instance, when your brother insists he’s listening to your story, even as he texts his girlfriend, he really does believe that he’s hearing you. But chances are, he got only every other word. (More on Time.com: Top 10 Technology Bans)

I asked Zweifel about her goals with the Phonekerchief. “I want this to be a whole movement – a mind set,” she says. “I hope in five years we don’t need this anymore because, really, I want to change behaviors.”

So, even if you don’t invest in a Phonekerchief, maybe you can designate this Thanksgiving as a phone-free holiday and pay full attention to the person across the table, whether it’s your bumpkin cousin or your snobby sister-in-law. At least you can disagree with one another in the real world instead of furtively texting zingers to your digital friends, those flat faceless avatars in your phone.

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