Two or three years ago when I purchased an iPad, I had the very best of intentions. “Finally!” I thought to myself “I’ll have a device to help me get rid of distractions and focus!” And in one way at least, it worked. The amount of time and concentration I’ve since dedicated to Twitter, Facebook, and Real Racing 3 is truly remarkable.
I believed a tablet would help turn my attention to things I felt I was neglecting – namely, long-form articles and world news. What ended up happening though is that my iPad simply took its place alongside my desktop, laptop and smartphone as part of the same information churn. When I wasn’t playing games, I’d end up relentlessly checking e-mail and my social media accounts.
So recently, I deleted them – and the change has been remarkable. Though distractions still abound, I find myself reading more often, and for longer, too. It has me wondering if, in thinking of the tablet as a do-it-all device, we got it wrong – that maybe a tablet shouldn’t do everything. Just as importantly, as phones and tablets are capable of more and more, it’s worth asking if there’s any value in the counter-intuitive idea of technology that actually does less.
Though it’s true that I can still access no end of distractions through my iPad’s browser, not having the current of notifications and updates on e-mail and social media so easily accessible through apps has made a world of difference. I’m much more likely to open Instapaper or Readability (apps with which you save articles) and return to those “must-reads” everyone keeps talking about.
In large part, it’s just about giving myself less choice: unable to give in to the siren call of those social apps, I just default to my reading ones instead. As a result, it’s almost as if I am starting to relate to the physical object of “my tablet” in a new way – coming to think of it as a thing that I pick up and use to read rather than catch up with the latest on Twitter or Facebook.
Instead, I’ve delegated that function solely to my smartphone. It makes sense to me: the phone is the thing I use to communicate, so that’s what I use it for. It’s also a mobile computer I carry with me when I leave home, so music, maps, and other applications make sense there. If I now associate the tablet with laid-back reading and other media, forcing myself to treat it that way has reaffirmed the feeling my phone is the object I use to stay in touch and up to date.
It seems possible that, in assuming that every device must be able to perform every function, we’ve set up conditions that at least lend themselves to distraction. Building a connection between a physical thing and a set of activities can be a good way to build a habit. Perhaps we need to create new relationships with our tech – to train ourselves to associate specific devices with certain purposes, instead of just being able to do “everything on everything.”
Could it be, then, that what we actually need is some technology that does less? True, it’s hard to imagine a CEO from Apple, Samsung, or Microsoft getting out on a stage and proudly admitting their device has fewer features. Yet, there could be upsides to, say, a tablet that removed functions, or at least gave you the option of disabling some. It sounds counterintuitive, but in an age in which the glut of choice has become more burden than freedom–that being able to choose from too much encourages a sort of paralysis–a tablet that only let you browse the web and read saved articles might be a kind of relief.
It’s not just attention that’s at stake, though; it’s business, too. Certainly, a tablet that proudly “did less” would be a tough sell at $500, or even $250. But perhaps tablets focused on specific functions could be sold for much less and, like Nest or Scandinavian furniture, could promote their clean simplicity and focus as selling points rather than detriments. Microsoft, which is currently struggling with Windows 8’s do-everything approach that melds tablets and laptop might be the ones to do it. Similarly, though Blackberry abandoned tablets, it could pitch enterprise customers with a tablet that explicitly didn’t have the distractions of most devices.
The usual responses to techno-overload are either “just get used to it!” or “put your phone down and read a book!” It’s certainly true that self-control is a factor, but those binary reactions either call back to a lost past or rush forward into an uncritical future. What we need are new ways of thinking about how to deal with the trend of ever-more features and a market that may be slowly blurring the line between our work laptops and lean-back tablets. Maybe instead of another new iPad Mini, Apple CEO Tim Cook could announce the Minimalist iPad: the tablet designed with less functions and with an aim of concentration.
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