The Case for Locking Up Your Smartphone

Lockers and sleeves for phones can feel like an infringement on personal rights, but they also might save people from their worst habits. An Object Lesson.

A man leaning against a wall looks down passively at his iPhone
Yuya Shino / Reuters

If abstinence from alcohol originated in Protestant England, maybe abstinence from digital devices will come from Catholic France. The country has recently rolled out a new labor law called the “right to disconnect,” and following a campaign promise made by President Emmanuel Macron, the French Ministry of Education plans to ban the use of smartphones in all of its public schools.* Philippe Vincent, a member of the French head teachers’ union, has estimated that it would take about 3 million lockers to keep cellphones out of the hands of wired écoliers.

Lockers seem to be the smartphone prophylactic of choice for French ministers who must attend meetings sans portable, but for school students, the ensuing nomophobia—the fear of being without your smartphone—might be enough to provoke a revolution.

The policy shows how humans are struggling to adapt to the most captivating prosthesis they have ever invented. And France’s plans exemplify a digital temperance movement that might yet become widespread. In fact, it is already well underway—and with promising results.

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France isn’t the first killjoy to quit the smartphone party. In 2015, the Canadian artist Garnet Hertz invented a cheeky device called “Phonesafe,” a masochistic lockbox designed to incarcerate smartphones for a set period of time. Hertz meant Phonesafe as a provocation, but the same idea quickly became a product. Today, you can buy similar, but mass-produced, containers on Amazon, and multi-phone lockers have become a mainstay in corporate offices and schools around the world. A McDonald’s in Singapore has even installed a locker designed to promote “family togetherness” and face-to-face conversation.

If you attend a Guns n’ Roses concert or a comedy performance by Dave Chappelle, ushers will require you to lock your device in a neoprene pouch and take it into the show in that state. The phone-locking pouch, made by a San Francisco company called Yondr, has a wide opening at the short end for inserting a smartphone. A magnetic locking mechanism, similar to those on anti-theft tags in retail stores, engages to hold it closed. After the show, this clasp is swiped across a counter-magnet, which releases the lock. Yondr is a surefire way to cut down on bootleg YouTube videos.

In Wired, Alice Gregory recently took a tough look at the device. Gregory recounts her experience at a Chris Rock performance, where audience members waiting in the lobby had to forgo smartphone usage. The affair reduced them to “a roomful of jonesing fiends,” as she puts it. Ultimately, Gregory connects Yondr to a thorny question about civil liberties: the right of the people to keep and bear smartphones.

It’s an ironic conclusion, because Yondr is sold as a tool to provide freedom, rather than to take it away. To “Be Here Now,” as the company’s tagline puts it. It’s a promise to deliver presence—a tricky calling, to say the least. Presence has a long history in religion and philosophy, from Buddhist practices to the metaphysics of the 20th-century philosopher Martin Heidegger. Today, presence is most common in the various mindfulness trends that have overtaken individual and corporate life, in Silicon Valley in particular—collectively the critic R. John Williams has called them “technê-zen.”

Cutting through the history and the rhetoric, it’s productive to think about presence in terms of attention. You’re present where you focus your attention—and you only have so much attention to pay. In the case of Chris Rock, he wants attention directed toward him, live on stage. Rock’s show might involve awkward improvisation or new material that he doesn't want circulated online. Teachers are less concerned about copyright than comedians are, but they still demand attention.

I have tested Yondr’s effects on mind-wandering in classroom experiments with Dan Smilek of the University of Waterloo Vision and Attention Lab. Our research is based in part on the assumption that instructors want students to focus on the course materials, and not on Instagram, Facebook, or other distractions. Yondr can be a remarkably effective tool for enforcing digital abstinence in these contexts, thanks primarily to its portability. Rather than locking away devices inside lockers, or even inside a disused Catholic tabernacle, as I have done in a performance piece, Yondr buffers the anxiety of being isolated from your device.

Given that the mere presence of one’s smartphone can reduce cognitive capacity, Yondr offers a way to surf between the waves of a device’s presence and absence. You can hold it, but you can’t use it. This might be an especially important balance in classroom situations, where students see a teacher’s “phone shoebox” as an unwelcome imposition of authority.

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Needless to say, Yondr is still an imposition. And controlling attention requires more than just locking a device in a binge-breaking neoprene pouch. Joelle Renstrom has reported the results of her own Yondr experiment in a class at Boston University, where she had her 30 students lock away their devices over the course of a semester. At first, 37 percent of the students found the policy annoying, but by the end of the term that figure had dropped to 14 percent.

Those are promising, if tentative, results, but Renstrom’s anecdotal comments about the experiment may be more instructive than the data she collected. Renstrom describes her students’ initial experience of Yondr as “akin to caging a pet, a clear denial of freedom.” Moreover, she observes that some students left their cases unlocked as a sign of rebellion, even though they didn’t remove the phones from them.

Rather than becoming “active resistors to technology,” as the scholars Christine Satchell and Paul Dourish call people who choose to ignore their devices, Yondr users are ultimately the victims of technological disenfranchisement. When implemented as a mandatory smartphone prophylactic, Yondr becomes a means of control, not of choice, let alone of presence.

Such top-down tactics might be enforced easily at live performances, as one of my research assistants observed firsthand at a Chris Rock show in Niagara Falls. However, as a daily ritual for high-school students, all-or-nothing digital abstinence enforced by an authority figure seems destined to backfire, possibly leading to rejection—or even worse, a legal complaint.

In an attempt to tackle this disciplinary problem, I have been offering workshops to schoolteachers that riff on and revise the design Yondr originated. In the workshops, I provide a kit that allows students to make their own digital abstinence case, but with an obnoxiously loud Velcro enclosure rather than a silent, magnetic clasp. This semipermeable design—the Resistor Case, I call it—is intended to promote self-regulation, not authoritarian control. The Velcro acts as a gateway to conscience: It provides just enough resistance and noise to make its owner think twice before opening it.

Michael I. Norton, Daniel Mochon, and Dan Ariely coined the “IKEA effect” to name the increase in value people assign to self-made products. With the Resistor Case, I’m counting on a similar effect, that students who first construct and then choose to make use of their DIY phone lockers might be more compelled to use them. Of course, the kit will only work if the teacher provides a context for it that includes a discussion of responsible smartphone use. (The kit provides a series of cards to prompt this conversation.)

When I teach these workshops, I introduce students to the French translation of paying attention: faire attention, or “making” attention. It suggests that attention is not something to be bought or sold, but something to craft. This is a concept that could benefit anyone who considers adjusting school, work, or entertainment plans to accommodate the supposedly shorter attention spans of digital life.

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Admittedly, Resistor Case is still a type of “cellphone straitjacket,” as the writer David Sax has labeled Yondr. But other designs that promote attention-crafting digital rituals are also possible. The Sabbath Manifesto group, for example, offers a bondage-free cellphone sleeping bag that can be used during “digital Sabbaths” or on the National Day of Unplugging. One of my students designed a fashion-forward digital chastity belt that would deliver a shock to the crotch when the phone was removed from its holder. Maybe eventually Kate Spade or Hermès will offer a fashion-forward digital-abstinence clutch.

No matter the design, if the technology-addled are going to abstain from their devices, they need to think beyond cognitive behavior and toward bodies and physical actions. More than a millennium and a half ago, Saint Augustine said of the carnal urges, “No one can use them wisely, unless he or she also is able to refrain from using them.” To support temperance, successful digital abstinence requires users to develop new rituals for their devices, rituals that go beyond the ones endorsed by the technology companies that provide these devices.

The effectiveness of a phone locker, portable or not, hinges on the repeated habits it can promote. It might be difficult to imagine a future where digital-abstinence products are recognized as emblems of moral fortitude (let alone as something cool) rather than as artistic provocations or as thieves of personal liberty. But I’m willing to make a case for it.

* This article previously referred to Emmanuel Macron as France’s Prime Minister. We regret the error.