The digital life: From technicolor to black and white

| Senior Scene Editor

Last week, I was idly scrolling through my Facebook feed in an attempt to avoid doing work (as I often do) when I came across a New York Times headline that sufficiently shocked me into clicking on it. It posed the question, “Is the Answer to Phone Addiction a Worse Phone?”

I initially assumed that the article would promote a technically “worse” model than the ubiquitous iPhone, like the Unihertz Jelly, a splashy new mini-smartphone. But instead, it proposed a simple switch within my existing infrastructure: viewing my phone screen in grayscale.

Screen Shot 2018-02-25 at 9.53.56 PMGraphic by Josh Zucker

On paper, this change seems deceptively simple. But put in action, it prompted a fundamental difference in the way that I interacted with my phone.

The impetus to “go gray” seems to have originated with Tristan Harris, who has been dubbed “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience” and spent three years at Google as the company’s Design Ethicist, whatever that means. These days, he’s working on his own initiative, the Center for Humane Technology, and seems to have the ear of many tech and Internet titans. This includes Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who recently announced that the social media platform would show users more content from friends and less from pages and advertisers, ensuring that users’ time on Facebook is “time well spent”—which also happens to be the name of Harris’ nonprofit foundation.

“Time well spent” is pretty much the opposite of how I spend time online. I primarily use the Internet as an avoidance tactic and distraction from my real-life problems. There are certainly many wonderful facets of the online world, including parts of social media. But for me, this technological relationship has largely become an unhealthy one. The fact that I can access it constantly, instantly, even obsessively through the phone in my pocket only exacerbates the problem.

I wasn’t always like this: I was the last of my friends to get a cell phone (I got mine on my first day of high school), and for many years, this first, Spartan device served only the most utilitarian of functions. A few years later, I upgraded to a low-end smartphone, and the narrow opening through which I could view and interact with the digital world expanded, just a little bit. But it wasn’t until a few weeks into my first year at Washington University that I bought into the most love/hate relationship of my life thus far: the iPhone.

I bought an iPhone primarily as an effort to fit in at Wash. U. In the luxurious modern dorms of the South 40, my significantly lower economic status among my more affluent peers wasn’t immediately obvious, but it manifested itself in subtle ways. My poorly disguised shock when I first heard my friends conversing casually about their fabulous international vacations was one tell; being unable to use iMessage was another. So, I decided I would join the club in at least the one way I could, by buying an older-model iPhone on eBay and finally being able to experience the socially conforming satisfaction of those cool blue text bubbles.

In the honeymoon stage of our relationship, my attachment to my phone was pretty healthy: It was a cool, fun novelty that I enjoyed using. But when I dropped my phone into a puddle at the end of my first semester and had to go without for several weeks, it wasn’t a big deal. Then, two years down the line, I dropped my phone again, cracking the screen so dramatically that the device was rendered unusable. This time around, my attachment had grown to the point where I had a physical reaction when I picked up my phone and first saw the ruined screen in the harsh, fluorescent glow of Schnucks. My heart raced, my palms sweat and my eyes welled with tears.

A fresh screen and a year later, I’m as busy and as addicted to my phone, as I’ve ever been. So, when a life-hack, why-not-try-it trick surfaced in my life in the form of this article, I decided that enough was enough and took the plunge.

The initial switch to grayscale mode was jarring: I felt like Dorothy in reverse, whisked away from the Oz of Technicolor apps and notifications and dropped unceremoniously into a world painted solely in shades of gray. But I, like Dorothy, made that choice, and I persevered with it for longer than I expected.

I found my phone easier to ignore in grayscale mode, no doubt about it. When I glance at it out of habit, no bright colors are there to grab my attention—most notably, the cleverly contrasting notification bubbles. Although my apps’ color schemes don’t seem too vivid when I have nothing to compare them to, in contrast to black-and-white, they’re startlingly saturated: the primary colors of Google, the colorblocking of Slack, the canary yellow of Snapchat, the ombre sunset palette of Instagram.

I’ve toggled back and forth several times over the week that I’ve “gone gray.” The grayscale mode is pretty functional for text-based applications, but it’s not very fun to use when scrolling through Instagram—which, I guess, is the point. Switching back out of grayscale is disconcerting, even unpleasant at first, but it only takes a few seconds for me to readjust to the colorful status quo.

Would I recommend setting your phone screen to grayscale? In a word, yes. It’s a quick and by no means permanent switch; if it helps you focus, or just take one less impulsive glance at the technicolor wonderland of distraction that lives in your screen, then I think it’s worth it.

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