The Light Phone is a divisive concept: it’s a beautiful phone that has all the sleek design and appeal of an iPhone, but features none of the intelligent capabilities of internet browsing, emails, or downloading apps.
Its purpose is to allow people to roam free, unfettered by the distractions of technology, but also to allow its users to be reachable by phone if needed. Ironically, this product was born out of an experimental Google incubator for designers. Brooklyn-based artist and designer Joe Hollier felt instructed by the program to “find a sticky idea, something users will get hooked using for hours a day, make it free so it can scale, collect data and sell advertising as revenue and package it together with a pretty bow.”
Joe thought to himself that the last thing the world needed was another smartphone app. Along with his co-founder Kaiwei Tang, who was in the same program and had a decade of experience with cell phones, the Light Phone was born. While The Light Phone was originally designed to be a second phone, the Light Phone II has a couple of added features, such as an alarm clock, making it conceivable (gasp) that we could all return to non-smartphones full-time.
Read on to learn more about Joe, his thoughts on work-life balance, on the noise of the internet, and where we are headed.
How did your program react to a product that inherently can’t have any apps?
The reaction has always been pretty polarizing, which as an artist I love. There isn’t a lot of non-reaction, people tend to love it or hate it. In the program, there was a lot of initial skepticism for sure. The very real and deep conversations that arose from pitching what was at the time just a piece of plastic, some photoshop and a little imagination were powerful to me.
What occupies most of your time during the day?
The short answer is The Light Phone. I spend most days at our office at NewLab in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. I’ll oversee customer service, interacting with a lot of our current and future users. I enjoy talking about the ideas that inspire the Light Phone with a variety of press outlets or other interested thinkers who cross our path. Designing the experience of the Light Phone II has been my main focus lately, which includes following the hardware and software engineering, lots of conference calls and required documentation, as well as lots of tinkering alone, sketching ideas and then presenting them for feedback with trusted friends and eventually to the engineers that make them real. I take lots of walks, either while on calls or preferably just to think.
Walking is great for thinking. What occupies most of your time during the weekend?
I never really had “weekends” before the Light Phone in that I never had a real job. They have become sacred to me now that I have a semi-9-to-5 feeling life these days. I do whatever I want on the weekends. I don’t always get weekends and that’s ok too.
That’s certainly the toughest part of creating something of your own. What do you wish you had more time to do?
Personal projects. The Light Phone is amazing and I feel truly lucky to be working on something I am passionate about, but I’m so used to much shorter projects, usually overlapping, covering a variety of my interests at a time so sometimes the idea of doing ANYTHING but thinking about Light Phone seems so much fun. The grass always seems greener.
The thing about the Light Phone, and maybe the whole “digital wellness/mindfulness movement”, is that there is not some magic pill that automatically creates balance in your life.
What do you wish you did less of?
Blaming myself and taking full responsibility for any of the many large-scale problems of the world, typically overwhelming myself into hopelessness and paralyzation.
What is your favorite non-digital activity?
Drinking piña coladas.
Do you use any technology or apps that help you balance your life?
The thing about the Light Phone, and maybe the whole “digital wellness/mindfulness movement”, is that there is not some magic pill that automatically creates balance in your life. There’s no answer to your stress or problems, like almost every product claims to be. The Light Phone is an attempt to be the hard questions if anything. What will you do now that you don’t have your smartphone? How are you spending your life? It’s an initial withdrawal almost, but it hopes to be an existential reminder that we are responsible, and therefore in control of our lives. We can choose to find balance, which for me means finding and loving the healthy outlets I have for my anxiety often and to avoid the toxic parts of the internet world of narcissistic, click-baity, ad-driven feeds as much as possible.
If you could have a day off to spend anywhere with anyone, what would you do?
Hiking and camping with my lovely girlfriend Rachel.
What would you pack in a suitcase if you had to live with only those items for the rest of your life?
Camera, notebook, skateboard, laptop, headphones and my cat. I wouldn’t actually put her in a suitcase, but she’d make my list of things I can’t live without.
What do you think you’d be doing in a world without technology?
I think in many ways, the same stress/struggles/pleasures/joys would exist similarly without technology, but maybe not to the overwhelming degree we currently experience. I imagine I’d be exploring what it means to be alive through storytelling, music and the other timeless arts that have always inspired me and everyone else prior to technology.
What will you do now that you don’t have your smartphone? How are you spending your life?
Who are your favorite writers?
Kafka, Camus, David Foster Wallace, Noam Chomsky, Joan Didion, Richard Feynman, Oliver Sacks… in no particular order and apologies to the tons of other authors who have truly changed my life that were not mentioned.
When and where are you happiest?
Walking the Williamsburg bridge has been a solid go-to happy place since I moved to NYC about ten years ago.
How do you create balance in your life?
Turn off and tune out often. Don’t take myself or the Light Phone too seriously. Laugh often, cry often. I need my regular outlets, playing music, skateboarding, painting, cameras, walking, camping, reading…
Which living person do you most admire?
I appreciate the ordinary heroes. Humble, hardworking, smiling folk. They inspire me.
What’s up next for you after Light project?
I try not to think too much about it because I know how excited I can get thinking about the possibilities. I try to instead ask what can I do next with Light, this platform that I can’t take for granted. If I do think about it, I’m fascinated by the idea of having more physical space to create, play and live closer with nature. The idea of making a home. I’d like to be there sooner than later. I wish I could go to school forever. I’m happiest I think when I am in that student/learner mindset, but you can also get there when you’re in your studio too.
Interested in spending some time offline without a light phone? Book a Getaway with us— all cabins have landlines in case you need to really call someone.