In a world consumed with the latest feature-rich gadgets, a growing group of voices is calling for products that are fully functional, but built around simplicity, clarity and focus. Some people refer to this as digital minimalism, others as using technology intentionally, but ultimately it is about taking active control over how digital devices impact our lives. By Petter Neby, CEO at Punkt.

Over recent years there have been many personal accounts published by busy, highly connected people who choose to put aside their smartphone and all the associated apps and tools, in search of a less digitally focused life. Most opt for a simpler mobile or ‘dumbphone’ that allows them to make calls and text and continue to use a laptop at work. Describing their initial experiences they use words like ‘withdrawal’, ‘detox’ and ‘addiction’. As they adjust, however, these words change to ‘confidence’, ‘free’, ‘observant’.   

Our attachment to the smartphone – and by association the camera, the map function, the calendar with its useful reminders and the ability to ‘speak’ to friends on messaging apps without actually talking to them – has effectively turned us into digital junkies. Worse than the dependence on apps and tools that are so much a part of its functionality, is that in return we have relinquished our privacy. Prophetically, in 1996, the author, David Foster Wallace, said on a tour for his book, The Infinite Jest: “The technology’s gonna get better and better at doing what it does, which is seduce us into being incredibly dependant on it, so that advertisers can be more confident that we will watch their advertisements.”  That was 28 years ago, and Instagram, Facebook and Google did not exist, but Foster Wallace recognised the link between technology, the human need for entertainment, and all the opportunities this would provide for advertisers to infiltrate our lives. 

Privacy does not equate to secrecy

Along with the rise of the smartphone has been the notion that privacy is nothing but the ability (or need) to hide secrets. We have traded our personal details, our likes and dislikes, our habits and behaviours in pursuit of attractive, entertaining digital tools and platforms. We have been led to believe these are free, but the price we are paying is our own private selves. For many this exposure is damaging, and not worth it.  

Interestingly, those brought up as digital natives – GenZs – are more tuned in than other generations to the impact of privacy and data leakage on smartphones because so many have struggled, or seen friends suffer, with mental health issues due to social media pressures, or simply because they are out of touch with the non-digital world. It is not surprising that in the UK clearing classrooms from phones has long been debated and in July last year, a Unesco report called for a global ban on smartphones in schools. 

In business, the simple fact of employees being contactable via multiple channels anytime, anywhere is no longer so acceptable. People now question whether a consumer-oriented instant messaging tool, such as WhatsApp, should be used for business communications and are uncomfortable that their profile on Facebook can be assessed as part of a job recruitment process. This lack of privacy is no longer just covert, it’s positively overt.

Controlling commercial surveillance

It’s important for modern human beings to have communications tools and a mobile phone is a lifeline. But it should not be an overbearing commercial surveillance device with eyes and ears in every app. Our use of mobiles should be intentional, a means to an end, and not the end itself. Instead of users being forced to accept terms and conditions to use an app, the app developer should meet the terms and conditions we lay down as individuals to protect ourselves and our usage inside and outside the work environment.

For the first time at the World Economic Forum in Davos this year, high profile panels and experts from many walks of life spoke about the need to have freedom of choice and the ability to retain our personal data sovereignty. They called for alternatives to the monetisation of data and surveillance economics. 

Fortunately, these alternatives already exist. Phone manufacturers are making simpler models for calling and texting. In businesses, however, real progress is measured by putting choice back into employees’ hands. This means giving them full control over their mobile experience with data sovereignty at the core of the operating system. It means letting them have access to a ‘home’ space on their mobile with a suite of tools including email, calendar and storage that are secure and free from advertising-based data infiltration. If they choose to access a commercial app store, or they must use a company-sanctioned platform they can do this in a separate part of the phone, but their data will still be protected from unwanted monetisation by third parties. 

Businesses that promote minimalist phones that deliver functionality but not at the expense of privacy, are sending a clear message to their employees – you have the power to choose to what extent you want to be digitally connected. But, in fact, for any mobile user, whether at work or in their personal life, real progress is measured by having a choice and being able to live a digital life on their own terms without the pressure of their data being used for corporate gain. This balance has the potential to establish a healthy technology relationship for everyone.