Phone Faced Down Phone Faced Down A photo from the "Phone Faced Down" campaign. (Photo: Undigitize.Me)

App developer starts movement to unplug from our machines

Tech entrepreneur works to raise awareness of our digital dependence.

For many years, Lior Frenkel wrote computer code and developed apps for smartphones. He helped launch startups and was at the heart of Tel Aviv's nascent tech scene.

While attending a workshop on how to get people addicted to apps, the 35-year-old Frenkel had an epiphany: People don't need to be addicted to their phones.  "I couldn't really concentrate on being as creative and productive as I used to be. I wasn’t concentrating for more than 10 or 15 minutes," he told From The Grapevine. "I started to feel bad about what I was doing."

Lior FrenkelLior Frenkel

The tech entrepreneur took on a new and unlikely title: unplugging evangelist. He started a blog and dubbed it Undigitize.Me after his new personal mission. On a whim, he started the "Phone Faced Down" campaign, which collected user-submitted photos of people doing a variety of everyday tasks without a phone. Pictures showed parents relaxing with children, a writer using a notepad, and even a cat relaxing on the couch – all with a cell phone faced down somewhere in the photo.

Within two weeks, he had more than 500 photos. Newspapers, TV reporters and other media outlets came calling. Frenkel had struck a chord. He was asked to deliver a TED Talk in Bulgaria. He joined a consortium of like-minded digital philosophers from around the world who meet once a month to discuss their ideas. And in March of this year, he helped organize the  Day of Unplugging in Tel Aviv.

Much has been written about society's dependence on technology. But Frenkel said his message is not to take your phone and throw it into the garbage. "I love technology," he said. "The thing is it just went too far. We have to understand which applications are like junk food and which apps are like nutrition."

Dr. David Westerman, a North Dakota State University professor, studies how people use technology to communicate. "I have often wondered – and have asked students – why we never talk about communication addiction in general," Westerman told From The Grapevine. "People speak face-to-face a lot, and it often has very negative consequences. I suppose we don't talk about face-to-face addiction because we are used to speaking face-to-face, and so that doesn't seem like an addiction, because it is 'normal.' 

"I would, personally, probably suggest that people unplug sometimes. But I would suggest that we unplug from communicating with other people overall sometimes, and not just from the channel that we use to communicate with them."

As for Frenkel, he's now at work on a children's book about technology addictions. "We are not trying to scare (children)," Frenkel said. "It’s a positive book with a positive story. In short, it's telling the kids why the outside world is so cool … It’s a very futuristic story about a kid who has never met anyone offline."

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