Leave the Phone at Home

This post was originally written for Harvard’s Nieman Lab, as part of their yearly “Predictions for Journalism” feature, looking into what may happen in 2019. You can read the original here, published January 2019.

Buying things is more fun than running, which is why I convinced myself that an Apple Watch was the perfect inspiration to get back into my trainers. It is now a few months on—I’m still not running regularly, but the watch provided a different and unexpected benefit. I can now leave the house without my phone and still maintain a line of connection to the world with messages, email, and maps. It is freeing. I have no social media on the watch, so no snares in which to get stuck in idle moments. It’s a tremendous relief to be free of the drag of demented global consciousness, and I predict that many others will find the appeal of this situation.

Rather than a prediction, I’d like to offer a plausible wish: that more people opt to leave their phones behind and use smaller, more integrated devices that exist inside the everyday rather than eclipsing it. Small screens, like the watch’s, are incompatible (or at least hostile) homes for social media in its current form. As a result, media companies can begin reestablishing direct relationships with their audience by exploring what media is at home on such small devices. Headphones are the watch’s natural extension, so if I had to offer a place to start, I’d build on top of podcasting’s momentum and explore timely, short-burst audio that’s about the length of a pop song, similar in format to NPR’s hourly news updates.

My wish is a recipe: tiny screens, small snatches of time, clear endpoints, limited engagement, information density, and obvious pathways for more context. If the watch can become people’s primary device, it may provide the opportunity to switch the media paradigm from an endless stream to a concentrated dispatch.