If you obsessively check your phone, there’s a fashionable new way to screen your calls, texts and emails. Jessica Salter reports
We all know that we use our phones too much. The average person spends nearly nine hours a day on electronic devices according to one recent study, which also found that we spend more time checking emails in the morning than eating breakfast.
And last month, TED talk star Sherry Turkle argued in her bestselling book,Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, that being on our phones all the time is reducing our empathy. But unplugging totally is unrealistic – there are some calls you simply need to take and texts you must answer. So how can you digitally detox, while remaining partially connected?
Kate Unsworth believes she has the answer. Aged 27, she is a ‘digital native’ – Facebook was founded when she was 16 – and she admits that she used to check social media up to 20 times a day, and her emails at least 50 times a day.
‘I started to realise that my happiness depended on curbing my bad phone-checking habits. But I needed help doing it. There wasn’t anything on the market, so I had to build it,’ she says when we meet at her east London office.
Stylishly dressed in a black oversized shirt and skinny jeans with headphones around her neck, she has a large rose-gold ring with a black stone on her middle finger. It’s a piece from her line of hi-tech jewellery – that women will actually want to wear.
The stone in the ring, necklace or bracelet buzzes only when the most important calls, texts and emails (according to your preset list) come through, so that you can put your phone in your bag and forget about it. ‘I wanted to design something that would help people be more present and live in the moment,’ she says.
It’s an amazing device. The stone, called Altruis, is central to the design; it is packed with software that communicates via Bluetooth with a smartphone. ‘I’ve got my mum, my boyfriend and my two business partners programmed in, so when they email me, I know about it.’
The device has another feature where you can set a code word so that if anyone emails you with it in the subject line, you get an alert. ‘Mine is “bananas”. If my team or friends really need to get hold of me, they just text me that word,’ says Unsworth.
The Altruis has been 18 months in the making; a prototype has been tested by users for a year. But now it is finally available to buy in selected boutiques around the world, and on Unsworth’s website, Vinaya. From next spring, it will also be available at Net-a-Porter.
Unsworth’s journey to digital detoxing started three years ago, when she was working for a management consultancy company. ‘I was totally passionate about my job,’ she says. ‘I was giving it my all and that meant I was totally connected. If I was at dinner and an email came in, I’d reply under the table, and I’d step outside to take calls.
‘I’d even do it in the middle of the night and start again as soon as I woke up at 6am. It got to a point where my boss and my client both said they didn’t expect me to be online all the time, but I couldn’t help it. I was always “on”.’
One evening in February 2013, Kate was waiting in a restaurant when her friend called to say she would be two hours late.
‘I thought I would just catch up on work while I waited. Then my battery died and I remember feeling so angry. But I ended up having a glass of wine, relaxing, and thinking, “This is what I should have been doing in the first place.” By the time my friend got there, I felt like my whole perspective had changed. I realised I needed to switch off more.’
She banned herself from her phone completely, from the internet outside of office hours and started leaving work at 5pm. ‘From 5pm to 9am I wasn’t online. It didn’t affect my work at all. In fact, I found that it made me more focused and productive.’
She started noticing things happening around her. ‘I vividly remember sitting on a bus on my way to work behind a couple in their 70s. She leant over to him and gave him a kiss on the cheek, and he turned to her and smiled. I burst into tears. I felt like for the first time in ages I was present enough to witness these small things that happen around us all the time.’
But after a strict two-week detox, Unsworth found herself slipping back into bad habits. ‘You get to the end of the day, you’re tired, and you think, “Sod it, I’ll check Facebook.” I assumed there was a product out there to help, but there wasn’t.’
Kate had grown up tinkering around with electronic equipment. As a teenage wannabe DJ growing up in Cheshire she couldn’t afford brand-new kit, so her dad taught her to fix broken speakers. ‘I wasn’t a tech enthusiast at first, but I realised that actually technology allows you to be really creative.’
Then throughout her mathematics and statistics degree at Edinburgh, and a postgraduate in economics and econometrics, during which she learnt coding, she set up a business with her younger brother selling reconditioned ex-rental laptops to students.
She also knew the wearable-techmarket inside out. Although in 2013 it was a year before the term would become mainstream, she had been consulting on the industry and writing internal reports. Before and after work she started setting up meetings and Skype calls with anyone she thought could help, and began researching how and what she could create. ‘At some point I just realised that this was actually achievable. So I left my job.’
She found two partners: Dan Müller, an engineer who was working for a jewellery company, and Fabio Pania, an electronics engineer. Together they launched Vinaya, which has just secured funding from investors includingCarmen Busquets, founding investor of Net-a-Porter. The company now has 30 salaried staff.
But this isn’t just about creating a product that will sell. Unsworth is really committed to the idea that it will improve people’s lives. She has travelled in Asia and the company’s name, Vinaya, is a Buddhist term meaning ‘discipline’.
Kate incorporates spirituality into her office life – the team have daily yoga in the morning and meditation at 4pm, and her office is filled with candles and books on happiness. ‘I highlight bits in them and pass them round.’ But, she acknowledges,
‘There are definitely some members of the team who are less interested in the philosophical side of it, and more interested in the technical solutions.’ (The second floor is full of soldering irons; not a candle in sight.)
While half the company is focused on product development, the other half is an ‘innovation lab’. As a trained statistician, Kate was frustrated by the current studies on happiness, which she felt weren’t scientific enough. She employs a neuroscientist and conducts experiments, such as a recent one where they measured brain activity in CEOs partaking in a digital detox in the Moroccan desert.
Vinaya’s blog is filled with posts on research in the field, such as a report that shows empathy in young adults has been decaying since the turn of the century, or that children and adults are losing the ability to talk to one another. ‘There’s so much interesting research out there,’ Kate says. ‘Let’s bring it to light and look to create products out of it.’
She does practice what she preaches. If you email her, you get an automated message – extraordinarily for a young tech CEO – that she is only checking her email occasionally, and giving other contacts in the company to try.
This, she says, has reduced her emails by 70 per cent. She has removed all social media apps from her phone ‘so I don’t check them mindlessly’ and has a programme installed on her computer that only allows her on those sites for five minutes a day. ‘It’s enough time to check a contact detail or reply to a message, but that’s it,’ she says.
She is not, she insists, anti-technology. For her, it’s about working out how to live with it. ‘Technology’s going to be here indefinitely, in a much bigger way than it is today,’ she says. ‘So it’s about saying, “Let’s be smart about this. Let’s think about how we can integrate technology into our lives in a way that is beneficial to us.”
‘Because that’s what life is about; we should be on a path that helps us be more human and not less. It’s so we don’t morph into robots.’