“Put that thing down. It’ll turn your mind to mush. It’s destroying human discourse.”

If you’re a citizen of the smartphone era, you’ve already guessed what “that thing” is.

Still, had you pulled out a pen in the fourth century B.C., Plato might have had similar things to say (in Greek, mind you). To the fabled philosopher, writing ideas down was both cure and disease; the pen an indispensable device that also threatened to weaken users’ ability to think for themselves.

“[Plato] called writing a pharmakon; he said it’s a great tool but it would turn people into empty vessels because it would cause them to externalize their ideas,” Marcel O’Gorman, a University of Waterloo English professor, told me recently. “People would have the appearance of knowledge, but wouldn’t actually possess it.

“That’s what Google is.”

This kind of digital dot-connecting is what O’Gorman does for a living. Working off-campus in a former mail sorting station on Gaukel Street in downtown Kitchener, he leads UW’s Critical Media Lab (playfully shortenable to CriMe Lab), a hands-on space filled with workbenches where he and his students use technology to build “objects to think with” and, by extension, get the rest of us thinking about how technology shapes our lives – for better or worse.

“The lab is about taking a critical look at the impacts of technology on society and the human condition,” O’Gorman says. “It’s not a cynical media lab, so we’re not against technology, but the idea is to create a space where we can just slow things down a little bit, just enough to be a little bit more careful about understanding the role of technology in our lives.”

Smashed computer tower

Marcel O’Gorman has new students in his Critical Media Lab smash old Pentium
computers with a hammer and examine how they feel about doing so.
(Communitech photo: Anthony Reinhart)

Lately, the darker side of that role seems to be dominating the talk around tech, as critics raise alarms about everything from artificial intelligence and online privacy to fake news and its corrosive effects on democracy. Indeed, these kinds of issues gave rise to a new Communitech event, a conference called True North, which debuts this year from May 29-31.

Our compulsion to externalize our souls through our smartphones – to share personal updates, fish for “likes,” scroll through cat videos – could fill a conference agenda all on its own. And that’s where O’Gorman – whose downtown Kitchener lab sits in the heart of Waterloo Region’s startup community, or as he puts it, “in the belly of the beast” – has been focusing his critical eye of late.

Specifically, he’s been looking at how we react when our mobile phones are out of reach – a phenomenon dubbed “nomophobia,” with “nomo” serving as shorthand for “no mobile.”

“Nomophobia – is it a real thing? I think it’s a real thing,” O’Gorman says. “There is cognitive science research on it.” To complement his academic credentials, the professor is also a father and stepdad to four teenagers, not to mention a mobile user himself, albeit an ambivalent one.

Applying what has become his trademark blend of performance art, hardware hacking and critical theory, O’Gorman travelled to Phoenix in 2014 to take part in an Arizona State University event called Emerge: Carnival of the Future. He and an ASU counterpart donned clerical robes and exhorted mobile junkies to “confess their digital sins,” and to lock their phones away in a wooden “digital tabernacle” for a brief period.

“Some just didn’t trust me, for which I don’t blame them,” recalls O’Gorman, who wrote a piece for Slate about the experiment. “But some people were like, ‘No, I can’t be without this. What if something happens and I want to document something? What if someone needs to call me?’

“There was just this fear. Part of it is FOMO, or fear of missing out; part of it is just this idea that you need to be on call; that something important is going to happen.”

That feeling, O’Gorman says, can be at least partly explained by a basic human need that smartphones – and the social media platforms to which they tether us – have become frighteningly adept at fulfilling.

“Part of the allure of these devices and of social media is that humans yearn for recognition,” he says. “There’s this constant reminder that someone’s thinking of you or there’s something there for you; that you’re needed somehow.

“It’s all an illusion, most of it, unless your kid calls you because they lit their hand on fire or something.”

O’Gorman can point to various research studies that demonstrate what happens to people when you take their phones away. In one experiment, people were asked to perform a task on a computer. Some were allowed to keep their phones with them and use them at will; some could have their devices beside them but weren’t allowed to touch them; some had their phones stored in bags in the room with them; while others’ phones were kept completely outside the room.

“Interesting things happened. When the phone was there and they were allowed to touch it, their performance in completing these tasks decreased,” he says. “When their phone was there and they weren’t allowed to touch it, they performed better. When the phone was out of sight altogether, out of the room, they did terribly. They were very distracted. Part of it was just an anxiety of being away from their phone.”

Intrigued by these findings, O’Gorman and UW colleague Dan Smilek, a psychology professor, embarked on their own research. About a year and a half ago, O’Gorman zeroed in on Yondr, a locking pouch for mobile phones, produced by what was then a small San Francisco startup.

With a tagline of “Be Here Now,” Yondr has proven popular with entertainers who don’t want their live performances recorded or to face a sea of waving cellphones from the stage, as well as others, such as teachers, who want to eliminate distractions in group settings. With Yondr, you’re allowed to keep your phone with you in the locked case, but you can’t use it until the case is unlocked with a special device when you exit the venue.

“I contacted them and eventually earned their trust, and they sent me a few hundred cases to do experiments with,” O’Gorman says.

He and Smilek have been studying how Yondr affects the attentiveness of 125 students in a 200-person class. “It’s to test for mind-wandering, primarily, but we also ask other questions,” O’Gorman says. “They get prompted during class: Are you distracted right now? Are you paying attention to the lecture? And they just have to press yes or no on this clicker.”

Successful as Yondr has been commercially – Alicia Keys, Chris Rock, Jack White and Dave Chappelle are among performers who routinely deploy it at shows – O’Gorman got to wondering if it wasn’t a bit too effective.

“I introduced Yondr to some students and to teachers in workshops,” he says. “What I realized by talking with the teachers was that they got really excited about Yondr, and maybe too excited, like, ‘We’re gonna get those kids; we’re gonna make them lock away their phones.’

“And I realized that Yondr, to me, is a lot like the digital tabernacle. It’s like, ‘I’m in charge, I’m the authority figure, I’m the zealot, I’m going to lock away your phone and there’s nothing you can do about it,’” he says. “That’s what you might want to do at a concert, but you don’t want to do that in a classroom, necessarily, where you’re trying to teach kids to be self-directed and to teach them self-control and to teach them some etiquette.”

What if, he thought, there was a way to get students to freely choose to abstain from their phones, instead of forcing the decision on them, as Yondr does?

Enter the Resistor Case, a phone pouch – devised by O’Gorman for a workshop he conducted last spring for 500 Catholic Grade 8 students – that closes with velcro instead of a lock, leaving the choice to open or not open it, quite literally, in the user’s hands.

At the start of the workshop, O’Gorman locked away the students’ phones in Yondr cases, then delivered a talk about “digital abstinence,” his work in the field, and how some of the same Silicon Valley tech workers who helped make smartphones so addictive are now sending their kids to schools where digital devices are banned.

“I showed them a little clip about that and said, ‘You know what? You shouldn’t wait for a teacher to tell you to put your devices away. You should take action, take control of your lives and resist, and put them away yourselves.’”

O’Gorman then unlocked the students’ Yondr cases and sent them into rooms, staffed by his own UW students, to build their own Resistor Cases out of vinyl, duct tape, velcro (the loud sound of opening it makes you think twice about doing so) and an actual electrical resistor, for metaphoric value.

“That was the first iteration, using end-of-the-roll vinyl, which smelled terrible,” O’Gorman recalls. “I cut it all in my kitchen at home, 500 pieces, and had them make these cases. And then my students would talk to them about their own work in the lab.”

O’Gorman’s UW students told the kids things like, “We do cool stuff with technology, but it’s stuff that’s philosophical,” and that “there are other ways of using models for technological production than getting rich quick from a startup.

“And then they’d make those cases . . . and just have a good time making and thinking and talking, and they’d leave with their case,” the theory being that, because they’d invested personal effort in building it, they’d be more invested in its purpose, and thus more likely to use it.

The workshop struck a chord with the kids’ teachers, several of whom invited O’Gorman to their schools, though they asked for more suitable materials with which to make the cases.

“So we went through, ‘What kind of renewable materials can we use? Can we use milk cartons that are washed out? Can we use clothing that was going to be thrown into the dump? Can we use whatever? Can we ask kids to bring in their own material?’,” O’Gorman says.

His daughter told him about a U.S. company called Thread International that makes fair-trade fabric out of plastic water bottles from Haiti, “and I thought, ‘This is awesome; this is a teaching opportunity for the kids, so if we weave in some materials that involve a discussion of sustainability, that would be great.’”

Marcel O'Gorman holding up a Resistor Case, a pouch for your phone.

Marcel O’Gorman holds the Resistor Case, a build-it-yourself pouch he devised to
encourage self-regulation of mobile phone use in social settings.
(Communitech photo: Anthony Reinhart)

The result is a standalone kit containing everything (except a hammer) needed to make a Resistor Case, complete with cards explaining the significance of each component, to provoke further thought in the user.

“The materials become not just these disposable things, but they themselves become objects to think with, to have a discussion about renewability, about invention, about branding, about biomimicry (Velcro mimics burrs), about handicraft, about women in technology (a rivet comes with a card about Rosie the Riveter, the Second World War icon), about construction,” O’Gorman says.

As he wrote an extensive piece for The Atlantic last month, titled The Case for Locking Up Your Smartphone, an editor at the magazine asked O’Gorman to provide a link to where readers could buy a Resistor Case kit, so he quickly set up a website to take orders, at $20 per kit. In place of a “Buy Now” button, there’s one that says “Resist Now.”

But, perhaps fittingly, the professor seems indifferent to typical startup concerns like maximizing profit and protecting intellectual property.

“I talked to the intellectual property guy on campus; he’s used to dealing with profs in engineering and computer science and stuff,” O’Gorman says. “I showed him the product and he didn’t know what to make of it. It was so funny.

“[He said] ‘Well, you should trademark this and then you could brand it, because if you don’t trademark it someone could steal your idea and you could find these on a shelf at Walmart,’” he says. “And I was like, ‘Awesome!’

“I just want stories; I’m not going to make money off it. I want people to engage with it.”

That’s the whole point of O’Gorman’s Critical Media Lab, which anyone working in Waterloo Region’s tech sector would do well to visit sometime.

“Most people I talk to about this, they get it; they just get it,” O’Gorman says. “Even if you’re touting innovation and you’re working on a project because you think it’s just a cool digital project, and digital stuff is cool, 99 per cent of the people I talk to, when I tell them what the lab is all about, they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, we need that.’”

While it might not occur to us that Plato worried about the pen the way we worry about smartphones, he says, “People understand that technology is a pharmakon. It can cure and kill; you just need the right dosage of it.”