After years of watching powerlessly as his iPhone took over his brain, Duncan Greive found a way of getting it back.
Last Saturday I was sitting with a friend, patting a puppy while she idly thumbed her phone. I was a few feet away, but it sure looked like the screen was black and white. She confirmed that my eyes weren’t deceiving me. “I made it grayscale,” she said. I teased her about it, operating on the (fair, I felt) assumption that she’d done it to have a chic phone. She replied that it was instead an attempt to make her phone less exciting. “It gets rid of the dopamine hit,” she said. And I was suddenly very interested.
She showed me how to do it in my accessibility settings – instructions at the foot – and, soon after, my phone was boring too.
I did this because I hate my phone. I mean, I love it – use it all day for a million things and get itchy when I’m away from it for too long. But I hate what it’s made me, the unthinking action induced. Checking Slack all weekend in case someone’s said something funny (they mostly have). Trying to stay on top of emails which will only ever precipitate more emails. The mindless scrolling of pictures of other people’s kids when my real life children are sitting right there. And all the while knowing it was some base chemical thing, an element of primordial ooze-learned behaviour I have proven myself completely incapable of outrunning.
I’ve tried things, obviously: deleting apps, changing the password to Twitter, turning off almost all notifications. None of it really worked as well as I hoped.
(It’s not that I have a problem with other people using their phones, incidentally – I’m a firm believer that humans should do as they please so long as it doesn’t harm other humans in the process. If you love your phone and it doesn’t make you feel kinda sick then I’m so happy for you. I just can’t escape the vague but unmistakable sense of having willingly sold my attention to the shareholders of a few Californian corporations’ for data gathering purposes – and that they are getting a lot more out of the transaction than I am.)
Then, grayscale. It worked, almost instantly. Instead of the phone being brighter than the world around me, it was significantly duller. Instagram in particular basically became a procession of bad art photos. But everything was worse – from Snapchat to ESPN, my phone seemed drained of life and colour – because it was. (The least affected are text stories, incidentally – so keep reading The Spinoff’s great and now free app even in monochrome!)
There are a few stories around about it, though it still seems a fairly fringe activity. One mentioned a slot machine analogy. This really stuck with me – the image of people slumped at casinos pumping money into pokies is one of the main reasons casinos have such a bad rep. Yet I imagined myself doing essentially the same on my couch, without even the chance of a jackpot to keep me there.
Paul Corballis, associate professor in the school of psychology at the University of Auckland, thought the comparison worked. “There’s very likely to be something to the slot machine analogy. Variable reinforcement is a powerful way to maintain a behaviour,” he wrote me. “That is, the relatively infrequent, but unpredictable delivery of something rewarding keeps you coming back to check your phone.”
He was sceptical about the extent to which colour was the driver of phone usage.
“I’d guess that it doesn’t do all that much. I’m sure the colours, flashes, animations, and such are rewarding to a degree, and changing to greyscale will disrupt that aspect of the salience of the phone. It may also disrupt the overall visual salience of the device — making to stand out less from the background and capture less of our visual attention. These effects are likely to be small compared to the overall effects of variable reinforcement, though.”
To Corballis the parts of phone usage less dependent on colour for the reward function would power through the superficial change. “People who are heavy users of Snapchat, Instagram and the like will get more benefit from the grayscale than people who are motivated by streaks, Facebook likes, and other, less visual aspects of the variable reinforcement that maintains their behaviours.”
That might be so. There’s a good chance that the specific type of phone issues I have are my own – I have almost no notifications on, I don’t care about streaks, read things more than look at things. It might therefore be more powerful for me as a type than most. Still – it feels good that there’s an easy and accessible tool out there to mess with my behaviour. Because the attention war is real, and innumerable companies big and small have worked hard to find ways of making these beautiful objects addictive and useful in a huge variety of ways.
So far, grayscale is working for me. I’m a week in and I just look at it different now. My phone is just not as exciting as it was. The homescreen is duller than everything around it, where before the reverse was true. When I get in to do something, I get out a lot faster. I feel a much smaller rush when I see it in the morning. It’s becoming more of a routine object in my head, like a TV remote or a chair: great, love it, wouldn’t live without it – but not the only thing in the world.
How to make your phone boring
On an iPhone go to Settings / Accessibility / Display & Text Size / Colour Filters / Grayscale.
Android phones have different methods according to your model, but it’s generally found through the accessibility menu, too.