A New Way to Eat
It's 1912, and you've stepped into a diner to escape the bustling streets of New York City. You're ready for a quick lunch and wonder if they can seat you fast enough.
You expect a greeting from a hostess, people chatting quietly at their tables, and waiters rushing out the patrons' orders on a teetering tray.
Instead, a wall of enclosed cubbies greet you. What is this? you almost think out loud. You step closer and see pies, sandwiches, puddings, and more resting behind little glass doors.
A woman next to you points to a ham sandwich. She slides a nickel into the cubby’s slot, opens the little glass door, and walks off with her sandwich.
I remember hearing about this in the ads! You think to yourself. Excited, you shuffle your fingers in your front pocket for a couple of nickels. You pay for a hot cup of coffee and a danish—all for 10¢—and squeeze yourself into an open table. Others pay for their food and leave, dodging into the hot New York sun, coffee in hand.
But, you linger. You enjoy the freedom. The access. The affordability.
In the decades right before the Great Depression, Horn and Hardart's "Automat Lunch Room" sparked a revolution in dining. History.com describes the Automat as "a high-tech, self-service wonder." It describes Automat as such:
Like Fast Food, Like Smartphone
Though Horn and Hardart's Automat no longer exists, McDonalds and modern diners have the Automat to thank as their ancestor.
As I think over the rise of the fast food industry in America, I can't help but wonder at the startling rise of smartphone use in our time. I believe the smartphone is not only our new fast food, it's something more revolutionary. Something more convenient and addicting than a cheeseburger could ever be.
The explosion of smart phones parallel the fast food industry’s footsteps from the past century—just at a breakneck speed. And I’ve observed these trends with other industries based on addiction and convenience, including tobacco and tech.
I’ve noticed five major stages or trends during the rise (and fall) of these industries. Though some adapt and change, I believe these industries based on convenience and access go through similar phases:
The Convenient Factor
Widespread Social Adoption
Society Feels the Harms
Rejection of the Norm
Change for the Better
And I’ve noticed startling parallels between fast food’s acceptance and partial rejection to how we are starting to view how smartphones are impacting our lives.
Let’s dive into these stages—they may just save your digital life.
1. The Convenient Factor
The origins for both the fast food and smartphone industries began out of convenience, access, and connection.
History.com notes the "instant gratification" wonder of the Automat diner. The delight of seeing all the choices in front of your face. The easy access to affordable, delicious food.
When America crawled through the Great Depression, the Automat's freedom to choose any dish for only a nickel put all patrons on equal footing.
It democratized access to affordable, good food. A shoe shiner and a Wall Street exec could both wander into the Automat and buy a cup of coffee for the same price.
Likewise, tech companies advanced this convenience factor for the online world. Facebook began in 2004 as a community of online Harvard students. It harnessed the speed of broadband internet to connect people in seconds.
Facebook had created easy access to connection, much like Horn and Hardart’s Automat restaurants.
But, the smartphone was not widely adopted yet in the early 2000's. Yes, there were some "smartphone" models (like Simon's "Personal Communicator" from 1992) which predated the iPhone. But, they were expensive and out of reach for most Americans.
Later, the rise of social media through sites like Facebook and MySpace tilled the soil for the seeds of 2007's iPhone.
2. Widespread Social Adoption
Before the internet, our concrete highways sped-up travel, connection, and mail delivery.
In an interview with Smithsonian Magazine, Adam Chandler connects the fast food boom of the 1950's and 1960's with the growth of our highway system: "It was a natural business response to the American on-the-go kind of lifestyle.”
The highway system is our connective tissue and arteries for travel. McDonalds and other fast food restaurants popped-up all over America taking advantage of the widespread social adoption of travel. These restaurants offered easy access to yummy, relatively cheap food.
This is similar to the smartphone boom. The digital infrastructure and appetite for social media already there...
Internet connectivity was widespread.
AOL Instant Messenger had popularized digital communication between Millennials.
Facebook was open to most people a year before the iPhone's launch.
All we needed was a slick device to appeal to the masses.
Voila! When Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone as this revolutionary blend of phone, music player, and internet browser, it consolidated multiple devices into one. It democratized instantaneous connection for the masses.
Though expensive, it was within reach for many families. The iPhone was not the first smartphone, but like the Automat diner, it sparked widespread adoption. It repackaged convenience within a revolutionary model of business.
3. Society Feels the Harm
With massive convenience and widespread social acceptance, though, harms and drawbacks come as natural consequences.
Think about the damage done by the fast food industry:
Bad Calories: Fast food is full of calories...but the unhealthy kind. High in sodium and salt. It’s oh-so-delicious, but horrible for our bodies
Processed Foods: Our “Western diet” of processed foods filled with sugars and fats leads to “increased inflammation, reduced control of infection, increased rates of cancer, and increased risk for allergic and auto-inflammatory disease.” Though fast food chains are not the only culprits, they specialize in the quick, processed foods market.
“Food Deserts” are common in thousands of areas within the United States. These places do not have easy access to healthy food options. Often, fast food and other processed food choices are common instead. Due to the affordable nature of fast food, it pops-up in poorer areas, diluting opportunities for healthy food options.
Here’s the thing: We know fast food is bad for us. But, we keep coming back. We’ve seen the effects on our bodies. And like anything addictive, convenient, and delightful, it’s hard to say no.
And like the pleasure we get from scarfing down a vanilla shake or dipping anything into Chick-fil-A Sauce, our smartphones reward our brains with dopamine hits.
Tristan Harris used to work for Google as a product manager, but now he leads the Center for Humane Technology. He describes Silicon Valley’s intentional, addictive designs as “Brain Hacking.”
He explains: “Well every time I check my phone, I’m playing the slot machine to see, ‘What did I get?’ This is one way to hijack people’s minds and create a habit, to form a habit.”
He knows the thinking behind our phone’s social media apps and games. It’s all about grabbing and holding our attention until the next fix. He offers examples like Tik-Tok “streaks,” where teens can’t be away from their phones. When on vacation they will share their account info with friends to make sure they don’t break their “streak.” They can’t break from their steady diet of social media.
Harris asks this powerful question: “When these features are being designed, are they designed to...help people live their life? Or are they being designed because they’re best at hooking people into using the product?”
Like the fast food industry, big tech mass-produces the art of addictive consumables. We eat a high-calorie diet of likes, follows, and endless video streams.
But, are they nourishing calories?
We may not see changes in our bodies by overusing our smartphones, but our mental and social health are feeling the pain.
4. Rejection of the Norm
Younger adults have rejected the notion of eating with the blinders on. The Washington Post notes Millenials have altered the food business and our eating habits. These younger adults want “food that’s natural, organic, locally sourced or sustainable.”
As well, they’re into things like the Keto Diet and “truth from manufacturers.” They want to know where things have come from. What’s in them. Who’s supported by purchasing this item.
In other words, Millennials see beyond the product. They see how it affects people.
This is the rejection of the norm in the food industry: A move from unfettered fatty intake to clean eating and organic foods. This is why we’ve seen the rise of chains and stores like Evo’s, Zoe’s Kitchen, Whole Foods, Sprouts, and more.
Likewise, many are tired of their smartphone capturing their attention 24/7. They’re tired of social media burnout, FOMO, and craned necks.
This is why you’ll hear writers and influencers talk about shifting to digital minimalism, attempting to make their phones a calming space. They’re trying a “cleaner” diet with less social media and limitations on their smartphones.
Academics like Cal Newport have written on the need for digital minimalism, ushering in an era of awareness about our digital addictions. He challenges his readers to a digital detox from their phones:
"Clear it all out. Step away for 30 days. Get back in touch with what you really care about, what you want to spend your time on, and when you're done with the 30 days, rebuild that digital life from scratch — but do it this time with real intention.”
Like realizing the dangers of consuming unchecked food, we’re finding the hidden dangers of letting our smartphones drive our attention, time, and focus.
And people are looking for something healthier.
5. Change for the Better
The food industry definitely adapts! They love their profit like any other business. But, at its core, will it ever do away with harmful foods?
Only if the consumer’s wallet points to something new.
And this is why we’ve seen a trend towards healthier foods. One report concludes “consumer demand for better-for-you foods is high,” reshaping our dining experiences. When people see the harm, reject the norm, and then desire change, they will pay for it.
When things align with our moral compasses and ethical boundaries, we’re more willing to accept it.
Like the Millenials wanting clean, non-oppressive, and honest food sources, the world wants change with their smartphones. This is why we see…
Apple creating Screen Time products.
Companies designing third-party software to track their children’s app usage.
Consumers hacking their phones to simplify them and hide notifications for a saner lifestyle.
Companies and individuals are stepping in with healthier options because we’re hungry for a reset on our phone addictions.
Cal Newport suggested a hard reset on our digital lives. But, there’s a fundamental flaw with our devices at their core: They’re not interested in our health or well-being. They’re designed to addict and to gather personal data.
This is why we need a fresh start with our devices. We can’t just use the same-ol’ ingredients and hope for the best.
Some can will-power through digital addiction. But, if you're always surrounded by tech with a fast food mindset, it’s hard not to consume its offerings.
Part of the Change
For a while the Apple spell had smitten me. I had succumbed to the chic-appeal, the convenience factor, and my friends’ adoption of its ecosystem. I had consumed its steady diet of avant-garde (and overpriced) models and apps. I fell into the endless scrolling sessions on News and YouTube.
I even switched to Android at one point, attempting to lock down a phone. In the end, I couldn’t take the Google out of the Android.
Then, after starting a family and caring for both biological and foster children, the harms of smartphones became so apparent to me. I had seen its effects on myself and people much younger.
And that’s when I started to observe these five major stages of convenience-based, addictive industries...
The Convenient Factor
Widespread Social Adoption
Society Feels the Harms
Rejection of the Norm
Change for the Better
The smartphone and fast food industries are not the only ones to experience this cycle. Think about the tobacco industry and how it’s adapted with e-cigarettes to lure in a whole new generation.
They saw the change coming.
They saw the masses rejecting the product.
So, they adapted.
Silicon Valley knows their product is dangerous, but they have no financial incentive (yet) to change their product. There’s no reason—from their perspective—to disrupt the norm.
But, we’re ahead of the curve. We have time to choose a healthier, freer option for our smartphones.
This is why we’ve developed Wisephone. It’s a minimalist’s dream. A concerned parent’s best friend. The solution for an anxious tween who wants social acceptance by having a safe phone that’s still dignified.
We’re pioneering something different.
But, we can only move the needle so much as a company.
It’s going to take a collective outcry. All of us choosing something better. Seeking each other’s well-being. And then, prioritizing that reality over the tech industry’s status quo.
For more on digital minimalism, smartphone freedom, and healthier tech alternatives, head on over to our Techless resources.