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What’s Round and Always in Do-Not-Disturb Mode? The ‘Anti-Smartphone’

Is the Runcible ‘anti-smartphone’ a cure for what ails us?

New technologies, once they're embraced, always produce a backlash. Instead of buying CDs or digital downloads, some people embrace records. Instead of typing on a computer, there's a subset that insists on using a typewriter, or doing it by hand. Some offices experiment with dropping Slack for a week. And some people, like actor Eddie Redmayne, ditch their iPhone for an old-school analog cell phone.

Then there's the Runcible: the so-called "anti-smartphone," an odd, round, pocket-watch-shaped device that's supposed to give time back to the consumer, and will be available in the fall of 2016. (It's available through pre-order now.)

Monohm, the Berkeley-based company behind this device, hopes it will make users question how they interact with their phones. It's a worthy question: globally, there are estimated to be over 2 billion smartphone users, and in the US alone, 46 per cent of them say their smartphone is something they "couldn't live without." By 2020, according to some estimates, there will over 6.3 billion smartphone subscriptions worldwide.

The Runcible—which Monohm calls the first "anti-smartphone"—doesn't look anything like an iPhone or Android device. And it's purposefully silent. The phone "will never beep, alert, or otherwise interrupt you," according to its manufacturer, the idea being that it will help users create a "more civilized relationship with [their] digital life."

The base model sells for USD $399, the premium for $499.

Some might rightfully question whether it's worth carrying an expensive phone that never pings an alert. "No exceptions! No alerts, no sounds, no interruptions ever," said Aubrey Anderson, founder of Monohm, when I asked him about this. Emergency situations, it would seem, are not where the Runcible will shine.

But the Runcible is less an actual smartphone, than a symbol of revolt against the current state of technology. "It started with design fatigue. I was taking note of the new designs," he said, "and it was just boring as hell. It was a big cycle of rectangles. I'd always wanted to do something a bit different."

So Anderson turned to pre-smartphone technologies, and found that round tools—compasses, pocket watches, a smooth rock—were common. "Round comes up a lot for humans. Could we put the brain of a smartphone into the form of that?"

He believes that we'd all be better off if our smartphones interfered with our lives less. "Smartphones tend to build value by bothering you. [The Runcible is] doing everything we can do to keep you from getting sucked into your Twitter feed," said Anderson. "It's designed to facilitate you keeping your head up in the world more often."

The phone includes all the functionality we've come to expect—email, social media, and GPS—but it just does it all a little bit differently. The Runcible's mapping app, for example, won't suggest the fastest route, but rather the most interesting and most scenic—a feature which, though fun for a few times, I can imagine might start to feel very tired, very quickly. The email app might only show you a handful of emails, rather than your entire inbox. Its individual parts can be replaced, repaired or updated, which actually sounds like a great idea, sidestepping the planned obsolescence of so many other devices. And it's worth noting that the phone is built around open-source software, making these features highly customizable.

Critics say the phone is farcical. "The Runcible has little chance of succeeding," Paul Levinson, professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University, told me in an email interview, "except as a joke or a quirky cult item. People want smartphones that do more, not fewer, things."

But Anderson is speaking to a real problem that many relate to. We all know the feeling of sitting across someone at the dinnertable whose head is buried in a screen, or having a conversation interrupted by a pinging device. Even with so much new technology that exists to connect us, "I don't feel like I'm closer to people," he told me. "It's not to lay the blame entirely on smartphones, but it's part of the problem."

"I think that people are always seeking a more harmonious relationship with technology," Levinson agreed. "but that comes not from less, but better, technology."

The Runcible is fun and yes, it does suggest the idea that technology could—and likely should—be designed in a way that is less intrusive. But all things considered, it's essentially a $400 wood-and-wire medallion to indicate that you are willing to take a stand against the mainstream.

Until better, and less intrusive, tech comes along, you can always switch to airplane mode.