As smartphones have become standard, so too have the behaviors associated with them—a compulsion to fill every empty second by pulling them from your pocket or purse, scrolling through them listlessly, necks bent and eyes glassy. We perform these movements hundreds of times per day; they’re embedded in our muscle memory, as instinctual as discreetly checking the zippers we left open after reading Facebook in the bathroom. And anyone who’s ever left their phone behind can attest to the phantom itch it creates, a missing limb begging to be scratched and swiped. For most of us, breaking free of this bind would require some form of physical restraint or a modicum of self-control. Fortunately, Austrian designer Klemens Schillinger has an easier solution: a sad little toy with some beads on it that we can fiddle with until we’re all finally extinct.
Schillinger’s “Substitute Phone” is nothing but a black, rectangular slab embedded with a small array of stone beads that can be rotated, mimicking those familiar scrolling, swiping, and zooming gestures, but this time literally accomplishing nothing. “There are no digital functions,” the description explains. Rather, it reduces our smartphone behavior to just the physical motions themselves, offering a purely “therapeutic approach” to the least restorative thing we do. We can just hold our hollow plastic rectangles and move the beads around under our thumb and briefly feel calm. We can soothe ourselves with our analog pacifiers until the world ends, and we won’t even be agitated by any of the push notifications leading up to it. All we’ll hear is the soft click-clack of our busy box. This is our life now, for however long we still have to live it.
The “Substitute Phone” was originally created for an art exhibition themed around our crippling dependence on technology, but naturally, that same obsession has led Schillinger to believe there’s probably some money to be had by actually selling them. For now, the Substitute Phone has yet to be introduced to his online store. But soon, perhaps we can hasten the day when extraterrestrial archaeologists unearth our fossilized, hunched-over skeletons and try to figure out the purpose of all the strange little bead-boxes and tiny spinning blades we’re clutching, as well as why they’re suddenly so depressed.