Late last fall, in the gleaming white lobby of Madison Square Garden, uniformed attendants were posted at security stations to make thousands of smartphones stupid. Chris Rock was playing his 10th show in a 12-city international tour, and at every stop, each guest was required to pass through the entryway, confirm that his or her phone was on vibrate or silent, and then hand it over to a security guard who snapped it into a locking gray neoprene pouch—rendering it totally inaccessible. The besuited man ahead of me in line, clearly coming straight from the office, had two cell phones, each of which required its own little bag. The kid behind me groaned that he wouldn’t be able to Snapchat his night. The friend whom I’d come to meet was nowhere to be found, and after slipping my phone into the pouch, I couldn’t text her to ask where she was. Finally, I spotted her near the escalator. “That was weirdly scary,” she said, laughing.
The show would start in 45 minutes. There were still seats to find, bathroom visits to be made, bottles of water to buy. And throughout the lobby, hands everywhere were fidgeting. It was as though all 5,500 of us had been reduced, by the sudden and simple deactivation of our phones, into a roomful of jonesing fiends.
We applied lip balm needlessly, ripped up tissues, cracked our knuckles. The truly desperate could get relief in a cordoned-off “phone zone” just outside the auditorium, where an employee would unlock your phone so long as you stayed within the bathroom-sized pen. “I gotta tell my wife there’s no service here,” a man told his friend, before ducking in. A woman laughed as she walked by. “It’s like a smoking area! Look at all those addicts.” Meanwhile, those who resisted the temptation to gain back access to their phones, not five minutes after relinquishing it, complained that they didn’t know the time.
Yondr, a San Francisco company with 17 employees and no VC backing, was responsible for the cell phone restriction. Its small fabric pouches, which close with a proprietary lock that can be opened only with a Yondr-supplied gadget, have been used at concerts featuring Alicia Keys, Childish Gambino, and Guns N’ Roses, and at shows by comedians like Rock, Dave Chappelle, and Ali Wong who don’t want their material leaked on YouTube or their audiences distracted by Instagram. They’re used in hospitals and rehab centers to enforce compliance with health privacy laws, in call centers to protect sensitive customer information, in churches to focus attention on the Almighty, and in courtrooms to curb witness intimidation. They’re used in more than 600 public schools across the country to force children, finally, to look at the board and not their screens. The ingeniously unsophisticated scrap of fabric has only one job: to eliminate smartphone use in places where the people in charge don’t want it. Which is great when it means creative artists can express themselves freely or the rest of us can see a doctor without worrying we’re being recorded. But when it means stifling expression in places where smartphones are increasingly our best chance to document abuses, chronicle crimes, and tell the world what we see, it takes on a different, darker dimension. “The smartphone is many things,” says Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the ACLU. “A means of privacy invasion”—something we need to be protected from—“but also an instrument of free speech.”
I met Graham Dugoni, Yondr’s founder, over drinks one evening in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He was in New York for two days, meeting with vendors, clients, and business partners about how and why they should use Yondr. “Everyone gets it super intuitively,” he says. “Our attachment to our phones isn’t all that intellectual. It’s much more a body thing, so it was always clear to me that whatever solution there is to this problem had to be itself physical and tangible.”
This problem. It’s one we all have. Checking Instagram 897 times a day. Refreshing Twitter but not even reading whatever comes up. Feeling our phones buzz, imagining that a cool stranger is offering us our dream job, and then hating ourselves for being so dumb. “If you use a device all the time, it’s going to affect your nervous system and your patterns of thought and social interaction. It’s really just an impulse check that’s needed, I think,” Dugoni says. He sees this as a new, awkward epoch of humanity where we might all need a bit of help being our better selves. “In our hyperconnected, atomized modern society,” he says, “stepping into a phone-free space provides the foundation for sustained attention, dialog, and freedom of expression.”
Dugoni, who is 31 and projects the physical confidence of an extreme athlete, has a flip phone and claims not to read the news. “I’m really selective about my inputs,” he told me. “I have a hunch that the human race isn’t ready for all our current visual and auditory stimuli.” And since founding Yondr in 2014, he has taken it upon himself to try to take us back to a time before cell phones were everywhere and everything. He wants to un-change the world. “I think of it as a movement,” he says. “I really do.”
Dugoni grew up in Portland, Oregon, studied political science at Duke University, and played professional soccer in Norway until an injury forced him off the field and into finance. At 24 he moved to Atlanta, where he worked, unhappily, for a midsize investment firm, and for the first time in his life sat at a desk for eight hours a day. Dugoni later relocated to the Bay Area and spent a few months working at various startups, but he hated that too. In 2012, at a music festival in San Francisco, he witnessed a pair of strangers film a drunken guy obliviously dancing; they then posted the video to YouTube. Appalled, Dugoni started thinking about how he could have prevented these strangers from making a public spectacle out of someone else’s private moment. A tool, maybe, to create a phone-free space.
He spent the next year and a half researching options, reading up on sociology, phenomenology, and the philosophy of technology. And in 2014, after experimenting with different concepts, including a storage locker that could hold individual phones, he settled on a pouch that let people hold onto their phones without being able to use them. Over the next six months, he spent nights sourcing materials from Alibaba, the ecommerce conglomerate, and talking on the phone with Chinese purveyors of fabric and plastic. He’d then sit at his kitchen table until dawn, creating tiny wetsuit-like sleeves and jamming cell phones into them. After 10 prototypes, he created a version that locked and unlocked with ease. He had his product, and he gathered $100,000 from family, friends, angel investors, and his own savings to manufacture and market it.
From the beginning, concert producers understood the appeal of the pouch, and entertainment venues were among Yondr’s early customers. That changed in 2016, when Joseph Evers, the district court administrator for Philadelphia County, attended a comedy show at the Valley Forge Casino. When the person working security asked for his phone, slid it into one of the pouches, and locked it, Evers realized it could solve a big problem in the courts. At the time, he was struggling with witness intimidation: People were attending hearings and posting photos of the proceedings on social media. “We had tried collecting phones, but it was a nightmare,” he told me. “It took forever, and there was a lot of damage [to the phones] we had to pay for.” Yondr seemed like an obvious solution. A few days later, he got in touch with the company, and an employee traveled across the country with a case of samples. Evers presented them to the administrative board of the courts in Philadelphia, and everyone agreed immediately and unanimously. Now, on any given day, about 2,000 Yondr pouches are used in Philadelphia courts.
At first, Evers says, he worried that people would bristle at the process, but that hasn’t been the case. “There’s not a lot of drama,” he says. “People get in line and do what they have to do.” Evers says the court has seen a “dramatic change” in the number of complaints about social media posts identifying witnesses and undercover officers. “The DA and the police are the biggest beneficiaries,” he says. Surrendering your phone “is a small price to pay for safety.”
Adam Schwartz isn’t so sure. A staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco–based nonprofit devoted to defending civil liberties in the digital world, Schwartz wrote to me in an email that the organization is “concerned about technologies that incapacitate, even temporarily, all of the salutary things that a person might do with their smartphone.” When I called him to elaborate, he cited the video, shot by a South Carolina high school student in 2015, showing a police officer body-slamming a black, female student for disrupting class. He reminded me of the footage of comedian Michael Richards’ epithet-laced 2006 set that sparked debate about whether entertainers should use racial slurs. He also talked about his concern that his own teenage children should have access to their phones to call 911 should a shooter show up at their school.
Technology has inverted traditional power structures with unprecedented swiftness, and the control of almost any situation is gradually shifting into the hands (literally) of whoever’s recording it. Our phones have turned us into socially connected cyborgs, enhancing what it means to see and hear and speak; in taking away the ability to use these devices, we may be compromising something that is becoming not only essential to us, but about us. “Ten years ago, very few people were walking around with a camera or video recording device, and one could easily make the argument that Yondr is merely restoring the status quo,” Schwartz says. “But the question is, are we better off today, now that the average person can instantly document wrongdoing?”
In taking away the ability to use smartphones, we may be compromising something not only essential to us, but about us.
For all the complaining we do as individuals—about rude dinner companions who look down at their phone between every bite, or our own inability to sit quietly and read novels without impatience—almost nobody would dispute that smartphones have helped catalyze some of the most important social movements of the past few years. Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, the fight against sexual assault on college campuses: All have been facilitated, at least in part, by footage captured and distributed via smartphones and social media. We’ve already seen attempts to curb this newly democratized expression, and they’re often met with legal challenges—after protesters claimed police departments were using signal jammers to intercept transmissions from their cell phones, the FCC issued an advisory in 2014 calling the practice illegal, except for specially authorized federal agents. Yondr is a private company, not the state, and nobody has filed a suit against the company or its clients. But Gene Policinski, COO of the Newseum Institute and of the Institute’s First Amendment Center, thinks smartphone-disabling technology is going to be “litigated over and over again.” Phone-restricting devices like Yondr pouches seem innocuous, he says, “but they represent something that could turn potentially dangerous.” By way of a hypothetical: What if citizens had to submit their phones to Yondr pouches or something like them before attending a public city council meeting? It could be done in the name of safety, of course, but with a potentially massive silencing effect.
And never mind hypotheticals; even in the sorts of situations that Yondr pouches were originally intended for, the potential applications are troubling. What if there had been Yondr pouches at Hannibal Buress’ show when he told a joke that is widely credited for setting in motion the long-overdue takedown of Bill Cosby? And what are we to make of the fact that, within seven months of telling the Cosby joke, Buress hopped on the Yondr train and began preventing audiences from taping his shows?
Jay Stanley, from the ACLU, appreciates the ease and elegance of Yondr’s method, but he worries that this very easiness—the frictionless slip of the phone into the pouch, the quickness with which the bag locks—could lead someone to believe that they’re not really giving anything up. Dugoni recognizes the concerns: “The interplay between privacy and transparency isn’t simple, and surveillance and the ability to record others in the public sphere creates a uniquely modern dilemma.”
Still, he thinks we gain more than we lose by restricting cell phone use: “What is the etiquette of smartphones?” he asks. “You used to be able to smoke on a plane, and now you can’t even smoke on the street in certain places.” Dugoni believes legislation restricting cell phone use in certain public areas is inevitable too. “There are already phone-free bars,” he says, referring to venues that block cellular signals as a way of encouraging sociability. “And we’re going to have to determine where phones should be used as we answer a radically new question: What does it mean to be a human in the world with a smartphone in your pocket?”
At the end of Chris Rock’s set, we all herded out of the theater. Security guards were near the exit to snap open the pouches. Reunited with our phones, we feverishly tapped away, while bumping into each other and rolling our eyes. I had received a few work emails, but nothing urgent. My husband had texted me, wondering when I’d be home. Only a few hours had passed. But it felt like 10.
Alice Gregory is a writer in New York. This is her first story for WIRED.
This article appears in the February issue. Subscribe now.