App of the Week: Pause

The key to a fuller life -- competing with your friends to see who can use their phone the least

Published June 23, 2013 6:00PM (EDT)

                  (<a href=''>silver tiger</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/Salon)
(silver tiger via Shutterstock/Salon)

Can I make my iPhone eat its own tail? I've been obsessed with this question ever since I learned of the existence of Pause, an app that boldly encourages users to "Pause the digital. Start the real."

Never mind the philosophical quandary one confronts when grappling with the notion that just because something is "digital" it is not "real." If we are sent mean texts, do we not bleed? If that Facebook status update tickles us, do we not laugh?

More to the point, Pause is an app designed to make you use your smartphone less. Which leads us straight into the jaws of paradox. By using Pause, we acknowledge that we are spending too much time on our phones. But our mechanism for controlling this character flaw is another app that we must download onto our phone? Pause's purpose is to get you to spend less time on such things as Pause. This is discombobulating.

Pause is painfully simple. Load the app, pick a set amount of minutes in which you will do something "real" (like go for a bike ride, or write a blog post about an app) and then switch your phone to Airplane Mode. An alarm will ring when your time is up and you can rejoin the wireless world.

Pause is similar to desktop apps like Freedom, which aim to carve out periods of focused time safe from the world of online and other digital distractions. I've always looked askance at these "productivity" apps. Any switch that can be flipped to turn things off can just as easily be turned back on. The ability to control one's distraction depends on willpower, and I've always been skeptical that a software program can somehow improve one's reserves of will. (The same obviously holds true for fitness apps that try to encourage diet control.)

Ah, but Pause adds a twist! Pause has figured out a way to incentivize smartphone non-use, by adding a dose of competition!

Use Pause to free yourself from your phone while competing with others to see who can stay "offline" the longest. Pause will track and monitor the amount of time you spend offline.

How does Pause do this? By inviting you to log in to Pause with your Facebook account, and urging you to invite your Facebook friends to sign up with Pause. After that, presumably, you won't be able to resist constantly checking the Pause Leaderboard to see whether you are stomping all your friends into the dust with your amazing ability to not use your phone.

This is brilliant. Instead of griping at the (supposedly soon to disappear) injunction to turn off our devices when our airplanes take off or land, we'll just cackle to ourselves with glee at our chance to accrue even more "off" minutes. We'll have a readymade excuse for not answering inconvenient texts or emails -- we needed to get that extra half an hour of off time to retake the top spot on the leaderboard.

Imagine the network effects that will kick in if the competition not to use one's phone's goes viral! The whole emerging mobile economy could be in danger.

How will you check the leaderboard (or Facebook, for that matter) if your phone is turned off because you are competing so hard? Well, that brings us back to the crucial epistemological contradiction embodied in Pause. How do you pause Pause? To use it is to acknowledge that you shouldn't be using it. The act of inviting your friends to use it is also surely another distraction for them, the kind that you should be eschewing. Any brain cells whatsoever devoted to considering where one ranks on the leaderboard would be more profitably expended on doing something "real," no?

There's nothing more real than just hitting the off button. You don't need an app for that.

For Android and iOS.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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App Of The Week Facebook Pause Productivity Apps