PhoneStack: Next Time We Meet, Let’s Do This

Tech history professor David Stearns pointed out a post on Kempt magazine about a new idea for social gatherings called PhoneStack.

It works like this: as you arrive, each person places their phone facedown in the center of the table. As the meal goes on, you’ll hear various texts and emails arriving… and you’ll do absolutely nothing. You’ll face temptation—maybe even a few involuntary reaches toward the middle of the table—but you’ll be bound by the single, all-important rule of the phone stack.

Whoever picks up their phone is footing the bill.

As Dr. Stearns points out, there are at least two reasons to love this idea. First, “Instead of pretending that mobile phones are not really a distraction, it puts them front and center, acknowledging their potential for disruption.” Everyone who stacks their phone is saying that, for a few short moments, the people around them are the most important things in the world and that they have their full attention.

Second, ideas like this show us something about the way individuals and groups react to new technology. “When social groups adopt a new device, they often create rules or games like these to govern the use of that device when gathered together.”

Of course, this might not work for every gathering (Kempt got a boatload of negative responses and exceptions), but I do love the intentionality of a group of people acknowledging the challenges of smartphones and choosing to do something together to enrich their time.

Best app of 2012?

[HT: David Stearns]

Published by

John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at

5 thoughts on “PhoneStack: Next Time We Meet, Let’s Do This”

  1. I love it. but Per: Kempts “Defending the Phone Stack”: an exception to 36 hours after a first date? Really? I would say that is a bad way to begin a relationship.

  2. I love this idea too! Recently my friends and I who were in a discipleship group that started 11 years ago met for our annual weekend retreat. (We have now been scattered over the country but have been committed to meeting the first weekend in December every year.) We have the deepest emotional and spiritual bond that I have ever experienced (and VERY rarely seen in other groups). God knit us together in a very special way.

    This year I noticed that during our precious time together, three of the five girls were almost constantly on their electronic devices. It happened that these were the single girls. But it REALLY bothered me. After the weekend, I asked the other married mom if she had noticed it too – she had – and we both had the same response to it… Our tendancy was to go ahead and get out our own devices even though we probably wouldn’t have touched the the whole weekend otherwise.

    I don’t know if it’s because they are at a different stage of life or I just happened to notice it because media ecology is fascinating to me so I read everything I can find about, but I was so bothered by the fact that our devices were interfering with our precious face to face time. I think also interferred with our time with God – I have treasured the hundreds of time we have spent on our faces before God together – these prayer sessions have sometimes lasted between 1-2 hours. This year – it was 20 minutes long.

    This isn’t the only time I’ve run into this problem – family gatherings for holidays can’t seem to occur without Facebook,constant checking of sport scores, and YouTube for entertainment. My problem is, how do you even bring up an idea like the “Phone Stack” without offending your closest friends and relatives?

    When I’ve tried to suggest that we limit our device usage when we’re together, I’m met with anger and outrage that I would mention such a thing – people have a right to do whatever they want right?

    I think this response is mainly caused by a lack of awareness of the real damage that current technology is doing to our relationships, but I really don’t know why people respond the way they do.

    As I said, technology fascinates me, and my strongest spiritual gift is teaching and leadership. Over the years, I learned a LOT about being gentle and loving and non-condescending in this area, but I can figure out how to make a difference with those I love most.

    I’m DESPERATE for any thoughts/suggestions/insights that readers may have.

  3. The “stack” reminds me of a totem, which can be symbolic of tribal unity. Fun idea, though I’m finding that smart device use tends to self-regulate in proportion to the quality of the gathering. I’ve been among friends where the conversation was so engaging that nobody dared disrespect the energy by checking their device.

    Here’s a place where they could -really- use a “Device Totem” at the door:

  4. I really like this idea. I’ve often been frustrated by friends and family that feel their phone is more important than the people around them. Many who do this will say that’s not what they think, but their actions say otherwise.

    There are obvious exceptions to this (e.g. doctors on call), but let’s be honest – that’s a tiny minority of the population.

    Perhaps the best example of this was coming back from a holiday and finding that everyone already knew what we’d done because one of my friends had updated Facebook in realtime. So the rest of us had no news to tell and it completely ruined the excitement of sharing that in person with our friends. Unrelated to that, I eventually got rid of my Facebook account because I found it was taking away from my relationships.

    I think there’s great value in agreeing to leave your phones in the centre of the table for social gatherings, and shows the strength of the friendship (or perhaps it shows how likely the friendship is to become and stay strong).

  5. Really loved your article and the comments on here! Thank you for mentioning it and sharing with your readers. and i’m really glad you take to the idea of the game.

    I don’t have the time at the moment but i’d like to respond to some of the comments on here soon if that’d be okay. I’m excited to be able to talk about what kind of thoughts and conversations the idea of my game has brought out as i’m interested in hearing more from other people!

    Thanks again! and please check out our Official Facebook PhoneStack page =).

    -Lil b

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