Meet the man making phone-free spaces happen – in concerts, schools and even courtrooms.
When the musician Prince used to perform live, he would have a dedicated security detail on hand to shine a light at any person in the audience who dared to pull out their phone to take pictures. Some comedians now call people out if they catch them sneaking a peek at their screens and occasionally have them read their messages aloud. Many performers have become so frustrated at audiences staring at their phones or videoing them on-stage that they have refused to play.
California-based Yondr offers a low-fi solution to the woes of these performers: a magnetically sealable pouch in which audience members lock away their phones for the duration of the show. Show-goers keep hold of their pouch throughout – so no phone separation anxiety – and these can be unlocked at any time using a Yondr device outside in the foyer, in case they need to make an emergency call.
“It’s very difficult to avoid the solicitations of that thing buzzing in your pocket for three hours,” says Yondr’s founder, Graham Dugoni, when we meet in his company’s peaceful HQ just outside Venice Beach, Los Angeles, which has some cell-phone-free areas. “Phones are designed to capture your attention and draw you in.” Before he was an entrepreneur, Dugoni was a professional soccer player and understands the pressure of having to perform in front of a crowd. He believes that the urge to look at our phone is not an addiction but rather something that’s now hardwired into us, a bodily impulse.
Civil society has also not kept pace with technology, Dugoni explains. It isn’t enough to trust that people will keep their phones in their pockets, so they need a nudge. “That’s one reason why our pouch is grey and very bland,” he says. “It’s there just to set a new ground rule, a new social etiquette.”
Yondr debuted in 2014 and had early adopters such as Chris Rock and Madonna. A mix of comedy clubs, theatres and concert halls now make its pouches a mandatory part of their live experience. Last year the company serviced six million seats worldwide, while its own phone-free music festival, Over Yondr, took place in June in the Catskills Mountains in New York state. The brand has tapped into a growing suspicion that the computer in your pocket is changing how we gather and socialise. Venues say that Yondr can be the difference between an absent-minded audience glancing at their screens or one swept up in a collective experience.
“There’s a complete shift in the attention span of the crowd,” says Lucy Sinsheimer, talent co-ordinator at comedy club Zanies in Nashville, Tennessee, which uses Yondr for almost all of its shows. Comedians tell Sinsheimer that it makes them feel free to try out new stuff, even if it might not bring the house down. “Comics feel much safer on stage knowing that people aren’t going to record the material they’re working on and put it on the internet without their consent,” she says.
This is not just a question of copyright but also one of privacy. Dugoni’s inspiration for Yondr came in 2013 when he saw someone dancing in the crowd at a music festival, unaware that a total stranger was filming them, perhaps with the intention of putting the video online. “These days, we think that smoking on aeroplanes was the craziest thing in the world; to me, this is no different,” he says. “In the future, people will say, ‘Well, of course, you can’t videotape anybody, anywhere, all the time.’” Yondr also kits out US courtrooms seeking greater assurances that jurors can’t surreptitiously communicate or record testimonies on their phones.
“That’s how it came to me that device-free spaces would become a necessity in modern life,” the founder explains. “For a young person, going to school or a party, imagine knowing that something you might do could get recorded and stay online forever.”
About 2,000 schools in the US now use Yondr, as well as a growing number in Europe and Australia. Lennox Middle School, in a tough neighbourhood in Los Angeles, adopted the pouches last year after its 1,300 students returned from lockdowns glued to their phones. “What had once been a minor annoyance meant that we could no longer get our work done,” says principal Lissett Pichardo. It wasn’t just texting in class, it was playground punch-ups on Tiktok and students taking unwanted photographs of faculty members.
Of course, there was fierce resistance – some children tried to crack their pouches open on the desk – and parents also worried that kids would be left helpless without their phones if someone with a gun showed up at the school (a depressingly frequent occurrence in the US). “Any first responder will tell you the last thing they want in that situation is people calling up giving false information, clogging up the airwaves, or parents showing up,” says Pichardo. “But I get it, on a gut level.”
Nevertheless, the principal pressed on and says that the pouches have helped kids get used to not having their phones with them for at least eight hours a day; locking up mobiles has become less necessary as students learn to switch them off and keep them in their bags.
Perhaps, for many of us, the fatigue of being always online will eventually take the sheen off our persistent screen time. Dugoni was encouraged by a recent trend among younger people who covet flip phones that can only make calls and send and receive text messages. “We’re moving back to simpler is better,” he says. American teens are also clamouring after the point-and-shoot digital cameras that were sold in the mid-2000s.
Yondr will release an at-home version of its signature product later this year. It’s a basic beech box that stops phones receiving a signal and keeps them out of sight, out of mind. It can also be locked. The idea is to keep the box in one room of the house, where family members can go to check their phone.
If this all sounds a bit ritualised, then that’s the point. Just as smokers now instinctively know to go outside when they need to light up in public, the way to break the pattern of whipping out your phone at any given moment is to set basic boundaries that become unspoken rules about when it is socially acceptable. As a business, Yondr has had success because it’s helped venues make those boundaries clear and unambiguous for everybody.
Being phone-free won’t make a show great or a dinner party come to life but it can help to keep everyone present and in the room. Dugoni says that he has watched that change come over people after first putting their device in a pouch before a show: their hands initially twitch at their pockets but within minutes they’re drinking and making conversation with other people in the queue. “Those are the little interactions that make up civil society and are, right now, being sliced up by technology,” he says. “If you allow those moments to flourish, while centring the experience around culture, that’s a good recipe.”
At a bookshop in Stockholm’s Old Town, people are being stopped at the door. It may seem harsh but the purpose is all good. Owner Helena Landberg simply reminds people that this is a phone-free book event. “Just slip your phone into this and carry it with you,” she says and hands them a small Yondr pouch, which locks as soon as it is closed. “When you leave you can just unlock it again,” she says reassuringly.
Whether it is the complimentary wine or detachment from their phones (or both), people seem curious and ready to talk. “It’s so refreshing,” says Cecilia Trolle, who is attending with her friend Frida Hübinette. “You become more present without your phone.”
Meanwhile, the centre of attention for the evening – Swedish author and columnist Marcus Dunberg – has taken the stage to talk about his debut novel Skuggland, about bullying at a prestigious school in Stockholm, that came out in March. If it wasn’t for the host for the evening, Mia Ljungberg Nevado, founder of the LookUp movement, this would be the moment that people usually reach for their phones to capture the event for their social media. But instead of phones in the air, everyone keeps their heads up, focused on the conversation.
“Did you know that the average person spends four non-work-related hours a day on their phone? Imagine how many books you could read instead,” Ljungberg Nevado tells the audience. “My movement, LookUp, is about inspiring and curating authentic experiences – without phones – where people can just be, enjoy and connect with each other.”
In 2018, Ljungberg Nevado started paying attention to how our phones and screens were beginning to take away focus from our experiences, whether it was a sunset by the ocean, a museum visit, a concert, a lecture or dinner with friends and family. “I saw a need for a deeper human connection in a world where we are spending more and more time in our digital lives and on our screens. That said, I am absolutely not against phones or technology or social media. I just want us to have better etiquette and balance about when and how to use it.”
This is the first time that Ljungberg Nevado has used Yondr pouches and attendees are positive about going phone-free. “There is 100 per cent focus on the conversation,” says Eva Redhe. Another guest, Angelina Jolin adds: “I wish we could go back to what it was like before smartphones arrived. This reminds you what an event is really all about.”
At the end of the talk, not a single phone has disrupted the occasion. Bookshop owner Landberg is over the moon. “Did you notice that there were no phones ringing or a person desperate to take a call?” she says. “Just a slight panic by someone who needed to find out what time it was.”