A Cell Light
by IG on June 30, 2013

illuminated paper cell phones


Exploring ideas
around light, connectivity & relationships
through critical design practice

An artist or designer can reframe what we take for granted to show a new way of seeing. This is the art of making strange, perhaps a delightful experience in itself, as seeing the familiar anew can also offer a critique of our choices taken for granted. Such a critical practice can cause us to examine the impact of our choices on ourselves, our impact on the environment, and to reexamine our values in light of our fragility.

[An Unexpected Interruption]

The muffled sound of a doorbell was coming from her purse. She reached in and emerged with a phone jingling a tassel and bell, “Hi-yah! Not bad. What are you doing?” Her companion flashed a look of resignation and went back to his dinner.

The cell is the building block of the organism. What is the “cell” phone the building block of? We usually talk of our phones ringing, or having to answer the phone, rather than receiving a call or having to answer a call from someone. It sounds as if the device has a life of its own, your phone is calling. Are “smart” phones really intelligent, or do they even really enhance our intelligence?

These intentionally naïve questions are expanded by the psychologist Sherry Turkle (2011), who feels that our devices are teaching us a bad habit: how to be “alone together.” The amount of life-mediation that a computing device affords is proportional to the demands that it places on us to use it. She encourages us to consciously make the effort to relight the candle of personal communication.

Computing devices have made an extraordinary evolution from the room-sized sentries of punch card machines to the black boxes of personal computers hidden under desks and jacked into with screens and keyboards. The electromagnetic spark hidden inside the computer is beginning reveal itself. Screen and computer merge into one device. Screen glass on a mobile or tablet device now spreads to the very edge; and devices themselves seem to glow and pulse with a life of their own. In the dim light, our phone now casts its internal light on our faces. The cell phone becomes a shining beacon that spotlights us in a crowd and declares our connection to the computer’s spark.

“Is it possible to find the candle of human warmth in the spark of an electronic box?”


[Paper cell phones]


Is it possible to find the candle of human warmth in the spark of an electronic box? First, we might look at the materials. Plastic, metal, and glass are not warm materials like paper. Then we could look at the behavior. Rather than using light to send our minds and voices to a distant space, perhaps we could use it to bring us back to the moment. A phone made out of paper could begin to glow and flicker when it sensed another paper phone was near. In their candle-like behavior, they could have an invisible dialogue like a wind passing through the room. Their glow would signal a like-minded person, one who also was a member of the paper phone community. Rather than sending our attention elsewhere, the paper phone would signal a sympathetic mind was near.

When paper phones are piled up together, perhaps they could pulse as if they were having a dinner conversation, and serve as role models for human behavior. Perhaps these communal phones could even have a spirit of generosity built-in where they wirelessly balance their battery charges, lifting the weakest from lifelessness.

For it is an obvious fact that paper is more fragile than plastic, glass, or steel. Indeed the white paper looks a lot like a burial shroud and has a certain solemnity. But perhaps that delicacy would engender feelings of care from their owners, who would not casually throw away their phone when a new model emerged.

Perhaps the paper skin could be renewed in a way that was more respectful of the environment than the traditional smart phones. Paper, after all, is what we are used to wrapping things in. Think of the green paper hiding the plump mandarin orange or the silken mulberry fibers in the paper diffusing a Japanese lantern. Simple materials can evoke complex and rewarding emotions.

Certainly a paper phone would be impractical, but considering the reality of such a device can help us peel back the wrappings of our assumptions about the use of technology. We can make sure that we are raising a lantern that illuminates our communal needs rather than arbitrarily following the tendency of an electronic spark to make us be “alone together.” Making the familiar become strange can help us gain critical distance and new understanding. ♦


[Paper cell phones having a communal love-in]


See my process notes.

Turkle, S. (2011, March 25). TEDxUIUC – Sherry Turkle – alone together. Retrieved from http://tinyurl.com/5w7vgsj

Text and visuals © Ian Grivois, 2013

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