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A case for being present

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Yondr pouches that lock away phones. (Najd Ayari/The Collegiate)

By Aaron Stoner

December 16, 2014 –

I was at a concert a few years ago, downtown Cleveland. It was December, the beginnings of what was sure to be an arctic winter. It felt like it had already been snowing for months. The venue was the Masonic Temple a few blocks from Cleveland State University. I had been listening to The 1975, a band from London, for the last few years and was absolutely enamored with their sound. I had seen them the prior summer in Royal Oak, Michigan and the show was electric. My energy was high at the thought of getting to see them again in such a short time. I had heard the venue was very cool and unique, not to mention it had a capacity of just over a few thousand. It was sure to be a very exciting and intimate concert.

When the show got underway, and the band began to blaze through an eclectic setlist of nonstop, hooky high tempo songs, the energy the band possessed was entirely palpable. But it wasn’t long before I began to notice many of those around me, especially those within the surging mass of those standing on the main floor, watching not just with their eyes but through the brightly lit screens of their cell phones. I realized not even seconds later, that I too had my phone held out, recording the band as they went on to play “Heart Out.” It was the fifth video I had recorded up until that point. In those moments, I thought that recording short videos of the band and posting them as a “show and tell” online later was just as important as being present, in the moment, and simply watching and letting that be enough. What’s interesting is some time later, Matt Healy, the frontman for The 1975, would address the crowd, surely noticing the abundance of cellular phones pointing at him and his mates as they performed and poured their hearts out into every second of their performance. Healy asked the crowd if they’d be willing to put their phones down for the next song, don’t Snapchat or record, but just be here, promising the memory of the next performance would be better than any video on your phone.

I believe as I’ve watched and listened to not just The 1975, but other artists and bands, entertainers, as well as big time athletes and coaches, that there is this heightened awareness of what social media and our phones are doing to us. How while incredibly innovative and helpful, especially for those of us who are now too lazy to even text, (thanks Siri) our phones are distracting us and even preventing us from experiencing real connection.

Yondr is a new startup in San Francisco, and because of CEO Graham Dugoni and the rest of his team’s vision, they have created something that takes our phones out of our hands and simply puts them in a “lay-a-way” if you will, in the form of a very simple and sleek pouch.  

“I’d say the real crystallizing moment for me was back in 2014,” Dugoni said. “I was at Treasure Island Music Festival, and I just saw so many people interacting not with the live music, but with their phones. It’s a shared mood when you’re at a show or a big festival, and I felt like phones cut away at that. I guess I just began to think of ways to help show them that technology isn’t slowing down, it’s everywhere. But we need to be able to live in a world where it can thrive, and I believe Yondr can help get them over the hump.”

Dugoni’s company has seen massive growth over the last few years, seeing their product cede markets such as courthouses and special events like weddings, retreats or conferences. But where Yondr has really taken off is at entertainment venues, specifically with big name comedians using the pouches at their shows.

“With some of the bigger name performers that have used our product – Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, Jack White to name a few – I think artists just intuitively understand the times we’re living in and especially what we offer,” Dugoni said. “So what we hear more than anything is because people’s phones aren’t on them, these entertainers speak to how the energy is just so much different at their shows.”

Another demographic Yondr is looking to tap into is at schools where Dugoni and his team believe creating a phone-free space, especially for facilitators, “makes everything easier, and gives students a sense of freedom.”  Dugoni also sees phones creating anxiety. “Everyone and everything you need to interact with is there. This then creates a blank slate and a safe space for students.”

Ultimately for Yondr and Dugoni, no matter where each of us are in our lives, high school or college students, young professionals, or even a mom or dad, their mission is quite simple, “Be here now.”

“Honestly, this is something I’ve been thinking about for the last seven or eight years,” Dugoni said. “The modern U.S. is pretty much all about selling shit, and trying to keep people on their phones, and that’s really ‘the man’ throttling the love out of things.”

Dugoni went on, reminding us that whether we’re in class, at a comedy club or at a concert, to remember to simply try and be present.

“This is about you, this is about us. You know it’s super lame staring down at your phone all the time, and that need really tears away at the fabric of society and connecting,” Dugoni said. “For me and for Yondr, yeah it’s a social movement, but really it’s about finding meaning. It’s my job to stay close to the pulse of what’s happening within society and continue to try and offer solutions, and I believe Yondr’s doing that.”

May 5, 1998-

One of my very first concert experiences was when I was a freshman in high school. I was 15 years old, and was going to see one of my favorite bands, Dave Matthews Band; a sold out show in a venue that held over 12,000 at Van Andel Arena, downtown Grand Rapids. Up until that point, the few shows I had been to were pretty much all at small venues like local coffee shops where the capacity was 100 people maybe. My buddy Micah and I had upper level seats, but they offered an amazing birds eye view directly down the length of the stage; perfect. Our excitement was brimming as the band walked out onto the stage. The lights swelled and the band was illuminated, as Dave began to strum vigorously on his Gibson, launching into classics like “Tripping Billies,” “Stay,” “Satellite” and “Ants Marching.” I remember looking down at Carter Beauford, the best drummer of all time as far I was concerned as he played methodically, with sheer precision and acute speed, drumming like I had never witnessed. I was moved, and I was awed. And then the lights dimmed to an entire, all encompassing darkness. Dave’s playing slowed, and he began to strum the opening to the massive hit, “Crash.” And that’s when it happened. I looked out on a sea of my fellow concert goers, and saw not cell phone screens lit up recording Snapchats or taking Insta selfies, but I saw a sea of tiny flames. It felt heavenly, and I remember being keenly aware of how special this moment was, because it was communal. I was sharing it not just with my best friend, but 12,000 others who while maybe I didn’t know any of their names, where they lived or what their stories were; in that moment, we all were entirely connected, because we were sharing something extraordinary.

I think about how magical that night was, and how vastly different our experiences are today because of what cell phones and social media offer us. I think to myself, sure I’m grateful for my iPhone’s technological prowess and the 24/7 connection to the sports world it affords me. But when I think back on that night, another part of me realizes how important it is that we all remember to be present and truly connect with one another. Whether it’s on campus, in the classroom, or at the next huge summer music festival with your boy Kendrick headlining.

Wherever it is, maybe they’ll be a Yondr pouch available to safely secure and lock your phone away for the next few hours, but if not, maybe just toggle the switch to vibrate, press the crescent moon to silent, and see how you feel. Take a breath, and remember where you are, who you’re with, how lucky you are to be in that moment, and just be here. Trust me, it’ll be enough. You’ll see.

GRCC STUDENTS REACT

Yondr, a startup in San Francisco, California, provides entertainment venues, schools and other settings with a pouch that lock our phones for the duration of a certain event. At schools, Yondr is placing their product in classrooms to aid teachers in battling cell phone distraction. The Collegiate conducted its own “case study” at Grand Rapids Community College to gather insight from students and teachers in different classroom settings. Each time students were asked to lock their phones away for a class period and then detail their experience after the class finished.

Zach Schondelmayer felt the distraction from others not on their phones helped his own learning experience tremendously. “I wish it was mandatory,” Schondelmayer said. “I felt good, ‘clean’ if that makes sense. Although I keep my phone put away during class, I felt less busy in my head. I had a clearer idea of the class subject, and was more in tune with the dialogue. Focus was up, distractions were down.”

Professor Maryann Lesert commented after the pouches were used during her creative writing night class.

“Discussions took a bit of coaxing, as they usually do, but students seemed to be actively listening to each other and responding,” Lesert said. “One simple, noticeable difference: seeing students faces upright. I didn’t notice any of the down-turning of faces or fidgeting with phones that I often see as the night wears on.”

YONDR’s pricing for school’s hovers around $15-30 per student annually, with each school receiving enough cases to guarantee all students in the program will be covered.

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