Light(ing) a New Path

By Tad Vezner


Kaiwei Tang (M.B.A. ’06, M.DES. ’14) was sitting in a New York subway station, shortly after leaving his job working for a major phone manufacturer. He swore he’d never build another phone in his life.

Looking up, he saw “nine out of 10 people, just swiping.” Tang remembers seeing a woman standing next to her stroller. The baby inside was crying, while the woman blithely swiped away.

“Is this what humanity should be?” he asked himself.

He left the subway and reported to the Google incubator that served as his workspace. Most of the other people working there were entrepreneurs and investors, developing new consumer apps. They were all talking about garnering user attention with their startup ideas, gushing excitedly about how much time they could capture, how much data they could collect.

“That’s how all social media makes money—engagement,” says Tang, CEO and co-founder of Light Phone, Inc. “And if you follow that, no wonder this is how we are.”

But one person at the incubator shared his discomfort with the way things seemed to be going: an artist and designer named Joseph Hollier. Together, the two of them started a test group.

“Just tell me, when was the last time anyone in your life said, ‘I just spent six hours on Facebook, and I loved it!’” —Kaiwei Tang

They gave a stripped-down version of a smartphone—literally just a phone with no apps, camera, or any attachments whatsoever—to a bunch of busy New Yorkers and witnessed something surprising.

First came the anxiety, of course—all those missed emails, no quick streaming fix from apps engineered to ensnare attention and emotions.

But then, after a couple hours, a new emotion took over: relief.

“We interviewed everyone, and they said this was the best day of their week. They didn’t have to always think about tweeting or emailing,” Tang says, before laughing and adding, “Just tell me, when was the last time anyone in your life said, ‘I just spent six hours on Facebook, and I loved it!’”

Born and raised in Taiwan as the son of a school teacher and a military general, Tang got his first job after graduating from Illinois Institute of Technology as a product design and engineering lead for Motorola. He learned about everything from communications satellite technology to mass phone production.

But he found his motivation flagging.

“I quit because I had the feeling that this is the golden age of smartphones, and I thought, ‘No one needs a new smartphone every three months. Why are we creating this thing?’ I also had the nagging feeling that my smartphone was taking over my life,” Tang says.

“If you take a vacation, sit on a beach, try to relax, try to watch the waves, the sun, the clouds…and then something pops up from work, you can’t stop thinking about it, and it kind of ruins your whole day.”

But after witnessing the relief of New Yorkers freed from their need to swipe, Tang saw the root of the problem. Not the phone itself, but its tether to the “attention economy.”

The next year, in 2015, Light Phone Inc., was born, both as a manufacturer and service provider. Since then, it has grown to nearly 100,000 subscribers—and has even been integrated in some schools.

The Buxton School, a boarding school in Massachusetts, banned smartphones for students and offered Light Phones instead. In a video featuring school staff, one faculty member yearned for the “productivity of boredom.” Another noted that students “can’t imagine life without [their smartphones]” and spoke about their phones using “the language of addiction.”

But student after student featured in the video then talked about how not having a smartphone forced them to develop, gain confidence, and talk to people more.

Tang says he’s in discussion with approximately 20 more schools to do the same thing.

Some big names in the tech industry have since invested—including those who helped create the social media landscape and who now see some need for moderation. Biz Stone, who co-founded Twitter, invested in Light Phone, Inc. in 2022.

Tim Kendall, a former president of the social media app Pinterest, has become both an investor and board member for Light Phone. He points to recent studies revealing increased depression among teens.

“I think the phone thing is so similar to the food thing in what people battle,” Kendall says. “The only sustainable thing is to get the thing that you want to eat every night out of your house.”

The Light Phone II

Kendall remembers visiting Tang and Hollier in New York after researching their efforts.

“I knew within a few minutes that I wanted to support them, because they were so passionate about the problem,” Kendall says. “I support people who are zigging when you want to be zagging. You have to be contrarian, and you gotta be right. To be able to design and manufacture this thing with the limited amount of capital they’ve raised is extraordinary.”

When it comes to Tang in particular, Kendall adds, “I think he’s an outlier among outliers. In some ways he’s selling virtue, and that’s hard. And he doesn’t waver on that.”

Still, some users have pushed back on the Light Phone’s bare-bones concept. In response, Tang says the new Light Phone II includes features such as the ability to text and find directions.

When asked whether this is a betrayal of the original concept, Tang stresses that he’s adhering to three core principles. No “infinite feeds,” i.e., no social media. No ads. And finally, a finite, limited number of quick-to-use, utilitarian tools—and nothing else.

“Users should ‘hammer their nail’ and put it away for the rest of the day. You don’t swipe your hammer for five hours so the hammer company can make money,” Tang says.

Asked about the future of phone technology, he says he’s hopeful.

“One thing I find most encouraging is that most of our users are Gen Z. I think young people are finally realizing the problem,” Tang says.

“Every year the conversation is getting bigger and more intense. The bigger the interconnectedness, the bigger the pushback. And that makes me feel good about our future.”