Technologies of avoidance: The swear jar and the cell phone
First Monday

Technologies of avoidance: The swear jar and the cell phone by Ethan R. Plaut

Technologies of communication and use receive much scholarly attention while technologies of avoidance and non-use receive comparatively little. A framework for rethinking limitations we place on our own uses of digital media is developed through a case study of one apparently simple pre-digital tool of avoidance, the swear jar, paying special attention to the physical environments and social contexts that determine its power. Those insights are then applied to numerous digital examples, especially mobile technologies. Among other conclusions, we must expand the ideas of “communication technologies” and even “communication” itself to accommodate tools and practices both old and new for carving out quiet.


The swear jar
Digital restraint




“Containers, like fire, have a special relation to the negative; holding presupposes vacancy.” — John Durham Peters [1]

Communication technologies need not be designed solely for the people who use them; they can also be designed for people who wish not to use them in certain ways or even not at all. Amplified sound, for example, imposes listening on anyone in earshot, a classic case of technology testing the relationship between one’s right to speak and others’ rights not to hear [2], or, in the language of this special issue, rights to be “non-users.” We might lament the loss of shared sonic space in the transition from boomboxes to earbuds yet simultaneously celebrate how personal listening technologies afford us more power over not only what we hear but also what we don’t. This ability to limit one’s own uses, to control one’s own silences, relies on elements including individual will, social norms, particular technologies, and more. Here I focus on those “technologies of non-use,” or what one might more broadly call “tools of communication avoidance.”

This introduction sets out a theoretical framework for thinking about “communication avoidance,” technologies thereof, and the inherent difficulties of studying it. Today’s technologies of digital avoidance automatically block messages based on content, time, location, and many other criteria. This makes analysis so complex, one hardly knows where to begin. So I begin instead by examining a single technology chosen for its apparent simplicity: the glass “swear jar” into which people toss pocket change as punishment for their foul language. The swear jar’s use as a point of reference is not due to some particular features it shares with digital media; it is useful precisely because of its lack of features. Shorn of technological complexity, this analysis is able to focus on the basic mechanisms of avoidance and social contexts in which they take shape. This produces a number of preliminary conclusions about technologies of avoidance. Although the jar itself is simple, its effects vary depending on factors including the physical embodiment of the device, its location in space, the rules and other cultural context within which it functions, the particular people using it, and the idiosyncratic flows of communication that the jar more and less successfully impedes. This prompts a reevaluation of the very concept of “communication technology,” which has implications for both the engineers who design these technologies and the scholars who study them. Then, in the following section, I examine more technologically complex digital devices in light of this changed perspective, setting out a new research program on communication avoidance. This analysis is grounded in a number of new technologies that are already available to the public but concludes with a glimpse into the patent-application imaginary from which one can deduce both the ways in which engineers have conceived the devices we already have and their visions of what might come next.

Framing questions of avoidance

For the purposes of this argument, I focus primarily on the exercise of individual will to carve out quiet in one’s own life. The strongest cases involve not merely moment-to-moment decisions, but rather decisions that will affect one’s own future self. I define this paradigmatic form of communication avoidance as the willful choice to limit one’s own future communication choices [3]. This is a special case of a phenomenon economists have called “commitment devices,” i.e., ways by which we restrain our own future selves (e.g., Bryan, et al., 2010; Elster, 1979, 2000; Schelling, 2006, 1984, 1978; Strotz, 1955). Common examples can be found in finance, such as retirement accounts from which withdrawal is prevented until a certain time has passed, but also in many other aspects of life. In communication, one extreme example of this is the vow of silence. Other commitment devices take form as physical objects, such as the swear jar on which the first half of this essay hinges, or a timer-controlled safe, which might be used to keep a panoply of vices at bay. Increasingly, as we will see in the latter half of this essay, these devices are written in software code.

While our primary interest is in the willful choice to limit one’s own future communication choices, some devices relevant to our discussion are used on others rather than the self; likewise some devices for limiting communication are also used for limiting other kinds of action. The umbrella term “persuasive technologies” (e.g., Fogg, 2003) might be applied here, but communication avoidance is a peculiar case of persuading oneself not to act in certain ways. Neither do these attempts by the current self to control the future self fall neatly into the conventional distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. One’s intrinsic motivation of today, through the device, might become an extrinsic motivation of tomorrow.

As new forms of media emerge, so do new tools of avoidance. Often these elements are combined and difficult to fully distinguish from one another. The example of headphones is again convenient as a demonstration of ways that a medium of communication can also be a means to avoid it. People in public often wear headphones to signal they prefer to be left alone, even if there is no audio actually playing in them. This avoidant aspect can be located in Table 1 among other ways in which new technologies are implicated in ongoing changes to power relations:


New communication
technologies enable
Note: Larger version of table available here.


In a very schematic way this table organizes the push and pull of communicative power that co-evolves with technologies. Some devices might fall clearly into one quadrant or another, but often a new technology has implications in all four [4]. Regarding digital media, three of the four quadrants in the above chart are already regarded as major research programs and policy agendas. The centralizing powers of digital media in the hands of propagandists and censors are areas of ongoing controversy, as is the decentralization of the means of symbolic production into the hands of publics and individuals with so much to say. I focus instead on the fourth quadrant, of the ways individuals take control over what they don’t say, don’t show, don’t hear, don’t see.

The diverse and unpredictable effects of new technologies cannot be fully detailed and contained in such a chart. Noise abatement as a political project, or the search for collective solutions to noise pollution, might be considered a positive “centralization of control of silences.” By empowering individuals to carve out quiet in their own lives, we run a certain risk of depoliticizing our noisy problems. This could play into the neoliberal project of placing such burdens on individuals [5] rather than seeking institutional solutions. Some technologies of individual avoidance, such as noise-canceling headphones, are marketed as luxury goods (e.g., Hagood, 2011), which might exacerbate inequality. Attempts to position digital non-use and media refusal as political projects have thus far been fragmented and problematic (Jurgenson, 2013; Portwood-Stacer, 2013, 2012; Werro, 2009) but still have much unrealized potential. The conclusion below addresses the possibility of more collective action on shared infrastructures of quiet, but I also argue that individual-level tools of avoidance can and must be part of the remedy — if we study, build, disseminate, and use them in thoughtful ways.

Investigating avoidance

It is easy to become distracted by the technical complexity of these tools of digital avoidance, which can use content, time, place, and many other criteria to automatically determine whether communication should be blocked. To be dazzled by these technical affordances is to risk missing physical and social contexts that shape the blocks’ actual power. The swear jar’s very limited features allow us to focus on these other factors. We will find that even the apparently slight blockages of the swear jar quickly grow into knotted structures of communication and avoidance thereof when considered in social context. Insights derived from this analysis of a bare-bones device will not map perfectly onto the more sophisticated technologies of digital avoidance, but they offer a good place to begin.

In part, I argue that these tools of avoidance and quiet should be understood as “communication technologies” per se, which puts some pressure on that concept to expand beyond media that carry messages. For both better and worse, this expansion of “communication technology” and “communication” itself as concepts is an ongoing project featuring some of the field’s most interesting theorists including Douglas Kahn (2013, 1999) and John Durham Peters (2015, 2013, 1999), who have even analyzed the earth and sky as media. The central case study in this paper, the swear jar, is comparatively modest in size and scope, yet understanding it as a communication technology has important ramifications not only for communication theory but also for design.

A recent turn toward rethinking the “non-use of technologies” (Ames, 2013; Baumer, et al., 2013; Brubaker, et al., 2014; Ems, 2014; Hargittai, 2004; Satchell and Dourish, 2009; Selwyn, et al., 2005; Wyatt, et al., 2005; Wyatt, 2003; Wyatt, et al., 2002) as a phenomenon worthy of study has begun to make non-users more visible in scholarship. But there is more to do in representing non-users as dynamic and human. The “non” of “non-use” biases the mind from the start. To be defined negatively in this way is to appear static, a placeholder of a person lacking particular, relevant, positive attributes.

This is an issue not only of diction but also of research methods: How can one study people not doing things? One method is for researchers to patiently observe apparent inaction. For example, in The secret world of doing nothing, Ehn and Löfgren detail ways of “Doing an ethnography of non-events” [6]. Another method is to experimentally force a group of people off-line and then ask them to recount how their experiences changed (e.g., Kaun and Schwarzenegger, 2014). I take a different approach, analyzing tools of communication avoidance, or “technologies of non-use,” to illuminate the ways people are deliberately acting to carve out silences in their own lives.

This is not merely the “filtering out” of irrelevant or redundant information. We have little choice but to foreclose unique opportunities for genuine communion, as there are simply too many opportunities. Also, as we will see below, a puritanical impulse is often part of communication avoidance, whether policing the words we say or the content we download. That impulse is sometimes directed at others, especially children, and as new forms of media emerge, new tools for limiting communication are often marketed to parents. But this paper focuses less on rigid discipline than on free exercise of rights to silence and the tools that help make it possible.



The swear jar

In its simplest namesake form, it is a glass jar, typically labeled “swear jar,” often adding a specific amount of money that must be tossed in for each expletive said aloud. This is a fairly common communication technology, but I can locate no scholarship on the subject. Just as those who build and study communication technologies often think of and refer to their audiences and subjects as “users,” they have a related tendency to think of technologies in terms of sending and receiving messages. This is perhaps no surprise, as the foundational mid-century models for engineers (Shannon and Weaver, 1949) and social scientists (Lasswell, 1948) are both built on this premise, most famously summed by Lasswell as: “Who says what in which channel to whom with what effect?”

But one might assert that, on the contrary, it is equally important to ask: Who isn’t saying or listening in which channels creating what quiet? Satchell and Dourish write that “use and non-use are systemically related to each other as part of a broader framework” [7]. This broader framework should be understood to include cultural perspectives on the myriad processes of communication rather than solely the mechanical transmission of messages. I go a step further than Satchell and Dourish to argue that distinctions between technologies of communication and technologies of avoidance are artificial because all communication is fragmentary. This is not a glitch but a necessary, fundamental, and beautiful quality of communication, the contours of which are drawn a bit differently for each medium’s ways of simultaneously opening and closing. We cannot say it all or hear it all and should not wish it be any other way. Under these assumptions, analysis of the swear jar as a communication technology makes perfect sense.

A jar that is not always a jar

As we will see below, defining what exactly constitutes a “swear jar” is not as easy as it first appears, but begin by assuming that in contemporary usage, it is more or less synonymous with “cuss box” or “swear box.” Money is more easily seen in a translucent jar than in a wooden box, which has the potential to change its functions, and such physical variations receive much scrutiny below, but we begin by examining the device’s core functions and historical origins. The term “swear box” first appeared in print in 1890 [8], but this device, traveling under other names, has existed since at least the sixteenth century:

At Aberdeen in 1592 the attention of the council was specially engaged in repressing the swearing of “horrible and execrable oaths.” They proceeded to put on foot a system of fines, and with a degree of confidence that is hardly commendable, they authorised the heads of families to keep a box in which to place the mulcts they were empowered to inflict in their households. Servants’ wages were liable to be taxed at the will of their masters, and wives’ pin-money at the instance of their lords. [9]

Here the jar appears more a tool of censorship than of willful avoidance. The power relationships are also shaped by gender and class issues that recur across many historical and contemporary examples. The roles, however, are sometimes reversed. It is typical to find women stereotyped as the prudes in these narratives, e.g., references to “the girls” in an office instituting a swear box for foul-mouthed men, but also to find women in more permissive situations, such as actresses backstage or on set, reveling in their indiscretions [10].

Some of the most robust descriptions of the device appear in fiction, often to humorous effect, starting in the nineteenth century. In Thomas Henry’s novel Claude Garton, for example, the device is akin to a tithe box with a slit in the top, and the money is saved for a charitable cause. This plan for the money is a common element of the device but creates perverse incentives. When emptying the box and handing over its contents, a character exclaims: “We will do our best ... to swear you a much better subscription by next time you call. Before this we had no incentive. Your project transforms the practice, little as we relish it, into a philanthropic duty” [11]. A 1952 New York Times column [12] similarly advised that, if one’s accounts were in arrears, a swear box could be filled by inviting a group of friends over and asking “Do you like Truman, Eisenhower, or Taft?” In order to remedy this problem, some have gone so far as to suggest that the money be given to causes with which one disagrees. Another common inversion of the box’s ostensible purpose is depicted in this 1914 Punch cartoon:


Punch cartoon
Figure 1: “New proprietor of public-house (that levies a fine for every swear-word).
‘’Ere, Bill, that’s a penny you owe to the parson’s swear-box.’ Bill. ’I’d better do what I done afore — put a ’arf-crown in and ’ave a season-ticket’” (Baynes, 1914).


Social context and other factors clearly affect the ways in which the box works. Here in a pub, where alcohol loosens social mores, Bill has offered to pay in advance for 30 indecent outbursts [13]. This reframes the device as creating prepaid indulgences rather than having a punitive function. Still, these variations on the swear jar are minor compared to those described below. But before exploring more colorful variations on the jar, it is instructive to consider its functions in the artificially simplified — even counterfactual — context of a thought experiment:

Begin with an individual alone in a room without any ways for the outside world to listen in. The jar seems clearly intended to prevent the production of messages rather than consumption thereof (setting aside the possibility that foul language goes “from your lips to God’s ears”). For our lone tenant, conscience is the only apparent enforcement. However, assuming she takes her rules seriously, the structure of avoidance imposed by the jar might change drastically with the penalty; the situation is quite different between fines of 50 cents and 500 dollars. When our tenant’s partner moves in, the swear jar becomes a different thing. Perhaps the partner is simply not subject to the jar, but the original tenant keeps using it as before. Even so, the partner needn’t do anything to change the dynamic of enforcement. It becomes hard to tell whether our tenant is merely avoiding production of messages or if her motivations are reoriented to what her partner does and does not hear. Though mechanically the jar still functions to prevent production of messages, its raison d’être might become preventing consumption of same. The set of words that demand payment also may shift to the partner’s taste without her explicitly asking that it be so, for if our tenant utters a word she knows her partner considers foul, then paying up would sometimes be preferable to either (a) appearing to be in violation of one’s own rules or (b) getting into a discussion about this difference of opinion. The pure willfulness of the lone tenant is yet more distant with the addition of children over whom the jar is typically wielded as a tool of censorship.

All the variation in that imaginary example came about in a single place, with a single jar. But the “swear jar” has many other faces, often functioning as a figurative concept. It need not be a glass jar or a wooden box. Pretty much anything that holds money would suffice: an envelope, a drawer, perhaps even a bank account. The physicality of the object is however crucial. A jar on the kitchen counter potentially shapes interactions differently from one in the center of the living room table. While the jar is mobile, the drawer is not, and the bank account has no substantial presence in the house at all. One particularly foulmouthed man’s wife even sought to upgrade their ineffective jar by removing the money and instead placing something terrible inside that the man would have to touch each time he swore (Kirk, 2013). Her initial suggestion was a dog’s heart, though that was rejected in favor of a live, giant African millipede. Growing to a foot or more in length, the millipede required an upgrade from jar to aquarium.

Just as a swear jar is not always a jar, nor is it always a deterrent to swearing. As one language maven recommends, the jar might instead reward non-swearing — specifically, the replacement of curses with minced oaths such as “darn,” “shizzle,” and “frig”: “Every time you substitute a different word for a curse word, put a popcorn kernel in a jar. When the jar is full, make a popcorn party for yourself!” (Chapman, 2009; Weisberg, n.d.). Further, any word, and potentially any action, can be avoided. As one mother, a nurse by profession, explains, “The kids have started a swear jar for me. Every time I talk about work I have to put a dollar in it. In the space of two weeks, I think I’ve got something like $60 in there.” [14]

A cursory Internet search returns jars that demand payment for everything from smoking to mocking one’s own children to having suicidal thoughts: “put in $1 every time you think about killing yourself and, eventually, you can afford a gun,” one comedian morbidly suggests (Cubas, 2012). Crowdsourced lists [15] point to dozens of fictional examples from print, broadcast, and digital media, often similarly expanding beyond foul language to all manner of action.

The namesake version, a simple glass jar (or wooden box) that takes money for swearing, is the paradigmatic case. But the swear jar as a cultural concept, as a mode of avoidance, is open to wider interpretation of which the outer boundaries are unclear. It needn’t be a jar, nor fiduciary in its functioning, nor a deterrent to swearing. It loses all meaning and character if defined most broadly as a deterrent or punitive system for any kind of communication or other action — it would then contain most law and order [16] — which leaves us to make gestalt judgments whether this or that thing constitutes a “swear jar.” More to the point, this case study demonstrates that apparently incidental little conventions of quiet and other blockages to communication quickly spread out into complex systems when considered in context.

Swear Jar, 2.0

With digital augmentation, new layers of complexity begin to appear. Rife with both profanity and promises of self-improvement, the Internet has been welcoming to swear jars of various shapes and sizes. Micro-blogging service Twitter, for example, has had at least three different mechanisms inspired by the jar. One version [17] allows a group of friends to create a collective jar around a list of words they select — the site recommends “yolo” and “literally” — and then uses a digital payment system to collect fines when those words are Tweeted by participants. While that program recommends the funds ultimately be spent on “an awesome pizza party,” two other Twitter jars were designed to raise money for charitable causes. In both of those cases we find the perverse incentive system described above wherein the jar, contrary to its original purpose, motivates more swearing. One program [18] charged participating micro-bloggers £1 for each swear, contributing the money to UNICEF’s famine relief efforts in East Africa; a particularly generous and prolix donor was awarded the top spot for cursing 424 times. A related project allowed users to select among various charities to receive the windfall generated by profane tweets — reportedly totaling more than US$34,000 (Price, 2011).

Similar functions have proliferated in mobile devices. On Apple’s iOS platform for the iPhone alone, one finds: “Swear Jar” by Timevoid; “Swear Jar App” by ideabasin; “Swear Jar — Stop Swearing” by Fatema Lukmanjee; “iSwear: The Global Swear Jar” by Initech LLC; “Douchebag Jar” by Inc.; “Curse Jar” by Carl Giovannini; “Vicejar” by Vicejar LLC; “SinJar” by Andrew Goldstein; and “Piggy Jar” by Anurag Kapur. Some of these programs are quite minimal, with little more than an image of a jar and the option to add to it, watching an imaginary total amount rise, punctuated with a virtual coin’s “clink” or cash register’s “cha-ching.” Some apps will link multiple users so that friends can keep track of each other’s progress. Others allow for the creation of multiple custom jars to punish various actions. The most sophisticated of these iPhone apps is Vicejar [19], which can keep track of various different activities using self-report, the GPS in users’ phones (e.g., to track whether runners have fallen short of their goals), and human “regulators” nominated to track a user’s progress. All of this information triggers bank transfers into a “jar” savings account that is inaccessibly locked away for between three and 24 months.

We have traced a genealogy from a simple communication technology aimed at the “non-use” or “avoidance” of profanity, through a variety of analog variants, to digital versions used to constrain and control various kinds of action beyond communication. The media carrying our messages are not the only technologies shaping the content and character of our conversations. In the case study of the swear jar, the device’s physical embodiment, location, cultural context, users, and other peculiar factors interact to limit and change the course of communication. In the section below, we go beyond the physical simplicity of the jar to consider digital technologies that can be used, perhaps counterintuitively, as tools for limiting our own use of digital technologies. The number and complexity of these tools grow by the day beyond full catalogue or detail, and the swear jar is a more obvious precedent for some than others. Norms that the jar might bind in physical space will function somewhat differently in digital form. Where people together in a room found their interactions shaped by the jar, a more distantly distributed network of communication avoidance is possible with software. For better and worse, the loose in-person negotiation of the jar’s rules might be replaced with rigid automation. Still the analysis of this section largely holds for newer technologies, because the swear jar is a flexible object with which to think, an unembellished instantiation of an elemental communication technology: the device of committed avoidance.



Digital restraint

Limiting what messages come into one’s own devices has often been treated first as a parenting issue with special emphasis on profanity and pornography. This was true of court cases regarding what can be broadcast by radio [20], the emergence of “channel blocking” technologies for cable television (Meyerson, 1987), and many early attempts to limit the Internet.

Examples tie back to the swear jar in various ways. Products called Play Limit and Token Timer, for example, have especially strong surface similarities. A television or computer monitor is plugged into one of these devices, which is then in turn plugged into the wall. Usage time is titrated with physical tokens that, when inserted into the machine, allow electricity into the connected device for a certain number of minutes of media before power is cut off again. These products are typically marketed to parents, who give their children a media time allowance in the form of a handful of tokens. But there is no obvious reason why adults could not use this, or something like it, to control their own communication.

Less blunt than an all-or-nothing power switch is software that blocks access only to certain kinds of online content. In this case, although the technology was first popularized for use with children — and has been widely abused as a form of censorship — versions designed for adults who wish to limit their own use have become quite popular. The best known is LeechBlock, which restrains Internet browser use in highly customizable ways, such as limiting access to Facebook during working hours, limiting access to work e-mail at night, preventing any Internet use after midnight, etc. One can also adjust the severity of the deterrent or difficulty of circumventing the block, e.g., setting a password of one’s own choosing or instead being forced to enter randomly generated passwords of 32, 64, or 128 characters. For some users, however, the tedium of entering 128 random characters is not enough, as is clear from the comments section on LeechBlock’s download page, where one user [21] has asked to double the number to 256, while another has requested the option of a 1,000–character randomly generated password. (Of course this and other related programs are vulnerable to hacks, some quite simple, such as changing the time on the computer’s clock, while others function upstream at the router level, which demands more expertise). Despite the technological means of prevention being so different, there is some equivalence between these variable costs in amount of time lost typing nonsense and amount of money lost into the swear jar. In both cases, people can customize not only what actions are to be limited but also the cost of violation or circumvention. This makes possible a balance wherein deterrents are effective without disproportionately burdening people in exceptional situations that demand use — whether use of profanity, the Internet, or some other regulated activity.

The mobile

A similar pattern plays out with mobile phones. If one wants to go for a walk without using the phone, there is a wide range of options. Roughly going from lowest to highest physical barriers: one could simply not answer the phone; turn off its ringer; turn off its power; stuff it away in a backpack; take out its battery; give it to a companion with whom one is walking; leave it at home; lock it in a safe; and so on, up to the natural end of throwing it into a volcano. Most relevant here are modes of deliberate non-use enabled by the device itself: mute button, power switch, removable battery, etc.

Avoidance software for mobile phones has in some ways lagged behind that of personal computers, but it is catching up. Blanket access-blocking apps have appeared, as have simple timers that log minutes of non-use of the phone. “Unface” is a social network ironically dedicated to people trying to avoid Facebook. “FB Addict” and “Pocket Shrink — Internet Addiction Disorder” offer diagnostic quizzes for Facebook and internet addiction, respectively. “Biblical Encouragement — Pornography Addiction” offers Bible quotations interpreted as advice regarding the use and abuse of pornography. “Disconnect — With Andrew Johnson” is an audio program of mellifluous affirmations by a hypnotist who promises to help people use their technologies in more calming ways. From a technical standpoint, however, few of these apps go much beyond the analog functionality of a clock, quiz, text for reading, or audio for listening. One common way to use apps for partial avoidance is to uninstall them. Facebook is a good example in that it is possible but unwieldy to use in mobile browsers, so uninstalling the dedicated app maintains possibility of access but renders it cumbersome enough to discourage excessive use.

More sophisticated avoidance apps, especially for calls and text messages, are available. On Android phones, “Extreme Call Blocker” allows blocking of incoming and outgoing calls (the latter function being aimed at parents), with unwanted callers stopped using a range of options such as going straight to voicemail or hearing a busy signal. Text messages can be made to disappear immediately or go to a password-protected inbox located within the app, making no sound and leaving no trace in the normal messaging application. Apple does not allow developers to access such basic functions through their application programming interface, so no similar apps are available through the official store, but people who “jailbreak” their phones to allow unauthorized software (an action that invalidates Apple’s warranty on the device) can download “iBlacklist,” which offers a similar range of functions.

That being said, some of the most sophisticated avoidance software for phones today comes from device manufacturers including Apple as well as major telecommunications operators. Apple’s iPhones for example now offer a set of “do not disturb” features that place customizable limits on phone calls and text messages such that certain callers may be included or excluded at certain times. But here, as in examples above, the technologies for limiting children’s communication, rather than one’s own, are at the cutting edge. Services currently offered by major U.S. carriers including AT&T’s “Smart Limits,” Verizon’s “FamilyBase,” and Sprint’s “Mobile Controls” are all the work of a company called Location Labs [22]. The same company also provides separate GPS-based services that, for example, allow parents to track their children’s locations or automatically shut down a phone’s functions when it is traveling at a speed that would suggest the child is in a car (a service aimed at preventing drivers from fiddling with their devices).

There is some variation between the offerings from each phone carrier [23], but the rough outlines are quite similar. Although parents cannot actually listen to children’s calls or read their text messages, there are powerful tools that allow monitoring of who is calling whom, with what frequency, at what times of day, etc. Parents can use this information to determine what kinds of limitations should be implemented, and can make said changes without ever touching the children’s phones. Limitations include bandwidth caps, blocking certain phone numbers from calling or texting, blocking all calls during certain hours of the day, and blocking other specific functions such as video calls or app purchases.

The patchwork of mobile devices and other communications infrastructure complicates this a great deal. Some of the promised functions work with data sent over the cellular network but not over Wi-Fi. Some functions that Location Labs can implement easily in Android-based phones are difficult or impossible on iPhones, again because Apple limits developers’ access to their application programming interface (Robinson, 2013). But overall the level of control Location Labs offers through phone carriers is staggering. These features are mostly designed to limit others’ use, especially children, though it is easy to imagine a corporation using such surveillance and control on company-issued phones — or jealous lovers using it to investigate possible infidelities. In order to prevent the worst abuses, Location Labs has implemented a system that sends occasional reminders to users that their phones are being monitored, so although children (or anyone else) being controlled through the system have no way to opt out, they are at least aware of the incursion.

Stealthier forms of mobile device spyware, often marketed to jealous romantic partners, give no indication to the watched person. Such troubling, invasive, often illegal surveillance (Citron, 2015) is however outside the purview of this paper. If responsibly designed and used, systems that track and limit communication have many potential applications for people who want to carve out quiet for themselves. But this distinction between forms of control is unfortunately blurred in practice. On Location Labs’ site, they include links to a number of news reports about their work, including the headline “Location Labs lets you be the NSA for your kids” (Robinson, 2013) directly above another article headlined “Simplify your tech life, Thoreau-style” (Hsu, 2013). The dissonance between language of technological control and open-air freedom in this example is not unique. It is rather endemic to these technologies that promise empowerment through limitation, ranging from draconian spyware to tools of willful disconnection.

The patent imaginary

Many patents remain in the realm of unrealized ideas. They provide scant evidence for the above discussion about what technologies and services are actually available or how those products are marketed, discussed, and used. But patents offer insight into the ways designers have conceived and modeled the functions of these existing technologies and envisioned future possibilities. In the following analysis I draw on patent applications not only from Apple (Grant, 2013) but also from telecommunications giants Huawei (Ma, 2008), CenturyLink (Sweeney and Doyle, 2014), and Qualcomm (Sprigg and Swart, 2014; Sprigg, et al., 2014) as well as IBM (Bauchot, et al., 2010). Consider first Huawei’s vision of call management as expressed in this flowchart:


Explanatory flowchart
Figure 2: Explanatory flowchart from telecommunications operator Huawei’s patent application for “Method for implementing do-not-disturb service and intelligent phone terminal” (Ma, 2008).


An incoming call triggers a process wherein first the current time of day is checked against preset times of “rest status” during which communications are limited. If the phone is not in rest status, then the caller is blocked only if on the receiver’s “blacklist.” If the phone is in rest status, then the caller is blocked unless on the receiver’s “VIP list.”

I only note in passing that for many people the idea of the “blacklist” has terrible connotations due to its history of use against minority groups and others and that “VIP list” too carries strange connotations of elitism. In some cases, such as when out drinking, one might want to block people precisely because they are too “Important” to speak with in that moment. How we name and frame these technologies has the potential to shape use in ways that go beyond the technologies’ actual affordances. In another problematic turn of phrase, the “blacklist” is often set in opposition to a “white list,” with a “grey list” between. (However much I might place “importance” on calls from my family and friends, neither “VIP” nor “white” describes them terribly well). Grey lists typically refer to people or messages that are allowed but face some delay or other hurdle. Apple has proposed one such possibility, of callers being notified if the callee has partial restrictions in place, as in this interface design mockup:


User interface mockup
Figure 3: User interface mockup from Apple’s patent application for “Avoiding Communication at Designated No-Contact Times” (Grant, 2013).


A related but more stringent system would require the caller to enter a password — secret or otherwise — during designated times (Bauchot, et al., 2010). Similar features can already be found online. Social network LinkedIn, for example, sometimes will not allow a user to contact someone without already knowing that person’s e-mail address, which functions as a kind of password. There are surface similarities between these forms of software of avoidance and their obvious precedent, the administrative assistant. Shannon and Weaver (1949) famously compared well-engineered communication to a “discreet girl,” but by this anachronistic turn of phrase they referred to conduits that faithfully passed on a message without judging or altering its content in any way. On the contrary, administrative assistants are relevant here precisely because they exercise “discretion” of another kind, acting as gatekeepers with judgment more nuanced than any algorithm.

That judgment of when communication should be held back, whether by assistants or anyone else, has often been informed by knowledge of where we are. If I want to speak to you, but we are together watching a movie in the theater, or I can see that you’ve closed yourself into an office or a bathroom, I might hold my tongue (Aarts and Dijksterhuis, 2003). Communication at a distance typically lacks such awareness. Asynchronous media, such as correspondence by post, shift much of this burden onto the receiver, who typically can pick an appropriate moment and location to read. Telephones are notorious interrupters, but for most of their history, callers could gauge the appropriateness of ringing someone at home versus office, for example. Mobile phone callers, on the other hand, are typically unable to predict whether their ring will agitate a nursery, derail a lecture, or be muffled in a gym bag. But GPS promises new tools of disconnection to remedy this lack of socio-spatial cues. The iOS app “Call Bliss,” for example, allows the user to associate lists of contacts with particular geographic locations, each with a radius of approximately 300 meters [24]. When the GPS detects itself entering one of these locations, certain groups are allowed or disallowed. Users can automatically avoid friends when walking into the office, avoid their bosses when arriving at home, or avoid all calls when in a movie theater. The diagram below depicts one such system for text messages rather than calls. This enables users to restrict not only certain times by clock but also certain locations by GPS, complicating our flowchart a great deal:


Explanatory flowchart
Figure 4: Explanatory flowchart from telecommunications operator Qualcomm’s patent application for “Controlling text messages on a mobile device” (Sprigg and Swart, 2014).


What was in previous examples called a “VIP” or “white” list is here more precisely rendered as an “Allowed List,” and there is no “blacklist” represented at all. Additionally, because text messages are asynchronous, unlike calls, there is the possibility of delaying rather than rejecting them. Thus messages sent from non-allowed sources can be held in the “deferred in-box” until the receiver has left the restricted location or time has passed the end of a restricted period, at which point the message is delivered.

We have learned much from examining patent applications related to devices that are already commercially available. Here I introduce one brief excerpt from another Qualcomm patent application describing a system that has not yet — and might never — come to be, with features including:

... an age-based control or restriction that progressively enables additional features as the child ages ... The server may generate community-based configuration settings based on select communities, such as neighborhoods, cities, counties, states, age-groups, organizations, schools, locations and other groups ... For example, a parent may select a parental control mobile device configuration that is automatically updated to include the most common settings used by parents who live in Oklahoma City and whose children are in the Boy Scouts (Sprigg, et al., 2014).

This peek into one possible future, as imagined by Qualcomm engineers, is speculative but points toward questions with which we will likely grapple in coming years. Systems such as this might be used by parents on children, bosses on employees, governments on citizens. But that is outside the purview of this essay, a large set of questions for psychologists, sociologists, political scientists, and others seeking to sort out wider implications of digital technologies as tools for restricting one another’s communication. More central to our concerns is the possibility that people would elect to use elaborate, integrated systems like this on themselves. To sketch out a flowchart of evolving, crowdsourced sets of restrictions across a wide range of devices would be an exercise in futility here. The reach and ramifications of such a system are unpredictable. Community ties might be strengthened in some cases, but there is a potential bias toward homogeneity wherein friends with similar ties, opinions, and preferences would appear likely to narrow rather than enlarge, polarize rather than interact and integrate with people outside their own group. It is also unclear how this software might function for communities with diverse ways of limiting their own communication, i.e., lacking any “most common settings.” Perhaps the software would simply not block anything at all, which would in some sense be an accurate reflection of the community’s diversity. Taking this a step further, one might repurpose the technology such that any information consistently blocked by friends would be considered a blind spot and so put right at the top of one’s own proverbial reading pile. This, far more than the swear jars we found playfully repurposed to spur excess profanity, would be a true subversion of the technology of avoidance.




At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the received wisdom among architects was that concert halls and other acoustic spaces should never be built using materials that absorb sound. This, it was thought, would impede the goal of amplifying a performer’s voice. When the U.S. Capitol Building opened in 1807, however, members of the House of Representatives could not hear each other in their hall. Benjamin Latrobe, who had supervised the construction, thereby made the great discovery that some echoes are not desirable, and in particular, that this could be remedied with curtains hung between the columns of the hall. “Though there is less sound, there is much more heard,” said Latrobe, who came to believe that suppressing certain sounds was a new and fundamental duty of architects [25]. Over the next century, noise became an increasingly acute problem in American cities, and by 1930, a wide variety of acoustical building materials was being produced and marketed by dozens of corporations [26]. Some of the fundamental questions of architecture would never be the same.

Today’s programmers and electrical engineers, the “architects of cyberspace,” so to speak, have a similar imperative. The Internet has often been derided as an echo chamber, and with good reason; it is hard to hear a single voice — especially a quiet one — above the digital din. This analogy however only goes so far, as the science of quiet has problems of scale. Despite social movements dedicated to eradication of noise pollution, the science of noise abatement has had only modest success at the scale of major cities. No amount of curtains will allow birds to be heard over jackhammers on the street. Rather, quiet has been more or less privatized into built environments. Regarding digital media, it is difficult to predict exactly what tools of avoidance and quiet might come, but silencing swaths of the Internet would be hard to distinguish from censorship — unless individuals are able to do this for themselves in ways that strike a delicate balance between being granular and easy, customizable and automatic. The design of new communication tools should ideally integrate these avoidant features in much the same way that absorbent materials have become a fundamental element of the design of acoustic spaces. The same holds for scholars of media; it is important to study messages and the ways they are transmitted, but we should devote commensurate attention to the ways devices slow down and block communication.

Digital technologies have long had dual reputations as devices for connecting with or avoiding other people. We now coordinate off-line contact through technologies from online dating to GPS, but we also coordinate physical absences and other silences in similar ways. Such avoidant features may be identified in apps not explicitly marketed as such. Uber and other private car and rental services, for example, obviate the need to talk on the phone or face-to-face with drivers and other staff (Bogost, 2014). The mobile “antisocial networking” platform Cloak is a more explicit case. Piggybacking on GPS-enabled social networks such as Instagram and Foursquare to track physical locations, Cloak warns when a person with whom one wishes to avoid contact is detected within a certain perimeter (Dewey, 2014). But software for limiting in-person communication need not be so sophisticated. A simple mobile app called “Quiet Please” allows the user to set a maximum decibel level, and when the sound in the room — picked up on the mobile device’s built-in microphone — crosses that threshold, a loud “shush!” plays to remind people to quiet down.

Today’s rush of digital messages and the incessant “ding” that announces their every arrival is however a newer and perhaps more acute problem. One of the major selling points of technologies of digital disconnection has been the promise of uninterrupted conversation. We might limit our communication in order to carve out a bit of quiet for contemplation, rest, solitude, boredom, or daydreaming. Except in cases of proper isolation, however, “one cannot not communicate” [27]; even one’s silences will be interpreted. In practice, people will often deploy technologies of non-use toward more moderate goals of favoring a certain medium over another: shutting out sports news to focus on writing, shutting out writing to focus on a conversation, shutting out conversation to focus back on writing. People can read a book, talk to a friend, watch a movie, compose a letter, and play a game all at once — but they can’t do it very well.

This was once solved with what we now call “dedicated devices.” In a movie theater just a few decades ago, patrons had no phones, and it was too dark to play a game or write a letter. If one sat down to write a letter, that pen and paper did not contain an endless stream of pornography and newspapers and pictures of kittens. As all of this and more converges in the pocket-sized device we anachronistically call a “phone,” the need to systematically shunt some of it aside grows. We have only begun to explore the possibilities of design solutions in this essay. Some will be built into the devices themselves, but those very advances will sometimes be mistaken for design flaws [28] under the wrongheaded assumption that more fluid communication is always better. The incessant “ding” announcing the arrival of mostly banal messages is designed to hit our ears like a newborn’s cry every time [29], as if any missed connection would be a catastrophe. Under “more is better” and other mistaken assumptions of a free-market “information economy,” that “ding” — whatever it announces — will remain unlikely to seek a more appropriate place in the hierarchy of attention. Not only dedicated devices but also dedicated spaces mitigate these problems. Totally disconnected “black holes” are but one of many options. One design company, for example, has developed wallpaper that blocks WiFi but allows cellular signals to pass through (Whitwam, 2012).

Often, technologies designed for one particular kind of communicative action are used for something quite different. As mentioned in our introduction, the shrinking size of speakers down to personal headphones and earbuds appears as a loss of shared media environment. One much remarked trick is to avoid conversation by leaving headphones on and pretending to listen, even if no sound is playing. This might feel like a new phenomenon, but it is little different from the newspapers once held up in front of one’s face on the train, even if not reading them (cf., Gomez, et al. this issue, Figure 1). While the spectacular and growing complexity of tools for avoiding digital communication is apparent in terms of automation and other technical specifications, deeper understanding of these uses and non-uses requires the attention to physical and social context demonstrated here with the swear jar.

The historical contingency — perhaps even relative arbitrariness — of our cultural associations with these technologies is clear from the ease with which one can imagine similar tools of avoidance having emerged in different ways. We have already done an exercise like this above in the thought experiment wherein the jar began in an isolated room with a sole individual, rather than being situated in its real historical origins of men in religious and paternal positions of power wielding it as a tool of censorship. Now imagine the jar emerging in a different cultural situation where costs are shared among friends. A group is eating and drinking together, and swearing compels addition of money to the kitty, so is both polite in its generosity and a conspicuous show of wealth, a kind of drawn-out, playful version of the ritual of fighting for the check at a restaurant. In that case, thinking of the jar as a Puritanical tool for preventing foul language would be the hilarious inversion.

Similarly, in a culture that placed more value on adult solitude and trust in children’s judgment, one might imagine the latest media-blocking technologies emerging first as ways for adults to carve out quiet, only later being adapted for parents to use on their children. Use by adults might then be normalized, while use on children would seem odd in its imposition of adult standards on the young. How different that would be from our current state of affairs wherein it seems normal to surveil and censor one’s children, while adults who conscientiously use technologies of avoidance to carve out silence for themselves are often stereotyped as antisocial or infantilized as unable to control their digital cravings.

While neither the swear jar nor digital blockages are used for sending messages per se, they must be understood as communication technologies, and they must be understood in social context. Designers may find it useful to conceive of these as “dedicated device” versions of features that we more often find built into converged media systems. But they are more than that. For a message to be well articulated or understood, often a thousand others must be held back or turned away. The wonders of communication are to be found at its limits defined both by the outer reaches of human potential and the ways we use these tools to hold cacophony at bay. End of article


About the author

Ethan R. Plaut received his Ph.D. in communication in 2014 from Stanford University, where he continues his research as a postdoctoral fellow in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric. Research interests include digital media, disconnection, silence, avoidance, remix culture, transparency, propaganda, journalism, media ethics, and humor.
E-mail: eplaut [at] stanford [dot] edu



1. Peters, 2015, p. 140.

2. See U.S. Supreme Court cases about, e.g., radios on buses (Public Util. Comm’n of DC v. Pollak, 1952) and speakers mounted atop vehicles (Kovacs v. Cooper, 1949; Saia v. New York, 1948).

3. This concept is detailed at length in Plaut (2014), on which I expand here. See especially pp. 140–143, 211–216. The term has usually been used by communication scholars to refer to clinical problems such as stage fright and clinical shyness, but I attempt to rehabilitate the idea of communication avoidance as perfectly healthy.

4. In one historical example, the invention of paper centralized empires with the fleetness of messages to and orders from the seat of power (Innis, 2007); likewise the control of limited resources and later licensing of printing presses centralized censorship. But paper also decentralized the control of messages through, e.g., self-publishing including samizdat. More to our point, paper decentralized the control of silences with, e.g., the return of unopened letters as well as that clichéd signal of wishing to be left alone: a newspaper held up in front of one’s own face.

5. Cf. Morozov’s discussion of his use of a timer-controlled safe to lock away his phone and Internet cables (Schüll, 2013).

6. Ehn and Löfgren, 2010, pp. 217–227.

7. Satchell and Dourish, 2009, p. 14.

8. In the hunting and fishing magazine Forest and Stream; Hallock and Bruette, volume 34 (20 March 1890), p. 176, column one.

9. Sharman, 1884, p. 123.

10. See, e.g., Anonymous, 1918. “Around the circuit: New York–Broadway,” p. 14, Anonymous, 1929. “Red hot from the departmental waste basket,” New York Times (10 March).

11. Henry, 1897, pp. 167–168.

12. Anonymous, 1952. “Topics of the Times,” p. 26.

13. A crown being worth five pence or 60 pennies in pre-decimalized English currency.

14. Happell, et al., 2013, p. 198.


16. The swear jar is sometimes mentioned in relation to legal fines, both for foul language (e.g., Haegg, 2014) and for unrelated offenses. U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, for example, called for a “swear jar” that would fund National Institutes of Health research by collecting fines levied against pharmaceutical companies that flout the law (Silverman, 2015).



19. Determining the popularity of an iPhone app is difficult, but the video advertisement for ViceJar (2013) posted to YouTube had almost 14,000 views at the time of writing.

20. Notably Carlin’s “seven dirty words” broadcast (FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, 1978).

21. All references to Leechblock users’ comments are from Anderson, n.d.

22. Purchased in 2014 for more than US$200 million by security giant AVG Technologies (Stynes, 2014).

23. See (1); (2); and, (3)


25. Thompson, 2002, pp. 24–25.

26. Thompson, 2002, p. 170.

27. Watzlawick, et al., 1967, pp. 48–49.

28. Cf. Morozov (2013, pp. 325–328) on “erratic appliances.”

29. Perhaps the best analysis of this pernicious trend in design can be found in Schüll (2012).



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Editorial history

Received 2 October 2015; accepted 22 October 2015.

Copyright © 2015, First Monday.
Copyright © 2015, Ethan R. Plaut. All Rights Reserved.

Technologies of avoidance: The swear jar and the cell phone
by Ethan R. Plaut.
First Monday, Volume 20, Number 11 - 2 November 2015

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2017. ISSN 1396-0466.