The Artifact Effect

Jim’s first experience with the Artifact Effect, (an in-house DuMore term, so don’t bother googling it) happened a week after his twelfth birthday party. He was having a conversation with his mom, and he kept looking down at his wrist, admiring his brand new shiny black Casio digital watch. His mom saw him do this several times and then paused the conversation.

“Do you have someplace to be, Jamie?” she asked.

“No. Why? Mom, I’m listening,” he said, confused.

“Well, you keep looking at your watch and when people look at their watch it means they either need to be somewhere else or don’t want to be where they are.”

In this particular case, Jim wasn’t focused on the time; He was checking out his brand new tech, but how often is that really true? People look at their watches when they are worried about time or because time doesn’t seem to be moving. Looking at an artifact betrays our intention and feelings.

So why is this important? And who wears a watch anymore? Don’t people just look at their phone for the time?

Well, we’re glad you asked.

Prior to the tech boom, the Artifact Effect allowed easy navigation of relationships by sending helpful positive signals of intent while being able to avoid harmful signals of disinterest or split focus. For instance, if someone says something in a conversation and then you pull out a piece of paper and a pen, you are communicating that you perceive value in what they said. If someone says something and you look at your watch, it looks like you are bored or have someplace else to be.

Fast forward to the mid 2000’s, where the Artifact Effect met its match with the invention of the smartphone and a social media frenzy. Since then our intentions have become harder to read, our social cues harder to decipher, and our eye contact and full attention are harder to garner.

We should add, there are two audiences for this article: those who grew up in a world with no smartphone and those who grew up in a world with no encyclopedias. Our hope is to get everyone thinking about what signals we are sending when we engage with certain artifacts and what we can do to communicate our intent for more clear social interactions.

Together we will take a look at a handful of powerful artifacts, how they have been replaced, and how each swap-out has made things less connected and more confusing.

The Telephone

We start with the telephone because it has changed the most dramatically of all of the artifacts. In the 1980s, if the phone rang, you answered it. Unless it was dinner time and then everyone looked disparagingly at the phone and pitied the upbringing of whomever would call a residence during dinner time. If you placed your hand on a phone that wasn’t ringing, it meant that you were about to make a call. If someone saw you do this, they would know what was about to happen. Reaching for a phone meant one thing and one thing only – a phone call.

With the invention of the smartphone, when someone puts their hand on their phone, you have no idea what is about to happen. It could mean they are going to pick it up, put it in their pocket, and leave the conversation. They might be about to make a note of something. They may want to take a photo or record a video. When they reach for their “phone” they are reaching for a culmination of 100 different potential actions. So which assumption are we most likely to make if we don’t have a cue to follow?

The unfortunate answer: whatever pattern of behavior we have most observed and been affected by. We might assume a child is about to play a game or watch a video. We may believe our partner is going to read the news. But we have no idea, really – no idea at all.

The Typewriter

In the days when typewriters still sat on most desks, this artifact was an easy to discern signal. Like the telephone, the typewriter only did one thing. You didn’t reach for your typewriter if you wanted someone to pick up milk on the way home. Additionally, if someone were typing, they were working. You didn’t need to ask them if they were working, they just were. They were writing something, or perhaps transcribing something from notes, but they definitely were focused on a task and you could be sure that interrupting them was likely to stop their flow.

With the invention of the smartphone, we can still see when someone is typing. They almost always use their thumbs, and we can see them speedily choosing letters on their virtual keyboard. We cannot, however, tell the context of their typing. They could be playing a word game, they could be typing an email for work, or they could be making a social media post. These days, they are just as likely to be typing a message to someone that is sitting right beside them while they are pretending that they are capable of multi tasking their conversation with you.

The Pipe

This entry might seem peculiar, but a pipe is a perfect and seamless artifact for anyone that doesn’t mind being around pipe smoke. If you are in a conversation, and someone picks up their pipe, you don’t suddenly stop talking because you think they are going to be too distracted to talk. As the person packs their pipe, lights it, and smokes it, we know that they can do this ritual while still engaging in the conversation that is happening. For someone suffering from anxiety, preparing and smoking a pipe can give exactly the sort of busy motion they need to keep down their social nervousness.

We now live in a world where smoking a pipe in the middle of the traditional workplace would be unthinkable. Thanks to smartphones, many people deal with nervous fidgeting in their day by playing games on their phone or interacting with social media. Unfortunately, this activity is not one we can take part in while also giving our full attention to the relationship and conversation. When we choose to put our phone down and devote our attention to the moment, do we also forfeit any type of pipe preparation activity? Many facilitators and trainers have begun to incorporate fidgeting toys into their meeting environments. An explanation as to why they are useful is then given at the top of a meeting. As the facilitator says in this video, ( – choosing to hand out fidget or stress toys during a meeting can help your attendees to focus better, enhancing the meeting and learning experience.

If you happen to be in a less formal meeting environment, communicating your use of a fidget device to the other person and bringing them in on why it helps you to stay focused on the conversation can be all it takes to deepen the understanding, enhance the relationship, and even possibly to give the other person a new tool to use for themselves in future.

The Coffee Cup

The coffee cup is an artifact that has stuck around and is in no way threatened by technological advancement. On the other hand, not everyone is consciously aware of how important or impactful the coffee culture is on relationships and connection. Having, and holding, a coffee cup can be something to do with your hands; it can be a comfort to hold, and it has no confusing messages attached to its use.

People do not get confused when you reach for your coffee cup. They understand the artifact and may even offer to perform the ritual of retrieving coffee for you or with you. They may want to join you in getting coffee, enjoy the atmosphere of a coffee shop with you, and getting out of the office and meeting at your local java distributor may even send positive energy into the conversation.

So if you are not a coffee drinker, consider joining the coffee drinkers in their rituals as a way to tap into this artifact. Take up drinking tea, flavored decaf coffee, hot chocolate, or hot water with lemon. Place yourself in the environment where others are conversing energetically and take part with your coffee cup proxy. Utilizing this Artifact Effect can be of benefit especially if the conversation you are having is not in itself exciting, or if you want to add comfort to an uncomfortable conversation.


The rolodex was once a must have on every desk in every office. It was a powerful resource and a symbol of networking power and connection. If you were reaching for a rolodex you were reaching for information. Flipping through the cards was an experience; a sign of your intention to help the person you are meeting with.

Other artifacts that have gone the way of the rolodex are the thesaurus, dictionary, encyclopedia, and phone book. Now all of this information is found on a computer or smartphone. As we have already discussed, picking a card out of a rolodex is a clear and powerful action. Picking up your smartphone or typing on your computer could easily be interpreted as losing focus, growing bored, or putting someone else who is not in the room ahead of the face to face connection you are making.

When someone picks up their phone to send you some information, have you ever experienced sitting and waiting for an extended period of time and still not getting the information you asked for? The person might have been distracted by a text, email, social media, or possibly even their move on Words with Friends. Sometimes they completely forget why they got on their phone in the first place. After reminding them of what they were going to do for you, the cycle may very well start again from the beginning.

The Newspaper

At one point, the newspaper was the great divider. Because of its construction, unfolding it creates a visual barrier between us and others in the room; it sends a signal that we are done with a conversation, wanting to have peace and quiet, or that we are passively listening to what is being said around but not to us.

If there is a new world Artifact that has the most similar feeling to picking up the newspaper and separating ourselves from the connection in front of us, the smartphone is the strongest candidate. When people pick up a smartphone they may not even realize that they are disconnecting from what is happening in the room.

So what can we do?

If you watch, you will see that people know exactly how to deal with seeing their friend get a phone call, the friend excusing themself to take the phone call, and the friend coming back to the conversation. It is all of the other uses of the smartphone that mangles the social cues.

In our opinion, having all of these actions take place on one device simply means that we need to use the smartphone with an understanding that it is the equivalent of 100 artifacts. We need to realize that when we are engaging with our phone in the middle of an engagement with a live human, the other person is more likely than not to misunderstand our use of the device. We should precursor our use in a way that communicates the missing Artifact Effect.

A few examples:

“I’m so sorry, but I just realized I forgot to send an important text.” This would be followed by pulling out the smartphone, sending the text without looking at other notifications, and then putting the phone away again.

“Can I get a picture of us together?” This could be followed by a photo and then the return of the phone to the middle of the table.

“We’re likely to be waiting here for a few hours. I was going to catch up on my social media.” This would allow the other person to feel free to engage in their own entertainment without any stress.

Verbal communication must take the place of physical Artifact Effects if we want to break the cycle of misinterpretation and fragmented social connection caused by constant smartphone usage.

One Last Thought

If you want to show someone that you trust them, are there for them, and want to be intentional about the moment you are sharing together, consider entrusting your cell phone to them. Jim does this with his wife when they go out to eat together, and it gives her absolute confidence in his intentions. Jim’s idea of handing her his phone to keep on her side of the table or to put into her purse while they ate has become its own Artifact Effect carrying its own energy and meaning. Does it make you feel anxious about the idea of giving your phone to someone or not having it for a short while? Ask yourself what that means about your connection to your phone and what it could mean for the relationships in your life. Let’s be intentional, communicate, and allow these devices to be tools, not barriers.