Steve Jobs changed the world with the iPhone, the glossy slab of aluminum and glass that redefined the category of “phone” the day it went on sale in 2007. But it wasn’t until a year later, when Jobs introduced the App Store, that Apple would make its most lasting contribution.
The App Store invented a new world, where chauffeurs, dates, and deliverymen could be summoned with a few taps; but also where our attention could be shattered, our democracy shaken, and our anxiety spiked. Ten years later, as we increasingly grapple with technology's dominance over our minds, it's hard not to imagine Steve Jobs as a young Dr. Frankenstein; the App Store, his monstrous creation.
“iPhone and iPad are some of the most powerful tools ever created,” said Craig Federighi, Apple’s vice president of software engineering, while speaking at Apple’s annual developer conference this week. But our apps “beg us to use our phone when we really should be occupying ourselves with something else. They send us flurries of notifications trying to draw us in for fear of missing out. We may not even recognize how distracted we’ve become.”
Now, Apple—like much of Silicon Valley—wants to cure the disease it's caused. The next version of iOS will be armed with a “comprehensive set of built-in features” to limit distractions and recalibrate priorities on the iPhone. There’s a more expansive Do Not Disturb mode, which flips on during bedtime and hides notifications from the homescreen until you're fully awake and ready to face them. Do Not Disturb can also be switched on during certain times of day, switching off when you leave a particular location or when an event ends on your calendar. A new feature for “tuning” notifications lets you adjust how you receive the pop-ups from certain apps, and for the first time, Apple will support grouped notifications to make them easier to parse and manage.
There’s also a dashboard for usage insights, called Screen Time, which sends a weekly breakdown of how you spend your time on the iPhone. A built-in App Timer can set limits on certain apps, reminding you to move on after 30 minutes or an hour. Those features also update Parental Controls, which first came to the iPhone in 2008, by letting parents to monitor their kids’ activity and set limits on how they’re spending their time. Throughout many of these features, Siri is there to help, like a secretary that holds your calls during important meetings and knows exactly how you take your coffee.
The WIRED Guide to the iPhone
The new features earned Apple generous applause on Monday, a sign that the WWDC crowd appreciated the company taking responsibility for the iPhone's absorbent qualities. But just moments later, Apple executives demonstrated Memoji, a new personalized emoji feature that involves staring at the screen and animating a digital character with your facial features. Another demo featured Julz Arney, who works on Apple’s fitness technologies, biking while breathlessly scrolling through productivity apps on her Apple Watch, changing dinner reservations, texting friends, browsing the web, checking notifications about her infant baby, and struggling to close the fitness rings on the watch's face.
The cognitive dissonance was striking. Apple says it wants you to have a healthier relationship with your phone, and it'll even give you the tools to do it. But for every feature it showed to wrangle notifications or curb app use, it added more to keep you staring at your screen. The Screen Time dashboard and Do Not Disturb mode might make it easier to ignore certain apps, or shame you into spending less time thumbing through Instagram. But the rest of the keynote showed that Apple isn't ready for you to put your iPhone down just yet.
Time Well Spent
The rise of "digital wellness" has been coursing through Silicon Valley for years, but it reached its fever pitch earlier this year when Tristan Harris, the father of the "time well spent" movement, formed the Center for Humane Technology. The group evangelizes a more human approach to personal tech, calling for better tools from the big tech companies, regulation from government, and a greater awareness of how much of our lives we waste staring at screens. Facebook name-checked "time well spent"—Harris's famous credo—when it rejiggered its News Feed algorithm in January. Google riffed on the idea last month, when it introduced new Android features to promote "JOMO," or the joy of missing out. It was Apple's turn to go next.
In many ways, Apple was already primed to join the "digital wellness" movement. The company stands for minimalism; a distraction-free interface fits well with the Apple ethos. It makes most of its money from hardware, not software—meaning as long as long as you buy the iPhone, it shouldn't matter how much time you spend staring into the black hole of its screen. Apple even introduced the Apple Watch with this idea in mind: it was pitched as a device to free you from the tyranny of the phone.
"We're in a very unique position because we have never been about maximizing the number of times you pick it up, the number of hours that you use it," Tim Cook, Apple's CEO, said today in an interview with NPR. (Apple declined to give an on-the-record interview for this story.) "The user is our focus. And so our question is always, what is in their best interest?"
And yet, Apple's native apps seem to be creeping in the opposite direction. Memoji was just one of the new immersive features demoed Monday. The native Photo app in iOS will get more social, popping up suggestions to share photos with friends; iMessage and FaceTime will get a suite of camera effects that look more like Snapchat. The problems with smartphone obsession have nothing to do with hardware, and everything to do with apps—ones like Instagram, and Facebook, and Snapchat. Apple seems to want you to spend more time interacting with your iPhone, with native experiences that look more like those apps. It's hard to claim that any of these updates constitute "time well spent."
In Apple's view, users should make their own choices about how they use their phones. If you want to stare at your Apple Watch throughout your workout, or spend the next hour animating the poop emoji with your face, so be it. Apple's "digital wellness" features are less paternalistic than Google's, designed to empower you to make the choices you think are healthy without much interference. The limits on the App Timer can be easily extended; Do Not Disturb switched off with a tap. Screen Time simply shows you how you're spending time on your iPhone, so that “you can make decisions about how much time you want to spend with your device each day,” as Federighi explained it on stage at WWDC.
“The fact Apple thinks three product changes alone can solve a complex social problem speaks to how simplistically they are treating the issue,” says Andrew Dunn, the CEO of Siempo, an Android app that replaces the standard homescreen with a simpler interface to minimize distraction. He and other developers have created their own solutions to smartphone obsession, ranging from apps that lock you out of your phone during certain times of day to ones that block all notifications. Dunn says that if Apple really wanted to give iPhone users a better "digital wellness" experience, the company should've turned to the community of developers who had already been building these tools for years. But yesterday, there was no mention of easing the current restrictions and allowing developers to build on the new screen time features.
"This is certainly a start in providing options to stem tech addiction and obsession, but nothing on your phone is going to change that behavior until you change the psychology behind it," says Larry Rosen, the co-author of The Distracted Mind and a research psychologist who studies the impact of technology. Giving users the tools to monitor their own behavior is great, but showing people how much time they're wasting on Facebook doesn't make Facebook any less addictive. Hiding someone's notifications can't cure FOMO, and adding interactive Memojis doesn't encourage people to spend any less time staring at their iPhones.
Apple's new features represent a useful acknowledgement of the problems with technology. The screen time tools go a long way to giving users more control, and many iPhone users will be thrilled to finally find the features they've been wanting for years. But new features can only be as successful as the apps they regulate—and in Apple's case, just like Frankenstein's monster, it might already be too late.
More WWDC 2018 Coverage
- Here’s everything Apple announced at the WWDC 2018 keynote
- Apple SVP Craig Federighi tells us how iOS apps will run on the Mac
- Digital wellness can’t be conquered in a vacuum
- Now Safari is the good privacy browser
- The best part of Apple’s keynote was all the stuff that wasn’t in it
- Apple’s restrictions aren’t helping tech addiction
- How one Apple programmer got apps talking to each other
- With a new software update, Apple’s HomePod starts working more like it’s supposed to
- Fed up with Apple’s policies, app developers formed a “union”
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