Apple’s software keynotes are normally about how the ways you’ll be able to get your devices to do more, but it recently added an unusually paternalistic bent. Demonstrating their new “time well spent” apps, Apple execs showed how your iPhone will get you to spend less time on your iPhone. So if you’ve spent longer stalking your crush on Instagram than you had previously planned it will say: “You went over your Instagram limit two times this week” – presumably it’s not angry, just disappointed.
The current explosion of tech solutions that supposedly help you spend less time on your phone is reflective of the oversupply of exuberance still on display in Silicon Valley. Even as tech companies recognise that the amount we’re staring at screens is making us miserable, they still believe it’s their products that can fix the problem.
Apple announced new “digital health” tools that will be found inside the settings app. The company will allow you to stop your phone from bothering you while you’re asleep, group certain notifications together and see how many times a day you check your phone – all in a bid to improve your wellbeing.
In May, Google announced a similar suite of tools, which will issue warnings if you’ve been watching for Youtube for too long and offer options to get a single daily summary of your notifications rather than being pinged throughout the day. Your phone can also be set to turn grey when you’re ready for bed, making it easier for you to put it down.
All of this is at odds with Google’s advertising, which demonstrates how Google can be used constantly to help with any task. Take the ad for their voice assistant, Google Home, which demonstrates the myriad ways Google can be with you in every part of your life and the lives of your children.
Facebook also introduced changes to the news feed, which they believe will lead to users spending less time on the site – but the time they do spend will be more rewarding.
Google, Apple and Facebook will have to compete with existing third-party apps that promise they can make you use apps less. One called BreakFree gives you an “addiction score” based on how much you use your phone and then invites you to do better. The ironically named Self-Control allows you to block certain URLs for a period of time while you try to focus on work.
It all comes after a flurry of studies that suggest overuse of technology is making us miserable. Social media use has been linked with depression, particularly among young people. One 2010 study found teenagers who spend five or more hours a day on electronic devices are 71% more likely to have a risk factor for suicide than those who spend less than an hour a day.
The phrase “time well spent”, used by all three tech giants but especially Facebook, was coined by Joe Edelman. In an essay for Medium he explains how tech companies create environments that push us to act against our values. So that, for example, it may be “harder to live by the value of honesty on Instagram, if honest posts get fewer likes”. He speaks about the rigid systems of software, which demand certain behaviour: “The coded structure of likes makes it harder to prioritize not relying on others’ opinions.”
Nothing in the announcements made so far will really scratch the surface of these bigger questions about the way we use technology and why it’s making so many people anxious or miserable. Using less tech is an interesting start, but tech companies themselves seem unlikely policemen to make our interactions with software less damaging to society at large. They have not, for example, suggested that they less aggressively market a linked-up set of software and hardware that locks your entire life into their ecosystem.
If anything, having your device tell you how bad you are at not using it seems like just another new metric at which we can fail.