Apple’s yearly WWDC is the company’s chance to introduce its new mobile and desktop software, as well as update everyone on how completely its devices and apps are dominating the market. WWDC typically is part brag, part demo, all bravado—but for this year’s conference, beginning Monday morning in San Jose, California, there was a bit of a concession.
Which seems to be a theme for tech conferences this year. In April, Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged Facebook’s recent challenges and privacy failures during the F8 conference. At Google I/O, CEO Sundar Pichai spoke about the “joy of missing out.” And Monday, Apple was obliged to admit its complicity in consumer technology addiction. How much time we spend using our devices and what we do with that time recently became topics of much discussion. Companies such as Apple, Google, Facebook, and beyond have engineered their products to intensify our desire to be signed in, online, and looking at a screen. Devices and apps have designed feedback loops that keep us coming back, rewarded with notifications and updates. But it seems that we’ve recently reached a tipping point, and now concerned consumers and advocates are arguing that users aren’t benefiting at this level of use.
Apple is arguably the most guilty of creating the course that hardware makers, internet engineers, and app developers are speeding down, and during WWDC the company addressed its position as an enabler head on. Apple senior vice president of software engineering Craig Federighi spoke Monday about the changes coming to iOS 12 that will hopefully curb our tendencies. “[Apps] trying to draw us in for fear of missing out,” he explained. “We don’t even recognize how distracted we’ve become.” To wit, Federighi announced a “comprehensive set of built-in features to help you limit distraction, [help] focus, and understand how we’re spending our time.” First up are changes to Do Not Disturb. When activated, the setting will no longer allow notifications, so glancing at your screen in the middle of the night won’t surface them; you’ll have to wait until the morning when you wake up and turn off Do Not Disturb to access them. Users will also be able to set Do Not Disturb for a certain amount of time during the day or at a location—an hour at the office or 15 minutes while driving.
Federighi also announced a handful of new features for Notifications—some innovative, some that other hardware makers introduced years ago. Users will be able to “tune” specific notifications directly from the lock screen—for instance, you can turn off notifications for a certain action or prevent them from showing up in the lock screen. Apple will even suggest turning notifications off for apps you don’t use anymore. The tweak should help cut down on lock screen and notification tab clutter. The other big update is Grouped Notifications, meaning that all notifications for an app will now be grouped together, so you can see everything that’s going on in Facebook or Gmail at once instead of being forced to scroll through the iPhone’s chronological timeline of notifications. It’s useful, no doubt, but also something that Android users have had for years. It’s less of a productivity tweak and more of an admission that this is how notifications should work. Either way, as an iPhone user, I’ve wanted this feature for years, and I’ll happily take it.
Perhaps the most significant time-related announcement is a new feature called Screentime, which sounds like iPhone’s battery-use tab on steroids. In battery use, users can see how much battery certain apps are using.
Now, Screentime will break down all of your iPhone habits. And there will be charts. It will be awful. It has to happen. Users will get weekly reports summarizing iPhone and iPad use, showing how you spent your time and how much of it you spent. It will show what time of the day or night usage spiked. It will show how often on a given day you pick up your phone—and which apps hound you. It’s not going to be pretty. But from the report, iOS 12 will help you do things including set app limits so you can only allow yourself, say, half an hour of Twitter use a day. (You can, of course, increase those limits if you truly need to. You don’t.)
These features are long-needed updates for a system that has warped behavior in many ways, and I count myself among the many interested and terrified to see precisely how far gone I am. Of course, Apple’s business is predicated on consumers who return not only to its devices, buying new iPhones and iPads, but also to its screens. However, it’s in a hardware maker’s best interest to court the biggest collection of developers, and these days developers are interested in how much time we spend staring into those screens. This is a difficult line for Apple—or any platform—to walk. Moments after speaking about its new suite of time-analysis tools, Federighi introduced the iPhone’s new Memoji features, Bitmoji-like effects that allow users to create animated versions of themselves to be used in iMessage. The Messages camera is also getting a facelift with new Snapchat-like stickers, filters, and effects. These are the definition of time-sucking toys: They are fun and cute, yes, but anyone who’s used Snapchat’s face filters knows the hypnotic lure of swiping through the ever-expanding collection of masks. The demo made a point of showing how extensive the Memoji options are; you could scroll on and on and on to find the shade and shape of your hair. Maybe you need a hat. Maybe you want more freckles. It is certainly not a faster way to text.
Later, Apple demoed how easily you could do a spin workout using the Apple Watch’s health-tracking features while also answering emails and texts. The message is that multitasking using Apple devices and software is easy, that you can meet your fitness goals—and even compete and beat other Apple Watch users, a new feature—all while never disconnecting from the device’s productivity features. Earlier, Apple introduced new tools for Photos where the iPhone will use machine learning to suggest whom you should share photos with and encourage them to share back with you as well so you can all collect photos from a group trip. It’s something of a social network-lite built into Photos, which is already an app in which users spent an inordinate amount of time.
All of this is to say that technology companies now find themselves faced with a Catch-22. Stabilizing or even decreasing our screentime is a nonstarter, but also the most commendable course of action. Apple’s hand has been forced, and the only position it can take is one that is full of contradictions. In no universe will the iPhone do anything to push us away, to tell us we’ve had enough—in fact, it will always have new and addictive features. But now it will continue to do what it’s always done while at the same time educating users about the extent of our choices. This is the same thing Instagram is doing, giving us information about our time spent in the app. From there, we make the decisions. The problem is that, for some, it might be too late to make rational decisions about screen use. (Instagram revealed that people younger than 25 spend more than 32 minutes a day in the app; those older than 25 more than 24 minutes a day.) It’s akin to slapping calorie counts on a McDonald’s menu board in tiny print; it’s all there, you can and will probably read it, but you’re already inside the door at that point and it’s unlikely you’ll turn around and walk out.
Few of us will turn around and walk out on our iPhones; it’s too late for that. Screentime will be available with the iOS 12 beta download (no release date yet), and will surely contain many fresh horrors for users to reckon with. At the very least, we’ll be forced to confront the extent of the damage—and hopefully opt for better choices inside the confines of our iPhones’ screens.