Design Ethicist Imagines How Apple Could Help Combat Tech Addiction in Future iOS Updates
A little over one week after Apple investors urged the company to do more to protect children from smartphone addiction, a new column by The New York Times writer Farhad Manjoo has looked into potential ideas that Apple could implement in a future iOS update to curb addiction for all users, including kids.
Manjoo spoke with Tristan Harris, former design ethicist for Google and owner of Time Well Spent -- an organization that works to improve technology's impact on society -- and Harris offered a few suggestions for ways Apple could help combat smartphone addiction. While Harris's ideas are not confirmations for features coming to iOS in 2018 and beyond, it is an interesting glimpse into potential solutions Apple might implement if it decides to tackle this issue down the line.
To start, he suggested a way for Apple to offer feedback on the iOS devices that customers use, imagining a weekly report that would include the time spent within apps in a sort of ranking system. Users could then set prompts for future weeks that would pop up when their time spent in a specific app is reaching their set limit.
Imagine if, once a week, your phone gave you a report on how you spent your time, similar to how your activity tracker tells you how sedentary you were last week. It could also needle you: “Farhad, you spent half your week scrolling through Twitter. Do you really feel proud of that?” It could offer to help: “If I notice you spending too much time on Snapchat next week, would you like me to remind you?”
Harris then focused on notifications, which have long been an area that iOS users have asked to be updated. The new idea was for more granular, "priority level" notifications that Apple would require to be placed on every app. Harris explained there would be three levels for "heavy users, regular users and lite, or Zen," and then Apple would have to pen the rules for which notifications would go to each level.
So, for example, if someone chose the medium "regular" level, a DM from a friend on Instagram would appear on the lock screen. But at the same time, something less important -- like when Instagram sends out a reminder to view a friend's Story -- would be prevented from appearing. "And then Apple could say, by default, everyone is in the middle level — and instantly it could save a ton of users a ton of energy in dealing with this," Harris explained.
If Apple implemented similar features, Manjoo pointed out that it could set a precedent for the industry as a whole.
Every tech company needs a presence on the iPhone or iPad; this means that Apple can set the rules for everyone. With a single update to its operating system and its app store, Apple could curb some of the worst excesses in how apps monitor and notify you to keep you hooked (as it has done, for instance, by allowing ad blockers in its mobile devices). And because other smartphone makers tend to copy Apple’s best inventions, whatever it did to curb our dependence on our phones would be widely emulated.
Following the investors' open letter last week, Apple stated that it thinks about its products' impact on users, and it takes this responsibility "very seriously." With a larger spotlight being shined on the issue, Harris said that now is Apple's "time to step up" and really get behind anti-addiction features for its devices. Harris went on to say that in regards to this problem, Apple "may be our only hope."