It’s not Apple’s fault that you feel enslaved by your phone. But the company that gave the world the modern smartphone has a perfect opportunity this year to create a brave and groundbreaking new take on that device: a phone that encourages you to use it more thoughtfully, more deliberately — and a lot less.
Tech “addiction” is a topic of rising national concern. I put the A-word in quotes because the precise pull that our phones exert over us isn’t the same as that of drugs or alcohol. The issue isn’t really new, either; researchers who study how we use digital technology have for years been warning of its potential negative effects on our cognition, psyche and well-being.
What is new is who has joined the ranks of the worried. Recently, a parade of tech luminaries, including several former Facebook employees, have argued that we’re no match for the sophisticated machinery of engagement and persuasion being built into smartphone apps. Their fears are manifold: They’re worried about distraction, productivity, how social networks alter our emotional lives and relationships, and what they’re doing to children.
It’s hard to know what to make of these confessions of regret. Come on, guys — you gave us these wondrous machines, you made billions of dollars from their ubiquity, and now you tell us they’re bad?
Also, what do we do about it?
Like air pollution or intrusive online advertising, tech addiction is a collective-action problem caused by misaligned incentives. Companies that make money from your attention — that is, ad-supported apps like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube — now employ armies of people who work with supercomputers to hook you ever more deeply into their services. Sure, we should call on them to act more ethically — and Facebook, for its part, has said it’s willing to lose money to improve its users’ well-being — but I’m skeptical they’ll be able to suppress their economic interests.