In early February, the technologist Tristan Harris stood in front of a crowd at a tech conference and held up his iPhone like Martin Luther presenting his Ninety-five Theses. He was there to warn of the plain and common dangers of our phones, which he has compared to slot machines and to cults, while announcing a coalition called the Center for Humane Technology to liberate us.
Harris had begun this crusade several years prior, as a Google employee who noticed how tech companies designed products to keep us locked on our devices for their own profit. This represented, to him, a crisis in attention. Now, Harris was hoping to wake the rest of us up—and maybe even convince our tech overlords to do something about it. He even gave his radical movement a name: Time Well Spent.
Nearly a year later, Harris's cause no longer seems fringe. It's downright mainstream. Apple wants to free you from the sticky trap of your iPhone. Google wants you to feel JOMO, the "joy of missing out" from your screen. Even Facebook has its own suite of tools to help you manage your screen time, and Mark Zuckerberg called "time well spent" his personal goal for the year, cribbing the language directly from Harris's movement. The consensus in Silicon Valley is that you should spend less time on your phone.
'Time Well Spent was never about giving users features to set time limits on their phones.'
But don't be deceived. While it looks like the revolution is won, this is just the beginning of a war to colonize your phone screen. Google, Apple, and Facebook seem like they've handed over the keys to unshackle us from our attention-splintering devices, but in doing so, they've accomplished something more significant. Tech companies have co-opted the movement, turning "digital wellness" into a Goopified trend that functions as marketing.
"It has been a big year for the movement, but it has also illustrated how much work lies ahead," says Fred Stutzman, the CEO of Freedom , which helps people manage their time on-screen by blocking apps and websites. "We’re at this uncomfortable stage of digital well-being as marketing, where the tools created by corporations seem like a way to improve their brand image and atone for their past sins."
The low-hanging fruit of humane technology—turning off notifications, minimizing the number of times your screen lights up and asks you to pay attention to it—has been picked up by Google and Apple. On both iOS and Android, it's now easier to keep track of how many hours you spend on certain apps, and even set app time limits. But neither company has done much to address the persuasive design of those apps, or help people move beyond what was already possible to do by manually changing a few settings in your phone.
In other words, Google and Apple used the banner of "digital wellness" to re-package tools that already existed, without changing much of anything about your phone.
"Time Well Spent was never about giving users features to set time limits on their phones, it was about changing the game from which companies compete," says Harris. "The problem is that everyone misunderstood what 'time well spent' was about by anchoring on the word 'time.' As if lost time was the biggest harm coming from technology. The original TED talk makes clear that the root problem is the race-to-the-bottom of the brain stem to manipulate human nature—hijack our minds—because of the business model to capture people’s time."
In January, Zuckerberg wrote that his "personal challenge" for the year was to make sure "that time spent on Facebook is time well spent." It was meant to assuage Facebook's investors, after a quarter that saw a drop in the amount of time users were spending on the platform. Later in the year, Facebook and Instagram each rolled out their own time-management tools, which include a bar graph that shows how much time you spend on the app and an option to mute push notifications for up to eight hours.
Nothing else has changed. You can now track how much time you spend on Facebook, but you still have to dodge the constant notifications ("11 friends are interested in events happening tomorrow") and thousands of features designed to keep you scrolling. Instagram is still a FOMO factory, which added features this year like an "online now" indicator and a platform for longform video. It's hard to see how any of this was designed with "time well spent" in mind, rather than the intent to keep you opening the app and keeping it open longer.
"We need to move away from just human-centered design to human-protection design," Aza Raskin, a co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, wrote in a tweet earlier this year. "From: Have a problem? It’s your responsibility to use it differently. To: It’s our responsibility to design technology in a way that protects people." (Razkin could not be reached for this story; he is currently practicing "time well spent" by studying forest elephant communication in the Central African Republic.)
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If anything, Big Tech's buy-in has validated the difficulty people feel in putting their phones down. Alanna Harvey, the co-founder and CMO of Flipd , an app that nudges users to spend less time on their phones, called 2018 "a turning point." But other app developers say the year has been damaging for start-ups in the space. Andrew Dunn, who makes a minimalist and distraction-free Android launcher called Siempo , says fundraising has become more challenging this year because "a perception exists that Apple and Google will fully serve consumer needs."
Both Dunn and Stutzman think the native tools recently added to iOS and Android are overly simplistic. They also point out that neither Apple nor Google has created APIs for their screen time products, which means third-party developers can’t build on them. And worse, some in the industry believe the big companies are actively pushing developers out of the space. Last month, a group of "digital wellness" apps were abruptly removed from the App Store , a move that some took as Apple way of forcing people to only use internal iOS tools.
"If 'time well spent' products are purely the domain of the large Silicon Valley players, any control we gain over tech will be illusory, and we’d do a great disservice to all the people who could benefit from these tools," Stutzman says.
That's not to discount the gains of the movement this year. In name-checking "digital wellness," Apple, Google, and the like brought a grassroots campaign to the forefront of conversation and made it possible for more people to understand the magnitude of the tech addiction problem. But don't be fooled. Your phone is still a battleground for your attention, and Big Tech is still finding new ways to capture yours.
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