Apple created the attention sinkhole. Here are some ways to fix it.

Your attention span is the battleground, and the tech platforms have you bested. Social media platforms, like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram get bulk of the blame for employing sketchy tactics to drive engagement. And they deserve most of the criticism; as Tristan Harris points out, as users, they are at a serious disadvantage when competing against companies trying to lure them with virtually endless resources.

However, one company that is responsible for this crisis goes relatively unscathed. Apple jumpstarted the smartphone revolution with the iPhone. Our phones are not anymore an extension of our brains but for many, a replacement. However, things went south. Your phone is less a digital hub, but more a sinkhole for your mind.

I believe that for having built a device that has demanded so much of our attention, Apple has left its users in the dark when it comes to using it for their own good. It has built a portal for companies to suck as much of our time as they demand, without giving us ability to protect ourselves. Surely, there have been some attempts to solve the problem, with features like Do Not Disturb and Bedtime, most of them have been half-assed at best. The market has tried to fill the void, but the OS restrictions render most efforts futile.

Currently, the iOS, the world’s most advanced mobile operating system as company calls it,  is built to serve apps and app developers. Apple should focus on its OS serving its users first, and the apps second.

1 · Attention

I have touched on this before, within the context of the Apple Watch, but I believe Apple has built a device that is so compelling visually, and connected to apps that literally have PhDs working to get you addicted to your, that the users are treated like mice in a lab pressing on pedals to get the next hit. This is unsustainable, and also irresponsible.

I believe Apple should give users enough data, both in raw and visually appealing formats to help them make informed choices. Moreover, the OS should allow people to limit their (or their kids’) use of their phones. And lastly, Apple should use technology to help users, if any to offset the thousands of people to trying to get them addicted.

1.1 · Allow Users to See where their Time Went

First of all, Apple needs to give users a way to see how much they spend on their phones, per app. There are clumsy ways to do this data. The popular  Moment does this literally inspecting the battery usage screen’s screenshot. The lengths developer Kevin Holesh went to make this app useful is remarkable, and application itself is definitely worth it but it shouldn’t be this hard. And it is not enough.

A user should be able to go to a section either on the Settings app, or maybe the Health app, and see the number of hours —of course it is hours— they have spent on their phone, per day, per app. If this data contains average session time, as defined by either the app being on the foreground, or in the case of iPhone X, looked at, even better. The sophisticated face tracking on the new iPhone can already tell if you are paying attention to your phone, why not use that data for good?

FaceID Demonstration
Paying serious attention

In an ideal case, Apple would make this data available with a rich, queryable API. This is obviously tricky with the privacy implications; ironically this kind data would be a goldmine for anyone to optimize their engagement tactics. However, even a categorized dataset, with app names discarded would be immensely useful. This way, users can see if they really should spending hours a day in a social media app. At the very least, Apple can share this data, in aggregate with public health and research institutions.

1.2 · Allow Time Based and Screen Time Limits for Apps

Second of all, Apple should allow users to limit time spent on an app, possibly as part of parental settings, or Restrictions, as Apple calls it. There is already precedent for this. Apple allows granular settings to disable things from downloading apps altogether to changing privacy settings, allowing location access and such.

Users should be able to set either duration limits per app (e.g. 1hr/day, 10hrs/week), time limits (e.g. only between 5PM and 8PM) or both. Either of these would be socially accepted, if not welcome. Bill Gates himself limits his kids’ time with technology, and so did Steve Jobs, and Jony Ive.. Such features should be built into the OS.

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates on stage
Low tech parents

As an aside, I think there are lots of visual ways to encourage proper app habits. Apps’ icons could slowly darken, show a small progress indicator (like when they are being installed), or other ways. This way, someone can tell that they have Instagrammed enough for the day.

1.3 · Make Useful Recommendations

With the new Apple Watch, and watchOS 4, Apple is working with Stanford to detect arrhythmia, by comparing current heart rate data, to that user’s known baseline. Since its inception,  Watch used rings, to encourage people to “stand up”, and move around. Even my Garmin watch keeps track of when I am standing still for too long.

Apple can do this for maintaining attention too. Next time you find yourself stressed, notice how you switch between apps, over and over again. Look at how people sometimes close an app, swipe around, come back to the same app just to send that one last text. These are observable patterns of stress.

Apple can, proactively and reactively, watch for these patterns and recommend someone to take a breather, maybe literally. With Watch, Apple went out of its way to build a custom vibration to simulate stretching on your wrist for breathing exercises. The attention to detail, and license to be playful is there. Just using on-device learning, Apple can tell when you are stressed, nervous, just swiping back and forth, and recommend a way to relax. Moreover, the OS can even see if the users’ sessions between apps are too short, or too long, make suggestions based on that kind of data.

Display on a Mercedes Car showing Attention Assist
Attention Assist, Indeed

As mentioned, there’s a lot of precedent for determining mental state using technology, and making recommendations. Any recent Mercedes will determine your fatigue based on how you drive, and recommend you take a coffee break. Many of GM’s new cars have driver facing cameras where the camera can tell your eyes are open and paying attention during self-driving mode. Using your phone is not as risky as driving a car, but for many, a phone is a much bigger part of your life.

2 · Notifications

Notifications on iOS are broken. With every iOS release, Apple tries to redo the notification settings, in a valiant effort to allow people to handle the deluge of pings. There are many notification settings hidden inside Settings app, with cryptic names like banners, alerts, and many more.

Apple Notification Guidelines
If only

However, currently all notifications from all apps are on a single plane. An annoying campaign update from a fledging app to re-engage you gets the same treatment as your mom trying to say hi. Moreover, apps abuse notification channels; the permissions are forever but the users’ interests are not. And of course, the data is sorely missing.

2.1 · Allow Users to See Data about Notifications and their Engagement

Again, this is a simple one. Apple should make data both the raw data as well as an easily digestible reporting about notifications available to a user. It is easy for this to get out of hand, but I think even a single listing where apps are ranked by notifications per week or day would be useful. Users should be able to tell that their shopping app they used once have been sending them notifications that they have been ignoring.

2.2 · Categorize and Group Notifications

Apple should allow smarter grouping of notifications, similar to email. Currently, as said, notifications largely have a single channel. However, this doesn’t scale. Tristan Harris and his group make a good suggestion; separate notifications by their origin. Anything that is directly caused by a user action should be separated from other notifications to start with. This would mean that your friend sending a message would be a different type of notification than Twitter telling you to nudge them.

I think there are even bigger opportunities here; without getting too much into it, Apple can help developers tie notifications to specific people, start categorizing them by intent. Literally anything, over what is currently available, would be an improvement.

This idea would definitely  receive a ton of pushback, especially from companies whose business relies on getting users addicted to their products. However, the maintaining toxic business models shouldn’t be a priority. If a user does not want to launch Facebook, then they shouldn’t have to. If an app can drive engagement, or whatever one might call mindlessly scrolling, only with an annoying push notification, maybe they shouldn’t be able to.

This is the kind of storm Apple can weather. While Apple cherishes its relationships with apps, it essentially is beholden primarily to its users. And such a change would almost certainly be welcome by users.

2.3 · Allow Short Term Permissions for Notifications

For many types of apps, notifications are only useful for a limited amount of time. When you call an Uber, or order food, you do want notifications but other times, an email would or a low-key notification would suffice. Users should be able to give apps a temporary permission to nudge them, and then the window should automatically close.

This is something some people are already familiar with. Many professionals, such as doctors, college professors, and lawyers have office hours when you can talk to them freely, but other times, you cannot.

2.4 · Make Useful Recommendations

Once again, Apple can even take a more proactive role and help users manage their notifications by making recommendations. For example, the OS can keep track of notifications one engages with meaningfully, or not. This way, the phone can ask the user if they would like to silence an app that they never use.

Apple already does this, to some degree with app developers; if you app’s notifications are too spammy, and users rarely engage, you’ll get a call. However, the users should have a say. An app that might be meaningful to a user might be spammy to other. The OS can make these decisions, or at least make smart recommendations. A feature like this literally exists to help you save space on your phone’s memory; why not for your notifications too?

Ending Thoughts

I believe that an attention based economy, where millions of people are in a constant state of distraction, with tiny short bursts of concentration is dangerous to our mental health as individuals, and society as a whole. Wasting hours switching between apps, not accomplishing anything is one thing, but  a constant need to be entertained, a lack of ability to be with one’s thoughts, not being able to just be around people, without pulling out a phone, are all going to cause wide social issues we’ll tackle with for years. When the people who have built these tools are scared, it’s a good sign that we lost control of our creations.

Surprisingly, iOS is lagging much behind Android in this aspect. I have almost exclusively used an iPhone since its launch, and written bulk of this piece without doing much research. I was surprised, and somewhat embarrassed to see most of what I proposed in the Attention section, such as bedtimes, app limits already exist in Android as part of Family Link. And of course, tools like RescueTime existed for Mac and Windows to help people see where their time went, but their functionality is next to useless in iOS. As mentioned, even Moments app can do only so much within the confines of Apple’s ecosystem.

I wholeheartedly think that unless we approach this issue like we did smoking, and elevate the discussion to a public health issue, it won’t get solved. However, there are ways to help curb the problem, and it is time Apple took the matter to its own hands.

Unlike most other tech companies, Apple makes most of its money by selling hardware to consumers. Every couple years, you buy an iPhone, and maybe an app or two, and Apple gets a cool thousand bucks,. Apple’s incentives, although recently less so with the increasing services revenue, lies with those of its users, not the advertisers or the marketers. If Apple is serious about its health focus, now is the right time to act.

Fake News is an attention economy problem

A common theme of this blog is that history repeats itself. There are some fundamental dynamics of information that are innate to the internet, and most companies coast those trends. There are occasional shifts; like the smartphone with its always-on-connectivity and sensors but things more or less follow certain trends.

The recent rise of “fake news”, or cheap information that plagues everywhere that Facebook, and to a smaller degree Google, is dealing with has precedents and can be explained (and predicted, as many did) basic look at the economies of attention, which is the another theme of this blog. Being somewhat reductionist, the problem can be view as a spam issue, on steroids. I admit the integrity of presidential elections is a more serious problem than loss off productivity but a more sterile approach might help come to some immediate solutions.

Facebook might be the punching bag these days for everyone, especially journalists, but Google had its fair share of spam issues. Not too long ago, at around 2009, the Mountain View company was fighting a fierce war against what was then called “content farms”. These companies would basically figure out the trending Google searches, create extremely cheap content, real fast, and do some SEO magic, and get traffic from Google, against which you can sell ads. As long as your cost of production was lower than your revenue from ads, you were golden.

This was a big, lucrative business. The biggest player in this game, aptly named Demand Media was a billion dollar public company. This Wired feature on the the company is full of amazing anecdotes. The company ran many, many websites targeted at virtually any vertical, including one called Livestrong, a franchise of the none other than Lance Armstrong.

Google, soon woke up to the danger, and issued an update to its “algorithm”, called the Panda update and effectively kneecapped the entire industry. Today we are looking to hear from Facebook CSO Alex Stamos, but Matt Cutts of Google was all the rage back then.

Facebook even had its fair share of “spam” problems, and while company might seem like paralyzed in an effort to satisfy both sides, it wasn’t always that way either. Zynga figured out the dynamics of News Feed, as well as the psychological rewarding mechanisms of unsuspecting “gamers” and built a billion dollar business around it. In the meantime, though Zynga and its flagship FarmVille game became synonymous with spam. When Facebook woke up to the problem, and took action, the resulting tweaks nearly killed Zynga too. The gaming company is still around, as a public company, but it’s struggling to even pay for its HQ. Same pattern also happened with companies like Upworthy, and many other “viral” news sources.

As an outsider, it’s not clear how much of an existential crisis this is for Facebook. Google’s struggles with content farms was an existential risk; users losing trust in their search engine can jump ship to Bing or any other. Facebook users are locked in to the platform, and by the virtue of social networks, as more users join, its gets harder for next user to leave. The social network is more or less the world’s biggest address book for many, and the filter bubbles really make the problem of fake news only one someone else can diagnose for you, not unlike a mental disorder. Some like Sam Biddle even argue inherently benefits from our endless craving of drama. Russian interference in US elections propelled the problem to mainstream media, but that was unintentional.

Moreover, the numbers itself make it a challenge. unlike a few content farms (or virtual farms, in case of Zynga) that can be easily identified, for Facebook, there are 5 million advertisers who can push any sort of content to users’ news feeds. Still, it doesn’t seem like an unmanageable number. There are many business that have similar number of customers, who seem to keep a handle on them.

It wouldn’t be great for Facebook’s bottom line to have to increase the cost per customer, but it is probably the right approach for the long term. The media and tech analyst Ben Thompson argues the same in his column. (Subscription might be required) Facebook flew past its competitors partly by being the saner, more refined, Ivy-grad built and approved alternative. Google probably doesn’t miss revenue it used to earned from the content farms, and Facebook certainly doesn’t miss Upworthy. Longer term vision would help. A company that’s building solar powered planes that communicate each other via gyroscopically stabilized lasers should be able to solve some spam issues.

As a sidetone, it’s worth mentioning the opposite examples. These cheap SEO or virality games do not always end badly for companies. For each Demand Media, there’s a “success” story like Business Insider, and the like. The journalistic pasts of these organizations are questionable. Both, among others, have built their businesses on borrowing content from other organizations, having fewer and more junior staff, but really playing the SEO game better than anyone. Similarly, Buzzfeed is a now serious journalistic powerhouse now but the company was decidedly built on subsidizing actual journalism off of more viral, bite-sized content.

The fact the solutions will emerge only points to the chronic nature of the problem, however.  Facebook, Google, or any platform can solve the spam problem, given enough resources and focus. An economy that’s based on commodified attention poses not just passing economic challenges to tech behemoths, but existential risks for a regime that’s somewhat predicated on an educated public. The history of attention economy is the subject of Tim Wu’s excellent book Attention Merchants, which I can’t recommend highly enough.

When people’s attention can be sold to the highest bidder, the producers with the lowest fixed costs will rule the world. A few years ago, it was Demand Media, then it was Zynga, then Upworthy and Huffington Post, and today it’s everyone. As costs of production goes down (which is a good thing), the challenge will get harder. Moreover, as targeting of not just ads, but any content, becomes more precise, yet more opaque, the shared context that holds a society together will inevitably decay.

It might be a libertarian pipe dream to live free of interference from anyone, in one’s own digital and physical cocoon, but that seems untenable in the long run for a liberal democracy. At some point, we will have to elevate our rights to our information laid down in a more robust fashion, instead of relying on the good will of a few people living in California. Spam, as a risk to productivity, was solved by better technology, as well as regulation that required transparency to widely distributed emails. But most importantly, it got solved after we acknowledged the problem, saw the long term risks, and attacked it at its mechanics.

iPhone stole your attention. Your watch might help.

Apple announcements never fail to entertain. Over the years most amusing moments came to be when an Apple executive makes a comment about how their products not just contain amazing technology, but embody larger than life qualities. Couple years ago, when Apple removed the headphone jack from its phones, they called, without a hint of irony, “courage”. This year’s announcements had its share of squirming moments too, from Apple Town Squares to soul-sucking visualizations of face scanning technology. But for

me, the real kicker was when Apple decided to associate the Apple Watch with cellular connectivity with “freedom”.

It’s hard to not cringe, when you see Apple’s first promo video for the cellular Watch shows a surfer, who receives a call right in the middle of her sick trick. How is that a good thing? Do people not go on vacation to unplug? The eye rolls didn’t stop there; where Apple decided to demo making a phone call with nothing but a watch by showcasing an Apple executive answering a phone call, during a paddle-boarding session on Lake Tahoe. I wrote the proclamations of freedom via a $400 watch, combined with a $120/year bill hike, off as garden-variety Apple navel gazing.

It wasn’t until I read a review of the watch by Hodinkee, a high-end watch blogger, that the freedom Apple was promising was nothing more than freedom of its own device, the phone. It’s a great read overall, with lots of interesting insights into the industry itself. But what caught my eye was how the watch changed, or reduced how he used his phone.

In the few days I’ve been using the Series 3 Edition as my only communication device, I’ve found myself checking Instagram less. Texting less. Dickin’ around on the web less. I use the watch to text or make phone calls when I need to – and that’s it. My definition of “need” has changed completely – and frankly I don’t miss having my phone in my pocket at all.

The smartphone promised us always-on connectivity, and we welcomed it with open hands. The ability to respond to an email immediately wasn’t new, but add an actual web browser, and an App Store that extended the functionality of the phone virtually endlessly, we got hooked. As the fidelity of medium increased, it slowly became not just a device to use for a specific purpose, but something that we use, to more or less, to use. In short, we traded in our attention for the promise of always connectivity.

The reasons for how our phones are so addictive are numerous and we are just discovering the results, both personal and societal, of such an enormous shift in how we manage our attention spans. Although the research is taking shape, there are already a few loud voices telling us that the commodification of our attention is nothing less than a full-on scale war by the brightest minds of our generation against our identity.

I am not no Luddite; I earned my living for the past 7 years for working at technology companies. As I have moved across first cities, and then countries, I have relied on technology to stay connected to those that’s dear to me. I also think that technology is an essential tool to slowly bring down the arbitrary barriers in humanity, democratize access to information, and generally make the world a more just place.

Apple Watch here stands as an interesting device with the promise of a connectivity with a much smaller drag on one’s attention. It has a screen, but a much smaller one than the one on your phone; you simply can’t look at it for hours at end. The input methods to it are similar to a phone (with the notable exception of a camera) but voice plays a much bigger role on it, ironically, than it does on the phone. You can, realistically, use your watch via voice, both as an input and output method and only rely on the screen for an occasional glance.

Of course, the same dangers that made the smartphone an attention hog loom over the watch. Unlike a phone, a watch is always attached to your body, with an ability to jerk you at any time with a vibrating motor. And Apple is not being subtle about its goals; while it is admirable that the company is using the heart-rate sensor to detect heart conditions and generally provide data to researchers around the world, there’s something off-putting about your heart rate being measured constantly and uploaded, even in aggregate form, to some datacenter somewhere. And maybe, this will all be invalid when the tech industry actually puts is resources, unlike they’ve done so far, behind developing new apps for the watch that become as addictive as their phone counterparts.

It is early in our technological evolution to tell what will be the prevailing way we’ll be interacting with technology and for what purposes. Smartphones seem ubiquitous now but it’s important to note that they have existed for merely 10 years, a blink of an eye even on the fast changing pace of technology. It’s very unlikely and depressing that interacting with a 6 inch glass slate that is littered with apps whose raison d’être is to collect more data about you to sell better ads, is the conclusion of human-computer interaction.

In some way, Apple’s proclamation of freedom that you can get with a watch is an admission of this guilt. What the watch promises is a freedom from your phone. More than any company, Apple itself created this world where we feel a compulsive desire to be entertained and not be bored. And maybe, with the watch, Apple can help undo some of the damage. This is not to suggest that the main reason Apple sells devices is to advance the human civilization, or to not make unfathomable amounts of money, only to spend it on absurd buildings or ask for salvation from a giant corporation for our sins.

Unlike many of the other tech giants, Apple makes most of its money (though increasingly not all of it) from directly selling products to its customers. Without other intermediaries to take a cut, the company’s incentives are more directly aligned with those of its users. And more than that, with its size and reach, Apple is a company that sets the tone for the industry.

Our mode of interaction with our technology is still evolving. It is not reasonable to roll back to a world where always-on connectivity isn’t the norm. But that doesn’t mean that our attention should be up for sale. A device, or a combination of devices, that makes a conscious effort to be less in your face and more out of your way is one way to ensure that.