Apple relishes its reputation as the least evil of the big consumer technology companies.

Rarely does CEO Tim Cook pass up an opportunity to direct a swipe at Facebook or Google over what he--along with, seemingly, a growing number of Americans--perceives as their central moral failing: a business model that depends on tempting or tricking users into surrendering control of their time and their personal privacy

That impulse of virtuous one-upmanship was on full display Monday at Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference, where the iPhone maker showed off a bevy of new products and features touted as helping customers better manage their digital lives. Inadvertently, though, the announcements also raised questions about the sincerity of Apple's concern-- whether the company sees respect for the well-being of its consumers as a selling point, or merely a concession to the current cultural moment. 

Among the new offerings announced from the stage at WWDC: a new "Do Not Disturb During Bedtime" mode will hide notifications that come in overnight, helping users who habitually check their phones during the wee hours to go back to sleep. App notifications will be grouped rather than displaying individually, making it easier to process them in batches and cutting down on information overload. 

A new feature called Screen Time allows users to see how much, how often and for what they're using their phones. "Screen Time empowers you with both insight and control over how you spend your time," said Craig Federighi, senior vice president of software engineering. A related feature, App Limits, allows users to pre-set quotas on usage of specific apps, warning them when they're getting close and disabling them app when the limit is reached. "We think this is going to be helpful for many people, but especially for some kids," Federighi said. 

Parents who manage their children's devices can further dictate their behavior by designating some periods as "Down Time," when apps can't be accessed at all, and doling out digital minutes via "Allowances." 

Throughout the course of the two-hour-plus keynote, Apple's speakers invited the audience to draw implicit contrasts between Apple and its rivals. Slides illustrating how Screen Time works used Facebook-owned Instagram as an example of an app one might want to cut back on, while Twitter was the example used for grouped notifications. 

But when they weren't boasting about all the ways Apple is freeing users from the tyranny of their devices, executives were hyping all the dazzling new reasons you'll want to waste more time with your devices. It was hard to ignore the buzz of cognitive dissonance during a demo of Memoji, a new feature that lets users create animated augmented-reality avatars of their own faces to use in photos and messages. The Wall Street Journal's Joanna Stern was one of many to call out the jarring juxtaposition.

Likewise, a segment of new Apple Watch upgrades started with a rundown of features meant to motivate owners to be more fit. But an onstage demo suggested the company still has a less-than-holistic understanding of what health looks like. "30 minutes ago Apple was talking about having a healthier relationship to our devices. Now, they have a woman riding a spin bike in front of us and frantically scrolling thru productivity apps and multitasking on her watch," noted Buzzfeed's Charlie Warzel

Never mind that the watch's new Walkie-Talkie feature is likely to mean having to endure interruptions from other people's devices as well as your own. Or that Apple is reportedly looking into reviving its abandoned ad network, this time in partnership with Pinterest and Snap, putting it back into the customers-are-the-product game it claims to disdain. 

One way to decipher Apple's mixed messaging is to look at relative investment. Products designed to get you to use your phone more--like Memoji, which requires a lot of processing power and state-of-the-art image recognition technology--are expensive and hard to make. Features like Screen Time and Do Not Disturb During Bedtime mode are easy and cheap. There was nothing stopping Apple from making them anytime in the last five years. There was simply no demand, and thus no reason to devote even minimal resources to them. 

That doesn't make Apple hypocritical. It does suggest it will have to be consumers themselves who take responsibility for reclaiming their attention and personal data. We can't wait for the tech giants to do it for us, because finding shiny new uses for those things is what they're good at. Even when they're trying their best not to be evil. 

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Published on: Jun 4, 2018