Speaking at a recent Time 100 summit, Apple CEO Tim Cook made headlines when he told the audience they should be using their iPhones less, not more. But if you pay close attention to what he actually said, his meaning was clear: Stop using Facebook so much.

To begin with, he suggested iPhone owners use Apple's new tool to pick which apps can send notifications (something that Android has offered for years). "If you have an iPhone and you're not doing it, I would encourage you to really do this," he said. He explained that controlling his push notifications had made a big difference to his own life and productivity. 

"What it has done for me personally is I've gone in and gutted the number of notifications," he said. "Because I asked myself: 'Do I really need to be getting thousands of notifications a day?' It's not something that is adding value to my life, or is making me a better person." 

OK, but what commonly used app can actually send you thousands of notifications a day? There's one obvious answer to that question, although Cook never actually named Facebook in his comments. But as though to make sure no one missed the point, he drew a distinction between online interactions and real-life ones. "Every time you pick up your phone, it means you're taking your eyes off whoever you're dealing with, are talking with, right?" he said. "And if you're looking at your phone more than you're looking at somebody else's eyes, you're doing the wrong thing." 

There's nothing new about Cook taking potshots at Facebook. He's often criticized the social network for its cavalier approach to user privacy. (He's not the only one. Facebook appears to be about to pay a $5 billion fine to the federal government for its privacy misdeeds.) He's called for more privacy regulations. Late last year, Facebook asked its employees to stop using iPhones and switch to Android phones instead.

Cook may seem like he's nobly upholding users' rights, but most likely, this is simply a good old-fashioned case of talking trash about the competition. Because even though Apple is primarily a hardware and content company, and Facebook is primarily a social network, the two are locked in a fierce battle over messaging. Facebook wants Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp (which it owns) to be the world's default messaging apps. Apple thinks it should be its own highly popular app, iMessage, at least for iPhone users.

Can technology be humane?

Fighting technology addiction is a thing these days, and former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris is also sounding the alarm about technology addiction. Harris, who's been called the conscience of Silicon Valley, made a splash in 2017 with a TED talk about how high-tech companies foster technology addiction. That talk did a very good job of defining the problem but a bad one of suggesting realistic solutions. As Harris himself said, a fix would require "radical changes to technology and to our society."

In the meantime, Harris has been credited with inspiring some tech companies, including Facebook and Apple, to build tools into their products that show users how much time they're spending on their phones or using specific apps or websites. Having that metric is a useful start, but it won't cure anyone's screen addiction any more than you could cure alcoholism by giving alcoholics a tool to measure how much they are drinking.

Why is Harris all over the news again these days? Because he and Aza Raskin, a high-profile tech entrepreneur and former head of user experience at Mozilla, have teamed up on something called the Center for Humane Technology (CHT). The organization's mission is to fight "human downgrading" through technology. Its site explains that while tech giants have been upgrading their technology, they've been downgrading human beings by giving us all shorter attention spans, rewarding outrage over dialogue, making addicts of our children, and polarizing our democratic process. The CHT says it's working to create market demand for more humane technology that refrains from doing these things. 

The site's "Get Involved" page starts out with a bold headline: "Don't Join Our Email List or Follow Us On Twitter." But at the bottom of the page, it adds that if you really want to, you can--and it offers links to the newsletter, to the organization's Twitter feed and--perhaps most ironically--its Facebook page. Multiple studies have shown Facebook in particular "downgrades humans," as the CHT puts it, and that most people would be happier if they stopped using it.

This kind of thing points up the contradictions that invariably arise when people in the technology industry tell others to use less technology. Inevitably, they do it while at the same time inviting people to use technology. Harris and Raskin and Cook are certainly right--overuse of the internet and social media does seem to have shortened people's attention spans, giving them a wider knowledge base but a more limited capacity for critical thinking. Screen time certainly can be addictive. The way social media's been used to manipulate opinions and make public discourse more cantankerous--and to affect elections--should worry us all.

But it's not clear what the solution might be. And it's really not clear that those who got rich from the public's overuse of technology are the right people to find it.

Published on: Apr 26, 2019
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