Apple's annual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) has historically been the company's biggest opportunity to announce and showcase new product updates. It's an event that's been used to announce every one of its groundbreaking innovations--from the iPhone, to the App Store, to the Macbook Pro and other products that have become so ingrained in our everyday lives.
But this year was a little different. Ironically, one of the most notable announcements were updates that help you use its products less.
The new iOS feature, called Screen Time, gives you a dashboard of apps you regularly use and displays the amount of time you tend to spend with each of them. You can set limits to how much you use certain apps, and parents can place limits on how their children use their own iPhones.
During a period in which Silicon Valley has faced a reckoning over tech addiction (or as Arianna Huffington calls it,The Great Awakening), Apple certainly deserves a standing ovation.
...Actually, not really.
The New Feature to Reduce Screen Time Feels Like a PR Move
Don't get me wrong, Apple definitely deserves credit for attempting to solve for the burgeoning movement around ethics in tech.
But Apple, like the rest of Silicon Valley, has received a lot of pressure on the matter. This past January, two big investors (which together control $2 billion of Apple stock) sent a very public letter to Apple's leadership, imploring the company to consider its impact on mental health, especially with children. They cited research on the consequences of phone overuse like decreased focus, difficulty with social interactions, lower empathy, and higher stress, depression, and suicide.
If that hasn't been hard enough to ignore, Apple has also been beaten to the punch by other tech companies. Earlier this year, Google introduced new Android features that are similar to those proposed by Apple: allowing users to see detailed reports of phone usage in an effort to help reduce time spent on the device.
So, all things considered, let's call Screen Time what it really is: Merely a PR response, rather than an effective, thoughtful solution.
Apple is Not the Hero. But They Can Be.
Apple is certainly at an inflection point right now when it comes to shaping the future of its products. There's a lot of hope, and even some practical expectation, that Apple might acknowledge the "dark side" of their products, and work to reduce any harmful effects that the products cause.
But just because Apple can help you "manage" your time with your iPhone, is that really the solution?
I believe that the Screen Time feature actually has the potential to reduce phone usage; I'm sure there's supporting research and evidence behind monitoring and setting limits. But I also believe that there is a better way to create a solution for the tech reckoning that we're in the midst of.
If you were delivering water that was contaminated by the lead pipes it flowed through, you wouldn't just reduce the the amount of water that was used by the community.
No, you would change or replace the piping infrastructure altogether.
The difference between Apple and the rest of Silicon Valley is that Apple depends on its customer buying its hardware products, the foundations that the digital world is built upon. And unlike Facebook, Google and Twitter, its bottom line does not depend on how much time people spend using them.
Because of that, Apple is uniquely positioned to, and can afford to, focus on this problem in a way that most other tech companies cannot.
Moreover, the mobile revolution, today's hunched-over-our-palms culture, is almost single-handedly driven by Apple's iPhone--the device itself. The move away from mobile screens to more ubiquitous technology experience could help liberate us from the harmful effects of screen addictions, and afford us access to the rich amount of information offered by the internet in a more natural way.
That said, it's likely that Apple can and should do that by deepening it's understanding of the addictive properties of its devices and developing a technology paradigm beyond screens and mobile devices. If it can continue to advance its augmented reality capabilities, shrink its screens with the likes of the Apple Watch and continue to embed Siri into our physical environments as much as possible, maybe then it can solve the addiction problem. It could create a more natural connected ecosystem--one with all of the benefits of the internet and one that we don't have to fight to "put down."
Maybe then they'll be the hero.