Our Screens’ Darker Sides? To Apple, That’s Your Issue
Posted June 4, 2018 8:51 p.m. EDT
SAN JOSE, Calif. — Sorry, Apple’s not sorry.
There has been a theme at the tech industry’s big conferences this year: Facebook and other tech giants keep telling us that they’ve learned from their mistakes and are going to be a lot more thoughtful about the far-out stuff they plan on doing in the future.
Apple has been cool to this narrative, and it was striking how the company’s executives danced around the tech backlash story line from the stage on Monday at its annual conference for developers.
Though Apple acknowledged the darker side of society’s obsession with the digital world, it didn’t go anywhere near the idea that its own technology might bear any of the blame.
Apple did announce several new ways of letting adults and children limit how much time they spend on their phones. A tool called Screen Time, for example, is meant to help iPhone customers manage the time they spend on their devices. You can also add limits to how much you use certain apps. And parents will be able to use Screen Time to place limits on how their children use their iPhones.
Apple’s software chief, Craig Federighi, said the company felt it was time to address smartphones’ oversize impact on everyday life. “For some of us, it’s become such a habit we might not even recognize how distracted we’ve become,” he said.
These features looked quite handy — we will know for sure once they’re released to users this year. If they do push users to quit wasting so much time on Facebook and YouTube (where getting people to waste time is a big part of the business plan), they are sure to roil Apple’s relationship with others in tech.
But that is not Apple’s problem; it is more concerned about selling you a new phone.
Apple is also putting considerable resources into making its Watch stand apart from its phone, a direction that in the long run will create more opportunities to go without a phone. Are you wearing an Apple Watch instead of carrying an iPhone? In time, Apple may not care.
But at its event here, Apple’s support for what’s being called “digital well-being” often awkwardly butted up against Apple’s larger goal: to make the digital world so awesome, you can’t resist it.
The next iPhone will let you turn your face into an emoji, and now it can even do “tongue detection” — an animated version of your face can stick out its tongue when you do. With Apple’s new augmented reality system, the iPhone can turn Legos into a video game. But if you can’t even play with some Legos without reaching for your phone, isn’t that kind of a problem?
Apple wants to stand apart from the techlash with its emphasis on privacy and its oft-stated distaste for the excesses of the internet ad industry. On Monday, the company said its Safari web browser would disable tracking software, or cookies, that advertising companies like Facebook and Google embed in websites to track users’ activity across the internet.
The new Safari feature is a direct swipe at the data-collection practices of big internet companies that Apple has tried hard to separate itself from.
Apple argues that it has always been one of the more high-minded of the big tech companies, so it shouldn’t be lumped in with outfits like Facebook.
But that argument has always been a little complicated. Apple benefits from our obsession with social software; people buy its powerful phones to use Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat and WhatsApp. Google pays Apple billions of dollars a year for the privilege of being the iPhone’s default search engine.
“We aim to put the customer at the center of everything we do,” Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, said several times Monday.
That seemed like a promise as well as a backhanded defense. Apple will give you the world. What you do with it is your own problem.