Someone once described the iPhone as a window into our digital lives. Apple’s job, in designing it, is to make that window as large and transparent as possible — preferably to the point where you don’t even know it’s there. The device, in other words, should simply get out of the way.
The hardware does this in numerous ways. To name just a few: A fast processor means web pages and apps launch faster, reliable wireless connections mean your AirPods “just work” when you put them in your ears, and the sophisticated touchscreen lets you use simple, natural gestures (like swiping down on a photo to “close” it) to manipulate content.
But the most direct, obvious way of improving the so-called window is to make it bigger. That’s exactly what the iPhone X, with its edge-to-edge display, does. Now Apple is poised to go all-in on that design: The company is widely predicted to unveil three different iPhones, at three different prices, with edge-to-edge screens at its event on Wednesday, spreading design to even more of its customers.
Certainly, the window isn’t yet perfect. (Hello, notch.) But based on Apple’s earnings reports, it’s clear the iPhone X has been a success; even though the company is selling fewer iPhones, it’s generating significantly more revenue from those sales. The iPhone X, which infamously starts at $999, has clearly resonated with customers, validating Apple’s design choices to push the screen outward and discard the home button. Say what you will about the price and the notch — the iPhone X is a better “window” than the previous design.
Cracks in the window
I find it ironic that, just as Apple is coming very close to perfecting that window, the public is in the midst of a larger re-examination of our relationship with technology. The social networks we came to rely on to connect us turned out to be equally adept at dividing and manipulating us. There’s a renewed focus on privacy, which always seems to be in short supply in the digital realm. And there’s been so much scrutiny on the habits our devices have ingrained in us that the companies designing them have been forced to offer tools to mitigate their use.
This isn’t a coincidence. I don’t mean to imply a direct correlation — it’s certainly not Apple’s or the iPhone’s fault that many people are becoming negatively affected by technology — but the iPhone X is the most tangible example of technology’s tendency (in fact its entire justification) to remove friction. Only now has so much friction been removed that the public at large is starting to question the consequences, which are often not good.
Notifications hit us at all times of the day, wrecking our attention spans. Social networks are so habit-forming that they encourage “zombie scrolling,” as anyone who’s walked into a crowded elevator knows. Then there’s the simple psychological toll it takes on anyone to constantly navigate cyberbullying, FOMO, outrage mobs, and just the empty validation-through-likes lifestyle of social networks, all of which has led to well-meaning public exhortations to purge Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram from our phones, if not our lives.
“This is the natural cycle of an sufficiently impactful technology,” says author Nir Eyal, who studies the habits that personal technology creates, “We adopt it wholesale, everybody loves it and then we figure out, wait a minute, there’s some downsides. This is the exact same story that occurred during the Industrial Revolution. There’s always a reckoning with a technology this profound.”
Phones and apps alone didn’t get us here. By letting Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri into our homes, we’ve begun to question just how much of ourselves we want to reveal to these tech companies. While the convenience they offer is certainly real, the personal data needed to make some experiences seamless is now starkly apparent.
There appears to be some kind of principle at work here akin to robotics’ uncanny valley: As the smartphone experience gets more and more frictionless — the closer we get to that perfect digital window — the stronger the instinct to recoil from that technology.
The first iPhone designed to be used less
Apple and its peers are certainly aware of the problem, and that’s why they’re offering tools like Screen Time, the name for Apple’s suite of tools in iOS 12 to give users insights into how they’re using their iPhones. The feature can show a user how much time they spend in any particular app as well as how many times a day they unlock their phone, which, in the case of the iPhone X and its progeny, is as easy as looking at the device.
“It’s usually hard to sell people something that hurts them,” Eyal says. “This backlash — people saying, ‘I’m using my device too much, I don’t like what it’s doing to me and my enjoyment of life’ — companies have an economic and moral imperative to respond.”
There’s reason to believe Screen Time isn’t just lip service to a serious concern. Apple’s business model isn’t dependent on how much time you spend with its devices; whether you unlock your iPhone once a minute or once a week, Apple made its money when you bought it. Sure, Apple wants to fuel its burgeoning services business as well, but most of its services (like Apple Music) have straightforward subscription models — as opposed to the devil’s bargain of social media where services are cost-free in exchange for data.
This is why Apple stands the best chance of weathering the current tech backlash. Not only do its customers connect with its products in a physical, intimate way, but it’s also the least interested in keeping you constantly engaged with them. If Screen Time makes you use the device less, but generally improves your experience, the company is totally fine with that.
“With iOS 12 with Screen Time, they’re building into these devices a way for you to use the devices less,” explains Eyal. “You might think that doesn’t make any sense, but it does. It’s like seat belts. It wasn’t regulation that first put seat belts in cars — it was consumer demand. And the cars that had seat belts outsold the cars that didn’t have seat belts.”
Apple has spent the last decade polishing its technological window to near perfection, in turn making the digital world on the other side even more attractive. For all the incredible experiences enabled by that progress, the iPhones revealed on Sept. 12 will be the first ones to acknowledge an obvious truth: Sometimes you just want to pull the shade down.