Over the weekend, Google held their developer conference Google I/O 2018. While most of the conference reflected Google’s consistent strategy, developer friendliness, there were a few other points made. Namely, Google will require manufacturers to roll out security updates in a timely manner, and a new feature in their Android OS they are dubbing WellBeing.
The security requirement is an interesting addition, but there is little to no information how that will roll out and what penalties for manufacturers, if any.
However, the item peeking most interest is the Android feature that is designed to highlight phone usage. Everyone is asking has Google lost their minds. Is this just a bandwagon ploy based on a Silicon Valley movement. A response considering Facebook’s current legal issues. Or is this Google reflecting genuine concern for user health.
While no one can know for sure what is discussed behind C-suite doors at Google, there is some information for individuals to weigh for themselves.
Time Well Spent Movement
Google’s newest feature is not a completely innovative idea. In 2012 Tristan Harris, a then Google employee, began to question the demands technology puts on people. Namely, we are in constant distraction and stress, or excitement, from notifications, email, social media, and apps. Focus and real life become more difficult, as each item is designed to pull our focus.
At the time, Google elevated Harris to a position regarding ethics. However, the Kool-aid did not last long, and Harris left to start the Time Well Spent movement.
The movement is based on the idea that tech companies are hijacking the public’s mind.
As we read articles about Silicon CEOs refusing to give their children smartphones, or only allowing an hour of screen time including tablet time a day, the public at large questions the health of our phone and digital “addiction.” Google’s new dashboard and features claim to give users peace of mind.
The design of the dashboard is relative simple. It includes filter and control features that Amazon has included in their children’s Fire tablet for a few years.
Mostly, the features show you exactly how much time you have spent in each app. It shows you how often you unlock your screen, how many notifications you receive, and in general how involved you are with your smartphone.
But that’s not all the features do. In fact, there are additional controls and settings that can be used to limit time. A user can decide they are allowed only 30 minutes on an app. After that time, the app becomes grayed out. The phone sends a reminder that the user has asked to set a time limit. The phone will turn off notifications when placed face down, and the screen will automatically go to grayscale at bedtime.
Similarly, Google has added a notification in YouTube that reminds people how long they’ve watched and maybe it’s time for them to take a break.
While the features reflect an element of goodwill towards their phone users, Google is not playing good Samaritan in this situation.
Reality of Google
Some detractors are focusing on Google’s surface purpose of a marketing company. Which means they sell space, and if the user is not looking at their phone, the space is useless.
However, this view point is a bit shortsighted. Like Facebook, Amazon, and other tech companies, Google is in the business of data. Android’s newest feature plays on the emotional fear humans have when confronting life changing technology. Android’s newest feature is not looking out for people’s wellbeing; rather, their newest feature is likely another method of collecting data on how and when people use Android.
It's true smartphones and the apps they contain are changing human behavior. However, there is little scientific evidence it is harming either moods or human interactions. Similar to any other innovation, from television to electricity and even the printing press, technology changes how humans interact with the world and each other.
There may be valid concern for those with addictive personalities but setting time limits will do little to stop this behavior. Being aware of how many times a screen is unlocked could enlighten some individuals to their use, leading them to decrease or structure their phone time.
Overall, the feature appears to be another app that some people will find beneficial. Others will find no purpose for it’s use. At the end of the day, people should wait for science to empirically decide how harmful technology really is. This is another way for Google to collect data on all Android users.