The Problem With iPhones Making Us Into Cyborgs? App Developers Can't Be Trusted

By competing for our attention, developers are prioritizing commerce over our brains.

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Neuroethicist Peter Reiner sees smartphones as extensions of our minds, and he’s fine with it. “We are natural-born cyborgs,” he tells Inverse. “We have used technology outside of ourselves for all kinds of things, and now we’re using technology outside of our brains to enhance our cognitive function.”

Your smartphone can take over all sorts of mundane tasks, like remembering your grocery list, your appointments, and your deadlines. The more effectively we offload cognitive tasks to our devices, the more brain power we should have for stuff we really want or need to use it for, like creativity, expansive thought, and managing willpower, Reiner explains. The problem is that both humans and programmers have a tendency to go about things backwards.

Most existing software doesn’t prioritize helpfulness, it prioritizes capturing your attention for as long as possible, so it can either sell you something directly, or sell your eyeballs in the form of advertising. The result is an ecosystem of applications that constantly demand and fight for your attention, and this comes at a cost to your cognitive health. “There are some very, very scary implications to that, and the most scary part of it is that some company is at the other end of that process and they may or may not have our best interests in mind,” he says.

It's hard to turn away from a smartphone because they're designed to hold your attention.

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If smartphones are going to work for us instead of against us, they’re going to need a redesign, says Reiner, who envisions an independent panel of designers, behavioral scientists, and industry setting industry standards. The goal of this board is to make sure software respects the attention of the user and enhances cognitive function.

Today, your smartphone works like a manic assistant determined to keep you apprised of everything, regardless of relevancy. Some training and discipline could go a long way. Here are four ways to remake smartphones before they remake us.

Smarter Notifications

Imagine: You’re in a meeting and someone calls your phone. Your phone knows you are in a meeting, because it knows your schedule. So instead of ringing, it interrupts the call: “So-and-so is in a meeting right now. Press 1 to leave a message, and so-and-so will return your call. Press 2 if you need to reach so-and-so immediately and would like to interrupt.”

Your phone could do the same thing for text messages, emails, and social media notifications, holding them back until you are ready to take them. Your phone could learn your schedule and behavior, and automatically avoid disturbing you when you are focused on work or coming up to a deadline.

Death to Infinite Scroll

“Infinite scroll is designed specifically to hold you there,” says Reiner, “and to give you yet one more little jolt of dopamine in your brain every time something interesting shows up — and then nothing interesting, nothing interesting, nothing interesting, and just when you’re about to leave, you scroll upon something that — ‘Oh, isn’t that amazing, there’s some cats there I really need to see!’”

Your applications are constantly playing tricks on your brain to hold your attention. Companies and publications, this one included, use the same techniques that slot-machine makers use to keep you in front of the screen and coming back for more. Imagine if, instead of a news feed or notifications, Facebook sent you a single message once per day with a roundup of only the most important updates, based on what it already knows and continues to learn about your preferences. Imagine if you could customize Facebook so that it only includes features you find useful — say, birthday notifications and event invitations — without the things that distract you and steal your time. Imagine if you tried to login to Facebook within ten minutes of the last time you were there, and Facebook said, “You were just on here, and nothing important has happened since you left. Are you sure you want to continue?”

Of course, Facebook currently has every incentive to do everything in its power to keep your eyeballs glued to its platform. But what if there was an alternative platform, one that gave you only what you need, at the time when you want it? What would you pay for that service?

Better Voice Recognition

This one is probably coming with or without public pressure. But imagine, the next time you think of something you need to remember, saying out loud, “Remind to call Mom after work,” or “Have a taxi pick me up in one hour, or “put ‘mow the lawn’ on my to-do list,” and have your phone automatically respond to your request.

It would be a lot more like having a real executive assistant, and we’re not far off from it. The Amazon Echo can already do some of these things, and the device has integrated itself its owners’ homes and daily habits in surprising and almost creepy ways.

The better our devices get at taking over these tasks from us, the more we will be able to rely on them to take care of things that might otherwise clog our brain with worry.

Goal-Based Programming

What if you could tell your smartphone how to work better for you? Reiner says he sees a glimmer of hope in a new application from Google, an add-on to Calendar that allows you to set goals and helps you stick to them. If you want to meditate every night before bed, you get a notification for that. If you want to play tennis every week but never seem to find the time, the application will find a hole in your calendar and schedule it in. Can’t make that time? Google Goals will reschedule.

You’re still getting interrupted by your phone, but the notifications are based on goals you set. “You’ve told it, ‘this is how I want to run my life,’ and it’s helping you run it the way you want to,” says Reiner.

There are already plenty of apps and add-ons that promise to help you manage your life, keep and stick to goals, and avoid distractions. But this principle should be built into social media platforms and the like from the ground up, not as something you have to consciously add on once it has already had a negative impact on your life, says Reiner. There’s evidence that people are willing to pay for this — more than 100,000 people have signed up for Freedom, an app that charges $29 per year to block websites or even shut down the whole internet for set periods of time.

For now, the attention economy is king, and the major players have little incentive to make changes. There has to be a major push to tell developers that software must put the wellbeing of consumers first or lose them, says Reiner. “Even a small improvement would be better than what we have now.”