Google and the Rise of Digital Wellness
On a recent vacation, Sameer Samat was settling into his hotel when his partner asked to see his phone. As he handed it over, she promptly walked to the hotel safe and locked it inside. Then she looked him straight in the eyes. “You get this back when we leave in seven days.”
At first, Samat felt angry. Is a person without a phone even a person, or just a collection of atoms itching for its electronic limb? But his anger dissolved after a few hours, and then—like magic—he actually felt relieved. Freed from the distraction of his phone, he could relax and enjoy his vacation.
Samat, by the way, is Google’s VP for Android and Google Play. He shared this story onstage yesterday at Google’s annual developer conference, Google I/O, to prove a point: Samat holds the keys to Android, the most widely used mobile operating system in the world, and even he thinks phones are toxic.
Google, like much of Silicon Valley, is awakening to a new movement. Technology’s advances used to receive unadulterated exaltation; these days, the promises have gone sour, the optimism dried up. Our devices have never been more powerful, and people have never been so desperate to escape them through “digital detoxes” and “dumb phones.” Unplugging is the rallying call of our time. Turn off, tune out, drop out.
Samat felt technology’s stranglehold as much everyone else. But going full Luddite wasn’t an option, especially when Google writes your paycheck. And so yesterday at I/O, Samat announced a suite of new Android features designed to make your phone a little less addictive, even while it’s still in your pocket. There’s a new Android Dashboard, where you can track how you’re spending your time onscreen. An App Timer to set limits on how long you can spend in certain apps. A new gesture, called “Shush,” switches your phone into Do Not Disturb when you set your phone facedown; a “Wind Down” mode flips your screen to grayscale as soon as it’s bedtime.
Google calls the collection of features “digital wellbeing.“ It’s the first major mobile platform to introduce an initiative like this, after the Time Well Spent movement captured the minds of Silicon Valley. But much like other wellness trends—Peloton and Moon Dust and Nootropics—the rise of “digital wellbeing” makes it look too easy. It’s a way to rebrand tech as something that’s good for you—but it only treats the symptoms, not the underlying disease.
The first rumblings of “digital wellness” began, ironically, at Google, back in 2012. A young product manager named Tristan Harris was working on Google’s Inbox app, and over time he had become increasingly disillusioned with the demands of tech. Every buzz of his phone was a distraction, every Inbox notification took him away from the real world. Then he went to Burning Man, and when he came back, he had an epiphany: These products weren’t designed with people’s best interests in mind. Harris put this idea into a 144-page Google Slides presentation, a thoughtful “Call to Minimize Distraction & Respect Users’ Attention.”
The memo went viral around Google, and eventually worked its way up to Larry Page, who was CEO at the time. The memo had generated so much conversation that Page promoted Harris into a brand new role: Google’s first-ever “design ethicist.”
It was a plum gig, but this was Google—an institution built on keeping people on its platforms long enough to harvest massive amounts of data—so not much changed. Plus, Harris began to suspect that he was a miner’s canary for the entire tech industry. It wasn’t just Google that had perverse incentives; it was also Apple and Facebook, with their broad ecosystems of attention-grabbing apps. It was Snapchat, with its cleverly designed “streaks” to encouraged teens to keep up their message volleys. It was every computer, and every phone. The tech companies of Silicon Valley referred to people as users, like a dealer talking about addicts.
So in 2016, Harris left Google to start a non-profit committed to solving to the problems of the “attention economy.” He called it Time Well Spent.
Before Harris, plenty of academics had broached the subject of values in technology design. In the early 2000s, B. J. Fogg—a behavioral psychologist and the director of the Stanford Behavior Design Lab—studied how to apply persuasive design to apps and websites. Sherry Turkle, a social psychologist at MIT, had long lamented the way technology was changing human relationships. Others, like Natasha Schüll, researched the bridge between technology design and addiction.
“There’s a much longer history of people thinking about ethics and values in design than is generally recognized,” says Luke Stark, a researcher at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard. Now, he says, there’s “a lot of enthusiasm and interest in the general concepts of ethical design but a kind of rush to make those ideas into specific things that aren’t solving the problems that haven’t been identified.”
Tech addiction is one problem, but not the one most researchers have focused on. Instead, the academics behind ethical design for have lifted the curtain on the bias in computer systems, the way the digital world distorts personal information, how technologists can design for free speech, autonomy, and accountability online. Those issues have been in the ether for decades, and not one has turned into a Silicon Valley movement.
But Harris had something the academics didn’t: star power. He appeared on the radio and in magazines, (including this one). He collected the ideas into a TED Talk. He turned “time well spent” into a cogent philosophy, one that everyone could get behind: We spend too much time on our phones, and on social media. Two billion people use Facebook every day, he likes to say. That’s more than the followers of Christianity.
Earlier this year, Harris rebranded Time Well Spent as the Center for Humane Technology, now a coalition of technologists, activists, and concerned citizens fighting to regain power over our personal devices. Collectively, the group has sent a strong message: This isn’t just a moment. It’s a movement.
The digital wellness movement has spread through Silicon Valley like a Goop-ordained health trend since then. It received a big boost earlier this year when, facing backlash about fake news and Russian interference in the US elections, Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a Facebook post that the company would start to prioritize posts from your friends rather than media or brands. The post quoted “time well spent” verbatim.
Zuckerberg dropped that line again during his two-day Congressional testimony, post-Cambridge Analytica, but people believed it sounded like a generally hollow sound byte. It was hard to believe people could meaningfully spend time on a platform that has been plagued for years with problems with Russian trolls, fake news, data-hoarding apps, surveillance tools, political censorship, discriminatory ad-targeting, and the means to incite genocide.
But when Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO, offered a similar line yesterday—same old Android, just healthier—eyes didn’t roll. Which is great for Google. By leading the charge with a public-facing digital wellness campaign, Google looks good without having to change much at all. Stark calls it “the lowest hanging of the low-hanging fruit.”
The new Android features do help people (and Google) understand more about how they use their phones: The new Dashboard offers a detailed breakdown of the time you’ve spent on your phone each day, down to the minute; the number of times you unlock your phone; the number of notifications you’ve received; the amount of time you’ve spent on each app; and a chart that shows how you’ve spent your time, from app to app. It’s like a fitness tracker, but for phone usage. There’s a built-in timer function that boots you off certain apps after the limit you set. Broader Google initiatives include a YouTube feature that encourages you to take a break after a long video binge.
Those features look very similar to the ones the Center for Humane Technology has advocated for. Harris has all but equated tech addiction to the downfall of humanity, and yet his solutions are startlingly simple: Turn your screen to grayscale. Switch on “do not disturb” mode at night. When you go on a hike, try leaving your phone at home.
At I/O, Pichai said the new Android features will bring people “JOMO,” the joy of missing out. But ultimately, Google isn’t missing out on anything: The phone is still constantly learning about you. Many of the new Android features, announced alongside the “digital wellness” tools, use machine learning and AI to predict your behavior. Google gathers this information to improve your phone experience, but also to sell you things, make recommendations, and change your habits over time. It doesn’t matter if you spend less time in individual apps, like Facebook or Instagram, as long as you’re still using an Android phone. And while Google says “digital wellness” is now part of the company’s ethos, not once during the Google I/O keynote did anyone mention “privacy.
“The design of the phones is where the dark side starts, but not where it ends,” says Roger McNamee, a one-time mentor to Mark Zuckerberg and a founding advisor of the Center for Humane Technology. “The design of platforms and the way they exploit the addictive properties of smartphones creates another set of issues. So does the cavalier attitude of some phone makers and platforms to user privacy and data security. So do the manipulative business practices of platforms, as well as their anticompetitive behavior. We applaud this step by Google, but want to emphasize that the journey to protect users has just begun.”
Harris says Google’s new digital wellness features are “a great first step towards building Humane Technology.” It also puts pressure on other companies to follow suit. When Apple hosts its developer conference next month, a nod to health and wellness on the iPhone is all but guaranteed.
There’s an increasing sentiment in Silicon Valley that if we only used our phones less, everything would be OK. If we could only spend less time looking at screens. If we could only have our attention back. But those are just symptoms of a more serious disease.
Finding real “wellness” in the current technological landscape will require more than a few toggles on a phone. Google still wants your data; using new features that personalize your phone experience comes at a steep price. But most of Google’s users will happily pay it. Like a capsule of Moon Dust, it is easier to simply swallow and hope for the best.