Do Not Disturb

Daring Fireball recently linked to a piece by Steven Levy on “The Age of Notifications,” where Levy describes our current state/spate of notifications and the Apple Watch:

This was delivered to me in the standard message format, no different than a New York Times alert informing me a building two blocks from my apartment has exploded, or an iChat message that my sister is desperately trying to reach me. Please note that I am not a blood relative of B.J. — sorry, Melvin — Upton, nor am I even a fan of the Atlanta Braves. In other words…this could have waited. Nonetheless, MLB.com At Bat apparently deemed this important enough to broadcast to hundreds of thousand of users who had earlier clicked, with hardly a second thought, on a dialogue box asking if they wanted to receive notifications from Major League Baseball. No matter what these users were doing — enduring a meeting, playing basketball, presenting to a book club, daydreaming, watching a movie, enjoying a family meal, painting their masterpiece, proposing marriage, interviewing a job candidate, having sex, or any combination thereof — the news of The Melvin Renaming (the next Robert Ludlum novel?) penetrated their individual radars, urging them to Look at me! Now! Even if they kept the phone stashed, the simple fact that there was an alert burrowed in their brains, keeping them just a little off balance until they finally picked up the phone to discover what the buzz was about.

The Melvin Renaming was just one interruption among billions in what now is unquestionably the Age of Notifications. As our reliance on electronically delivered information has increased, the cascade of brief urgent pointers to that information has been funneled into our devices, lighting our lock screens with these brief dispatches. Rarely does an app neglect to ask you to opt-in to these messages. Most often — since you see the dialogue box when you are entering your honeymoon stage with the app, just after consummation — you say yes. […]

So what’s the solution? We need a great artificial intelligence effort to comb through our information, assess the urgency and relevance, and use a deep knowledge of who we are and what we think is important to deliver the right notifications at the right time. As time goes on, we will trust such a system to effectively filter all our information and dole it out just as needed.

Gruber adds:

I think he’s on to something here: some sort of AI for filtering notification does seem useful. I can imagine helping it by being able to give (a) a thumbs-down to a notification that went through to your watch that you didn’t want to see there; and (b) a thumbs-up to a notification on your phone or PC that wasn’t filtered through to your more personal devices but which you wish had been.

But: this sounds too much like spam filtering to me. True spam is unasked-for. Notifications are all things for which you explicitly opted in, and can opt out of at any moment.

First of all, I think it sounds effectively like spam filtering because these notifications are effectively like spam. Although we technically opt in to them, we’re often coerced into doing so. As Levy said in the quoted passage, we’re often asked at a time when we’re feeling good about the app (after first downloading it, or after accomplishing a task; yes, developers opportunistically pop these up to get more people to agree to them). App developers know when is best to get you to agree, and they know notifications are an effective communication channel for “engaging” (i.e., advertising to) you.

These notifications are kind of like junk food. They’re delicious but dangerous. A little bit is fine, but too much is bad for you. While you can say junk food junkies are “opting in” to eating the unhealthy food, are they really making a choice? Or is the food literally irresistible to them?

Secondly, if this recent interview in Wired is to be believed, a deluge of notifications is one of the primary motivations for the development of the Apple Watch. Am I expected to pay $350+ in order to cut the annoyances of my $600+ iPhone? Wouldn’t it just be simpler to turn off the notifications (i.e., all of them) instead of throwing more technology on the problem?

We shouldn’t have to force (or shame) people into some false sense of virtuosity (“she’s so extreme, she doesn’t allow any notifications!”) just so they’re not constantly disturbed by buzzes and animating notifications.

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