Apple’s Screen Time Woke Me Up

Early this morning — too early, really — my iPhone burrred its way into my sleep, and woke me. This happens sometimes: either I forgot to turn the phone off before I went to be, or something important has come up. I put up with these occasional intrusions; they seem worth the bother, when you think about the cost of missing vital information such as, you know… reports on your use of your smartphone.

Turns out I read a lot — I knew this, really, although I wasn’t aware that I spend nearly three times more time reading that I do being “productive”. I feel like that statistic reflects badly on me: I like to think of myself as a productive person, not someone who spends/wastes time with his nose buried in the Kindle app, or a website.

Apple’s Screen Time report shows that I spent even more time than usual on Tuesday reading. I don’t remember doing that; on Tuesday, I was at an interview, making a good impression, quietly judging the employer for their total in attention to detail. That doesn’t count as reading, except in the sense of “I’m good at reading people”, and I’m hardly psychic.

The more I think about modern technology, the more I feel it’s largely wasting our time. We have smartphones, and we have reports from those smartphones on how much time we spend using our smartphones; we have portable computers, on which we view websites telling us how to use those portable computers; we have social network services, like Medium, which show us posts and articles about how and why to use social media, or how and why not to.

Do we need all this? No. A technology system whichworked would work — we would not need so much meta-reflection, we would not need to spend so much time thinking about what to do with the tools at our disposal. We would just use them.

Now, some people might say that screen time reports, and “how to use your laptop” websites, and Medium posts about how to write Medium posts, are all just signs of us humans — at a cultural level — learning the technological ropes. My response: we seem to be spending more time nowadays learning the ropes than we were in, say, the nineteen-nineties before Web 2.0.

These are my most-used apps for the period January 21st to January 25th 2019. I use Safari a lot! Mostly, I browse news websites, but I also spend some time — probably about one hour each day — researching various topics as part of my long-term career plans.

Google Maps is new on my iPhone; I only installed it a week ago. I’ve been surprised at my engagement with it: I hadn’t expected to use it regularly, but it turns out I like it, so the app has made its way to my home screen and now it’s number two on my most-used list.

Next up, an app I don’t have on my phone: Guardian News. I do read the Guardian’s website most days, but I use Safari — it’s weird that the iPhone lists this use separately from my other browsing. The same is true, by the way, for Wikipedia (number six on the list); I don’t have the Wikipedia app installed. I use wikipedia.org.

Is Apple trying to draw attention to apps which it thinks I might like to install? Are these “ghost app” listings a mistake? Maybe Apple thinks its users prefer to structure their device use according to what apps are available. I don’t know.

What I do know is this: it’s weird that my iPhone is referencing apps that I don’t have installed. Here’s the Screen Time entry for today’s use of Wikipedia, for example:

“Developer”…? Maybe there’s a web app running behind the scenes; that’s my best-guess explanation.

When I bought my first iPhone, ten years ago, I used it mostly for web browsing and calls, and I never once stopped to think about “behind the scenes”. Nowadays, though…

My view: we spend more and more time questioning the devices we use — if those devices were people, we often would not trust them. That’s bad: we need to reassess our relationship with these technologies, and we need to ask ourselves whether we need to be spending any time at all staring at screens, wondering what the hell is going on.

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