Google and the Rise of ‘Digital Well-Being’

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.

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Google calls the collection of features “digital well-being.” 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 well-being” 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.”

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