The glorious small-screen future
There are two ways we may break our fevered addiction to screens.
First, we will need to try to use our phones more mindfully, which requires a combination of willpower and technology.
Help is on the way. For the last week, I’ve been using Screen Time, one of the new features in Apple’s next version of its mobile operating system. The software gives you valuable information about how much you are using your phone, and it can even block you from using apps that you deem unhealthy. I found Screen Time very well designed, and I suspect it will profoundly change how we use our phones.
But in addition to helping us resist phones, the tech industry will need to come up with other, less immersive ways to interact with digital world. Three technologies may help with this: voice assistants, of which Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant are the best, and Apple’s two innovations, AirPods and the Apple Watch.
All of these technologies share a common idea. Without big screens, they are far less immersive than a phone, allowing for quick digital hits: You can buy a movie ticket, add a task to a to-do list, glance at a text message or ask about the weather without going anywhere near your Irresistible Screen of Splendors.
These are all works in progress. Voice assistants still cannot do everything for you, though Google and Amazon have thousands of engineers working to improve them. AirPods are fantastic — they have fewer connection issues than any other wireless headphones — and after years of refinement, the Apple Watch shows you just enough stuff from your phone to make it useful without becoming overbearing.
If Apple could only improve Siri, its own voice assistant, the Watch and AirPods could combine to make something new: a mobile computer that is not tied to a huge screen, that lets you get stuff done on the go without the danger of being sucked in. Imagine if, instead of tapping endlessly on apps, you could just tell your AirPods, “Make me dinner reservations at 7” or “Check with my wife’s calendar to see when we can have a date night this week.”
Apple declined to comment on its plans. There are enough reports, though, that suggest Apple is not blind to such a future. It has plans for improving AirPods, according to Bloomberg, and I’ve been impressed by how steadily the company keeps adding features to the Watch — including the ability, in its latest model, to use it away from your phone.
Apple has never been scared of disrupting its own best inventions. By rethinking screens, it may have a chance to do that once more.