By Farhad Manjoo
Smartphones were once the best thing to happen to the tech industry — and for a while, it seemed, to all of us, too. In the 11 years since the iPhone made its debut, smartphones have subsumed just about every other gadget and altered every business, from news to retail to taxis to television, ultimately reordering everything about how we understand media, politics and reality itself.
But now that smartphones have achieved dominance, revolution is again in the air.
Global smartphone sales are plateauing for a very obvious reason: Pretty much anyone who can afford one already has one, and increasingly there are questions about whether we are using our phones too much and too mindlessly. At Google’s and Apple’s recent developer conferences, executives took the stage to show how much more irresistible they were making our phones. Then each company unveiled something else: Software to help you use your phone a lot less.
There’s a reason tech companies are feeling this tension between making phones better and worrying they are already too addictive. We’ve hit what I call Peak Screen.
For much of the last decade, a technology industry ruled by smartphones has pursued a singular goal of completely conquering our eyes. It has given us phones with ever-bigger screens and phones with unbelievable cameras, not to mention virtual reality goggles and several attempts at camera-glasses.
Tech has now captured pretty much all visual capacity. Americans spend three to four hours a day looking at their phones, and about 11 hours a daylooking at screens of any kind.
So tech giants are building the beginning of something new: a less insistently visual tech world, a digital landscape that relies on voice assistants, headphones, watches and other wearables to take some pressure off our eyes.
This could be a nightmare; we may simply add these new devices to our screen-addled lives. But depending on how these technologies develop, a digital ecosystem that demands less of our eyes could be better for everyone — less immersive, less addictive, more conducive to multitasking, less socially awkward, and perhaps even a salve for our politics and social relations.
Who will bring us this future? Amazon and Google are clearly big players, but don’t discount the company that got us to Peak Screen in the first place. With advances to the Apple Watch and AirPods headphones, Apple is slowly and almost quietly creating an alternative to its phones.
If it works, it could change everything again. As I argue below, there are many ways that screens have become too dominant in our lives. The sooner we find something else, the better.
Screens are vampires
At Apple’s developer conference, the company introduced Screen Time, which helps iPhone users manage the time they spend on their devices.C
Screens are insatiable. At a cognitive level, they are voracious vampires for your attention, and as soon as you look at one, you are basically toast.
There are studies that bear this out. One, by a team led by Adrian Ward, a marketing professor at the University of Texas’ business school, found that the mere presence of a smartphone within glancing distance can significantly reduce your cognitive capacity. Your phone is so irresistible that when you can see it, you cannot help but spend a lot of otherwise valuable mental energy trying to not look at it.
When you do give in, you lose your mind.
“What you get sucked into is not the one thing that caught your attention — your text message or tweet or whatever,” said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at the technology research firm Creative Strategies. Instead, you unlock your phone and instantly, almost unconsciously, descend into the irresistible splendors of the digital world — emerging 30 minutes later, stupefied and dazed.
“You open this irresistible box, and you can’t fight it,” she said.
Tech companies understand this power, of course; our inability to resist screens explains why phone screens keep getting bigger.
Apple once argued that increasing the iPhone’s screen size would make for a phone that would be too awkward for your hands. “No one’s going to buy that,” Steve Jobs predicted of big-screen phones in 2010.
He was wrong. Rivals, led by Samsung, found that big-screen phones sold very well. The eyes won out over the hands. Eventually Apple joined the party, making iPhones with bigger and then still bigger displays. The largest-screen iPhones now account for half of Apple’s sales and the majority of its profits.
From Tesla to Lego
But screens have now become a crutch for technologists, a lazy, catchall way to add digital experiences to every product.
We have seen this in cars for years. By placing interior controls on touch screens rather than tactile knobs and switches, carmakers have made vehicles much more annoying and dangerous to interact with. The Tesla Model 3, the most anticipated car on the planet, takes this to an absurd level. As several reviewers have lamented, just about every one of the car’s controls — including adjustments for the side mirrors — requires access through a screen.
Or look at augmented reality, the technology that allows you to see digital imagery superimposed on the real world. In a few specific uses — turning your face into a dog’s on Snapchat — this can be fun. But too often, A.R. feels gimmicky. Rather than commingling the digital and the real, it simply uses a screen to usurp the world around you.
At Apple’s developer conference this month, Martin Sanders, a Lego executive, showed off a new A.R. Lego set. When he pointed his iPad at a Lego structure, his screen filled with digital fireworks, superheros, sports cars — a whole bustling Lego town that he didn’t have to build with his hands or imagine with his head.
“There’s so much to do here!” Mr. Sanders exclaimed as he and an assistant stood completely still, staring at animated Legos through a piece of digital glass. It was bizarre. The whole point of Lego is physical interaction, but thanks to A.R., he had turned Lego into just another video game.
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.