It starts innocently enough. You download an app, and the app asks for your permission to send you push notifications. Sure, you think. What harm could come of it? I’d like to know when my package arrives or my burrito is ready. But then you download more apps, and they all need your permission to send you notifications, and before you know it your lock screen is awash with apps clamoring for your attention.
The apps never shut up. They’re hungry for engagement. They want you to know that your favorite items are on sale, that you haven’t practiced your Spanish today, that your delivery driver is five stops away, that your child at daycare just had a blowout – all day, all at once. Welcome to a place we all live, a place called Notification Hell.
We haven’t always lived here. For a while, companies like Apple wouldn’t let app developers run all willy nilly with the power to request our attention at any moment of the day. They insisted that the power should be used for good, not evil. That didn’t last long. App developers are now permitted to send us marketing notifications as long as we’ve opted into them. And guess what: if you’ve opted to have any notifications at all, you’ve opted into a lot of them. The call is even coming from inside the house now – Apple is promoting its services in settings menus and Samsung is trying to sell you a new phone… while you’re using your Samsung phone. There is truly nowhere to hide.
It’s not just ads that are the problem. Our phones’ digital assistants are trying hard to learn our behavior and predict our every move. Probably because they’re robots, they don’t really understand what’s helpful and what’s not. Like when Siri sees that I have a flight on my calendar, so it suggests a shortcut to put my phone in airplane mode. Immediately after that, it asks if I want to dial into the meeting on my calendar: my flight. The road to Notification Hell is paved with digital assistants with good intentions.
It’s not an assistant, but Google Photos frequently commits notification crimes. It’s always learning new tricks, like how to identify a beer or a latte in a photo, and then pestering you to look at how it can identify all the photos you took of beer and lattes. It also really wants me to know when it finds a bunch of similar shots of my cat sleeping on different pieces of furniture, bringing them to attention unbidden, like a dog that found a stick. My brother in Christ, I took the photos. I know they’re similar.
Our operating system developers aren’t totally indifferent to our suffering; they cast us a couple of lifelines. On iOS, you can have non-time-sensitive notifications gathered in a daily digest and delivered once a day. You can also set up focus modes – the UI for which is its own kind of hell – or have some apps deliver notifications quietly unless they’re time-sensitive. But if you do that, you have to kind of solve a riddle first.
I tried this once with Amazon. I thought I’d configured it so that I’d only get notifications when a package arrives. I did this wrong, apparently, because a grocery order sat outside my house for five hours the night of the Fourth of July. I now let Amazon send me as many notifications as it wants.
That sums up our situation: we are trapped in notification hell, and there will be no rescue. We have a couple of meager tools at our hands, but the onus is on us to find our way out. Until I figure out my notification settings, I know I’m here for the long haul. For now, it’s just a comfort to know that there are others with me too, because misery loves company.
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