Notifications – the dark underbelly of the app economy

Notifications – the dark underbelly of the app economy

Wednesday May 03, 2017,

7 min Read

Do you remember a time before mobile phones when waking up was a process of just waking up to a new day and not a time to focus on all that we missed while we were sleeping? I can’t. I really don’t remember what we did first thing in the morning before smartphones took over our lives. Did we feel rudderless or was going into the kitchen to make tea really enough to wake us up? Is it true that there was a time when we did not need a hundred virtual flowers greeting us good morning for us to feel it was a good morning?

Image : shutterstock

Image : shutterstock

Do you remember the ‘90s when our landline phones would temporarily die every monsoon and yet, we did not miss a thing? We were still aware, still required to be in places and be accountable for deliverables at work and school. But we were not glued to screens to make life and work happen.

I can’t complain. The app economy has done all of us a lot of good. I no longer need to go out to look for a plumber first thing in the morning if I suffer an annoying leaking tap all night (true story). I don’t panic at the thought of my cook taking a few days off because someone, somewhere will deliver something healthy for us to eat. I am in touch with most of my friends, even strangers who kindly teach me a thing or two about making fluffy idlis and intelligent financial investments.

But what I really can’t get myself to appreciate is the incessant interruption of an app telling me about discounts on things I don’t need, services I don’t want, and the 100th comment on a baby picture that was cute when I first saw it.

You know what else I don’t want? Turning on my data roaming to check Google Maps in the middle of a deserted road from one country to another, and seeing instead the new additions on an online furniture store, that ridiculous meme famous people have been retweeting since morning, a new update on a Facebook group I was added to without my permission, the new sexist joke on WhatsApp that I can live without, a new show on an online web series platform that I am never going to watch, and those two new mails from work.

Even as I sit here, trying to get my thoughts together for this article, I have received two sets of repetitive notifications from an online dabbawala asking me to check out the chef’s latest recipe on this afternoon’s menu. My lunch is ready; there is no need for bells and whistles in the background, delivering information to me that I really don’t need. And if you are anything like me, you will have this unnecessary need to clear the red dots and digits on your phone, even if you don’t take in all the information and recreation they provide.

Does that make me sound ‘crazy’? I probably am. According to studies, notifications have been equated with drugs for the mind. The process of seeking and giving approval through acknowledgement, thumbs ups and hearts is killing our ability to find our individual true north. According to Tristan Harris, Google’s erstwhile Design Ethicist, “We’re all vulnerable to social approval. The need to belong, to be approved or appreciated by our peers is among the highest human motivations. But now our social approval is in the hands of tech companies.” That doesn’t feel like the premise of freedom of expression and right to personal opinion that the internet promised when we first came face-to-face with it, does it?

This is not really just about how technology is coming in the way of authentic human interactions, which is really the worst of it. But have you also noticed how these very interruptions – an email here, a Skype message there, a Lync notification every hour – are eating into the quality of work we deliver? Did technology not promise to help us streamline work communication? Wasn’t the very point of email and enterprise mobility to help us seamlessly communicate with each other without spending unnecessary hours in meetings and commutes?

According to Harvard Business Review, research suggests that the staggering volume of information and its incessant interruption impacts decision-making, creativity, and productivity. According to Microsoft Research, most workers take an average of 24 minutes to return to a task after an email interruption. That is not just bad news for your productivity and your employers’ billings, but most importantly, for your own work-life balance.

Push notifications are the worst offenders in this case. According to a 2015 study by the Future Work Center, there is a strong correlation between push notifications and its perceived pressure. This means that if my work emails are delivered automatically to all my devices, I face a higher probability of reporting toxic levels of perceived pressure and consequently, stress.

This is not what we signed up for, is it?

But the good news is that the power to only be impacted by what is good in this new world of constant information overload still lies with us. I am not saying it is easy. I, for one, know just how easy it is to go wherever the wind blows as far as email and social media communication is concerned. It is a constant struggle, especially in my life as an independent consultant, where unnecessary meetings, conversations, and the politics that unfolds over work emails have given way to push notifications, briefs on WhatsApp messages, and Twitter angst eating into my time. So while I work on these areas myself with mindful communication as the end goal, here are some over-simplified solutions us mortals can work on while technology companies work hard to find solutions or ways to make things worse.

Delete the apps you don’t use at least once in three days

Think about it. Do you really need the app of that one airline you used once to get to that one country because that was the only option that was available? Do you need that app that offensively calls itself the modern equivalent of slave driving and delivers services you need once in six months or less? Or a cab service you have moved on from since you moved countries? Do you need all your streaming services on all the devices you own? Why have multiple apps to do the same thing? In my case, it is a bunch of colouring apps. My fixation with them got over the day I acquired a colouring book and realized that filling colours with the tip of a finger was just not the labour of love that drawing books resulted in.

Really. You need a deleting spree. And so do I.

Use the power of turning off notifications

Every OS and every app gives you the power to choose how much you engage with them. They conveniently hide it in dark corners of folders we rarely open but that does not take away from the fact that it is there for the taking. It is up to you if you want to see every notification from a school WhatsApp group you no longer relate to or just individual messages that help you stay in touch with far-flung friends and family.

Don’t be apologetic about your unavailability

There is nothing wrong with turning off all your devices and notifications when you have a task to focus on. That DND on your office communicator is a tool, not a sign of rudeness or entitlement (What? I have heard this rationale before!). It is all right to want a family vacation that does not involve incessant text messaging with colleagues. These are not things you should feel the need to apologise for. When it comes to all things work-life balance, if something is really that urgent, people will not send you a WhatsApp message and wait for the ticks to turn blue. You will not miss anything important if it really is that important.

Something has to be said of the way we communicate with each other now when every second op-ed on the internet is about practicing mindfulness off it. Of course there are trade-offs – you will probably miss a few updates but you will reclaim the freedom of working and engaging with people at your own pace. That is incentive enough for me. What about you?