Apple is a tool. Facebook is a distraction.
Or so says Tim Cook, rather elegantly, in his recent speech in Brussels for International Data Privacy Day… which BTW sounds like a wonderful holiday! No doubt, the fortunes of Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon have been tightly woven together since the iPhone launched. They all existed before 2008, but having devices in hand rather than at a desk was wildly disruptive in how people spent their computing time- and where.
But let’s think about each company- and their products- in terms of one ratio; utility vs. distraction.
Apple seems the handiest, a really useful tool. Why does one pick up an Apple device? Aside from Phone, Facetime, text and music? For the…
- Camera- if I want to record events from laundry tickets to children’s smilies.
- Weather App – if I want to know if I need another layer.
- Maps App – to get where I’m going quickly and without getting lost.
- Alexa- to make obnoxious house shaking reminder announcements to my kids. And groceries.
- Duolingo – to learn a little french, every day.
- Felt- to send personal cards on the fly.
- WordPress – to write this.
- Greenlight – to teach my kids allowances, savings, investments and spending.
- Domestika- to teach me a little about watercolor every day.
- Mirror – for gym workouts, at home.
- GSuite – for mobile versions of work apps
- Feedly – when I want to catch up on the news of the day
- Health – to monitor my activity level, and share my data next time I hit the ER.
What impressed me when looking at my iPhone or iPad home screen was how useful each of these items were to my everyday life- work and home. I have no notifications to alarm me. I have no games, no social networks, no dating, no doom-scrolling on my front screen. I followed the advice of a former Facebook behavioral psychologist (yes, they have them) and make it black and white for half the day to cut down on how attractive it looks. When I pick it up, it’s usually for a reason. It’s a tool, and I appreciate its handiness.
Google and Amazon are basically apps to me. Google is mighty handy with GSuite, delivering mail, notes, calendar and documents in one seamless package that synchs to my desktop for real work, wherever that may happen. Google maps also saves my bacon on the treacherous strip of clogged asphalt between NYC and CT known as I-95. Amazon is about shopping, which with two little kids, is relentless. Alexa allows them to add items to my grocery list by yelling at little towers placed around the house. And for non-grocery purchases, they aren’t bad either, except that I try not to reward bad copy writing from obviously Chinese factories with any of my orders. But they slip through, often enough.
And then there is Facebook.
To call is a scourge would be a bit much; one day a year it makes us all feel good with birthday wishes from friends, family, and randoms you were thinking of face-pruning anyways. The memories feature delivers some really pleasant surprises, except when it doesn’t. And the ad feeds are pretty tailored to your desires because, well, they know everything about you. But much of the rest is a time suck. A doom scroll. And endless whitewater of emotions based on likes, shares, views and comments. And with Instagram and WhatsApp thrown in, it becomes it’s own Hotel California… you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. But that’s the point; the more you stick around, the more data they have to tailors ads, and the more advertising they can sell. You ARE the product, and you’re being kept around to be sold to the highest bidder in a mobile ad marketplace.
Which is where Tim Cook’s coup de grace in Brussels comes in.
“Technology does not need vast troves of personal data stitched together across dozens of websites and apps in order to succeed. Advertising existed and thrived for decades without it, and we’re here today because the path of least resistance is rarely the path of wisdom. If a business is built on misleading users on data exploitation, on choices that are no choices at all, then it does not deserve our praise. It deserves reform. We should not look away from the bigger picture. In a moment of rampant disinformation and conspiracy theories juiced by algorithms, we can no longer turn a blind eye to a theory of technology that says all engagement is good engagement, the longer the better, and all with the goal of collecting as much data as possible.
He never mentioned Facebook. He didn’t have to.