It starts out innocently. 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 would like to know when my package arrives or my burrito is ready. but then you download plus apps, and they all need your permission to send you notifications, and before you know it, your lock screen is inundated with apps clamoring for your attention.
Apps never shut up. They are hungry for commitment. They want you to know that your favorite items are on sale, that you haven’t practiced your Spanish today, that your delivery guy is five stops away, that your kid in daycare just had a blowout — all day, all at once. . Welcome to a place we all live in, a place called Notification Hell.
We haven’t always lived here. For a while, companies like Apple didn’t allow app developers to go out of their way to solicit our attention at any time of day. They insisted that power should be used for good, not evil. That didn’t last long. App developers can now send us marketing notifications as long as we have agreed to them. And guess what: if you’ve opted in to receive notifications, you’ve opted in to a lot of them. The call is even coming from inside the house now: Apple is promoting your services in the settings menus and Samsung is trying to sell you a new phone… while you use your Samsung phone. There really is nowhere to hide.
It’s not just the ads that are the problem. The digital assistants in our phones strive to learn our behavior and predict our every move. Probably because they are robots, they don’t really understand what is useful and what is not. Like when Siri sees that I have a flight on my calendar and suggests a shortcut to put my phone in airplane mode. Right after that, she asks me if I want to mark the meeting on my calendar: my flight. The road to notification hell is paved with well-intentioned digital assistants.
It is not an assistant, but Google Photos frequently commits notification crimes. He’s always learning new tricks, like how to identify a beer or latte in a photo, and then teasing you to see how he can identify all the beer and latte photos you’ve taken. He also wants me to know when I find a bunch of similar shots of my cat sleeping on different pieces of furniture, spontaneously drawing his attention, like a dog that found a stick. My brother in Christ, I took the photos. I know they are similar.
Our operating system developers are not totally indifferent to our suffering; They gave us a couple of life preservers. On iOS, you can have non-time-sensitive notifications collected in a daily digest and delivered once a day. You can also set focus modes, whose UI sucks, or make some apps send notifications silently unless they’re time-sensitive. But if you do that, you have to solve a puzzle first.
I tried this once with Amazon. I thought I had it set to receive notifications only when a package arrives. Apparently I did this wrong because a grocery order was left outside my house for five hours on the night of July 4th. Now I let Amazon send me as many notifications as it wants.
That sums up our situation: we are stuck in notification hell and there will be no rescue. We have a few scarce tools in our hands, but the responsibility to find the way out is on us. Until I figure out my notification settings, I know I’ll be here for a long time. For now it’s just a comfort to know that there are others with me too, because misery loves company.