Your phone’s notification settings and the meaning of life

Switching to a new phone is easy enough these days. The grunting old model collided with a shiny, huge new thing, and within a few minutes had an almost complete digital transmission. The only exception was notification settings. As it was reset to default, my new phone began to squeak and buzz incessantly, like a strange brainchild of R2-D2 and a cheap vibrator.

The photo app started trying to sell me a printed album. The train ticket app encouraged me to keep my upcoming trips in mind. The Financial Times app encouraged me to read the latest headlines. More worryingly, Google News set itself up and did the same, except for news sources that I don’t follow and don’t want to. Most absurdly, every incoming email alerted itself with a beep and a teasing snippet on my home screen. Fortunately, there are no social networks on my smartphone; I could only imagine the cacophony if I did.

All this was easy enough to fix. Calendar, text messages and phone calls are now the only apps allowed to interrupt me. However, it was annoying. I was wondering: surely everyone turns off most notifications, right? Right?

Probably no. I came across an essay by Guardian columnist Koko Khan in which she marveled at how much calmer she felt after turning off notifications. She described this peace as completely unexpected, “the unintended consequence of a tiny amendment.” She went on to explain that WhatsApp alone was sending her over 100 notifications a day and that she only turned off the apps because she was on holiday in Bali and her phone was buzzing all night. As it could be, given that social media notifications were still on. She felt calmer when it stopped. Who could have predicted this?

At first glance, it’s absurd that she was surprised. But it is always easier to be wise towards other people. I read Khan’s story as a cautionary tale for all of us. We humans can adapt to fate; it is easy to sleepwalk in a state of chronic stress and absent-mindedness, without even thinking that everything could be different.

Khan’s experience seems ordinary. One of the most compelling findings in behavioral science is that default settings have a huge impact on our choices, even if it’s easy to change those default settings. No wonder so many default apps pester us endlessly. App makers clearly think we’ll put up with it, and they may be right.

One study published in 2015 by researchers at the Technical University of Berlin found that, on average, six out of seven smartphone apps were left with default notification settings. Considering how many notifications are apparently worthless, it goes to show that in the face of endless notifications, many smartphone users have learned to be helpless.

Of course, sometimes we want to know right away when something happened. As I like to say, ringing the doorbell is more convenient than going to the door every 90 seconds to see if anyone is there. Though that trade-off would change if the doorbell itself rang every few minutes, day and night. But most of us have way too many notifications turned on.

In any case, “notice” is a dishonest euphemism. The correct word is “interruption” because it raises the right question: how often do I want my phone to interrupt me?

A 2017 study by Martin Pielot of Telefónica Research and Luz Rello of the Institute for Human-Computer Interaction examined how people felt when their phones were completely switched off. The pilot and Rello stumbled, revealingly, at the very beginning. They tried to recruit volunteers to turn off the sound for a week, but they gave up because so few people were willing to do it, and those who were would be such exceptions that they couldn’t give any idea about the rest of us.

So the researchers tried again, with a 24-hour Do Not Disturb call. All interrupts were blocked, even incoming phone calls. The results were intriguing: people became less distracted and more productive, but they also felt cut off and worried about not responding. There was no sign that they were less tense or more relaxed, but perhaps this is not surprising. It’s not very nice to know that your boss might be furious that you don’t pick up the phone.

Few of us can take Kraftwerk’s approach: The great electronic band has turned off the phone in their studio. If you want to call them, fine. They will answer, but only by prior arrangement and exactly at the agreed time.

I’m sure there is a middle ground here and it will vary from person to person. But I suspect that Kraftwerk is closer to the optimal compromise than my smartphone’s default settings. Oliver Berkeman put it best in his book. four thousand weeks: our attention is not just a scarce resource; it is life itself. “At the end of life, if you look back, everything that caught your attention from time to time is just what your life was.” Take a look at one more notification and you literally pay with your life.

Written and first published in Financial Times June 24, 2022

Soft cover data detective was published on February 1 in the US and Canada. Name elsewhere: How to fold the world.

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