That sounds promising enough, but there’s a strong argument that the biggest impact Apple can have on our overall well-being is to help us take more breaks from our screens. If you spend your work day in front of a computer and your downtime is doomed on news websites or you double-tap Instagram photos, doing a cardio routine on an iPad may not be your best bet.
Apple knows this. The company goes to extraordinary lengths to demonstrate its appreciation for natural environments. As Cook proudly told me, the green headquarters and the predominance of welcoming outdoor spaces was an idea “unknown” in Silicon Valley, where the norm was monolithic buildings aimed at keeping staff inside the monastery. “We all work with inspiration and motivation,” said Cook at the beginning of our conversation, and nothing offers him more of both than the natural world. “When I am in nature, I feel so small in the scheme of things that the problems of the day become ruptures.”
What is Apple doing to shut down our devices so we can experience some of this stress relief? And what about all of the folks who pull out their iPhones on sketchy cliffs in national parks for a winning selfie? Shouldn’t Apple address that?
“My advice to anyone going to a national park is to leave the selfie stick behind and just enjoy the beauty of the park itself, because that will stay with you a lot longer,” says Cook. “But it’s a difficult subject. As platform owners, we are responsible for how a product is used, not just throwing something out and seeing the impact it has. But unfortunately not everyone has this attitude. “
It sure feels like Cook is pointing a finger at other tech companies, but I can understand why. He’s not running a social media property that feeds on our incessant clicking and liking, or any advertising giant looking to mine our user data. He stresses that Apple has no interest in getting our attention. Apple’s business is to sell us hardware and related software and services.
“We have never designed our products in such a way that they dominate people’s lives,” he emphasizes. “That was never our goal. We have never met with ‘How long does someone spend on our property? Let’s try to find a way to keep this as high as possible. ‘“
Cook claims that the Apple Watch ushered in a new era in fitness tracking, not just for committed athletes. It enables scientists to “democratize research”.
Cook points to the Screen Time feature on iPhones and iPads, which was introduced in 2018 to keep users aware of how long they are visiting a particular app or website and to help them set boundaries for themselves. “For me personally, it was my estimates against reality that were very different,” he says.
Does he remember the numbers?
“They were high,” he offers with a laugh. “So I started to wonder why I need all these notifications. Do I really have to understand things as soon as they happen? And I started bringing a meat ax to some things that would get my attention, but didn’t have to. “
Screen time is probably something. But it hardly feels like a solid commitment to the problem. If we just read up on our usage level and encourage self-regulation, we’ll feel bad without helping ourselves to do better. It’s like giving a pedometer to someone trying to be more active, but not helping with goal setting. Where is the motivational activity ring to step back from?
Towards the end of our conversation, we sat at a picnic table in the courtyard of Apple Park. Cook had admitted that Apple didn’t have all the answers when it came to helping users unplug more often, and he assured me that “there was more to be done”. But I wanted to get back on the subject and make a suggestion. What if Apple made using their devices smarter a top priority for customers? Wouldn’t that be the ultimate mission for a company that has long asked us to think differently?
“We take the challenge of continuing to innovate in this area as seriously as we take the challenge of continuing to innovate in each of the product categories in which we operate,” he replied. “My simple rule is, if you look at your device more than someone’s eyes, you are doing wrong. I realize there are a lot of people who do that. And some of them are unhappy that they are doing it, others are not. And where we have put our energy so far is to make people aware of it and not to play the heavy hand to tell them what is good for them. “
It wasn’t the answer I was hoping for. At this stage of the game, we don’t benefit much from simple awareness. We need powerful tools to help us break away from our devices – screen time with teeth. Or maybe the solution is more of a gentle nudge. The clock is preset to remind users to get up and move around for at least one minute of every waking hour. In two months of wearing one, I’ve started shaking off at least half of those memories with an eye roll. But sometimes I get up and walk in my home office or even go outside in the sun. It’s enough to make me believe that technology can really make us healthier if only those who make it would take full advantage of the moment.