Skip to main content

Frankenstein's iPhone: Control, don't be controlled

Mary Shelly's novel Frankenstein (Frankenstein is the doctor's name not the monster's) and the play "Rossum's Universal Robots" (R.U.R is the place where the word "robot" was coined) share a similar metaphor. What happens to society when a creator's creation gets away from them, when the creation can no longer be controlled by the creator?

Lately there's been a lot of talk about "smartphone addiction" (I know several people who suffer from alcoholism or drug abuse who take a little offense at lumping a disease with people who can't put down their phone or tablet). One of the hallmarks of Google's I/O conference are a set of feature in Android P designed to allow users to quantify their digital lives, set limits on application usage and create more granular parental controls. There have been cries for Apple to do the same with iOS. (iOS 12 anyone?)

Is this really necessary? I understand how the phone has been transformed into the PC in our pockets. That's important, as back in the '90s TCO studies showed that businesses who gave employees laptops over desktops increased productivity by 20% or more. (I know this as I created the model). The reason was simple. The more time you have your computer with you, the more you're going to use it.

The more time you have your computer with you, the more you're going to use it.

My iPhone is more powerful than my MacBook. It's also with me all the time. The more access I have to my computing device, the more I'm going to use it. The more my device is capable of doing, the more I'm going to use it. It's not so much addiction as it is the nature of how we use the technology that we create.

It is possible that our creations are at the point where it feels that perhaps they are controlling us, not we controlling them. The easiest way to avoid your phone controlling your life is to not let your phone control your life.

Truth is, that's easier said than done for some people, so here are a few suggestions that don't require a vendor to solve this "problem".

Just take some lessons from the TV world.

First, get a smaller phone. The analysis is simple: the less your phone can do, the less time you'll spend using it. Consider downsizing to a smaller device. From an iPhone 8 Plus down to an 8. From an 8 to an SE. You'll find just by limiting the screen size you'll spend less time on your device. It's less compelling to read, write, and in general consume content on a smaller phone than a large one. Except perhaps for listening to music or podcasts, but that's not an issue. I don't need to stare at a screen for that. Likewise, people spend less time watching TV on a small SD set than they do on a large 4K HDR set.

The less your phone can do, the less time you'll spend using it.

Second, make your phone monochrome. It's pretty easy on iOS to set your phone to switch from color to grayscale with three clicks of the home button. (Use the accessibility setting to create this little tweak). Monochrome screens are less compelling to look at. Less visually interesting for photos, videos, and in general how color holds our interest more than black and white. I suspect most readers might not be old enough to appreciate the shift from black and white television to "living color," but the difference was huge, at least the way I remember it.

Finally, let's talk about parental controls. Growing up, our TV didn't have parental controls. When my kids were growing up, our TVs didn't have parental controls. Both generations did share one thing in common: parents who exerted control. If we are worried our kids spend to much time staring at screens, perhaps the fault lies not in smartphone vendors but in ourselves.

Smartphones are amazing. My iPhone improves nearly every facet of my life. From content creation to consumption. From communication to collaboration. It's still just a tool. I don't think we need Apple to find ways to control their creation. I think we should be able to get this one on our own.

So am I off-base? Do I have this all wrong? I'm curious what you think.

For the record, this column was written on an iPhone, in my favorite dive, over blueberry pancakes. I was safely able to ignore any and all human interactions during that time.

I’ve covered the personal technology beat for more than two decades at places like Gartner, Jupiter Research and Altimeter Group. I’ve also had the fun of contributing my $.02 on the topic at Computerworld, Engadget, Macworld, SlashGear and now iMore. Most recently I spent a few years at Apple as Sr. Director of Worldwide Product Marketing. On Twitter I’m an unverified @gartenberg. I still own some Apple stock.

38 Comments
  • Today we are a victim culture that places blame anywhere but on the real causes of our troubles. Something bad happens to you, find somebody or something to blame. Victimhood is now a bad of honor. Everyone’s goal these days is to be labeled a survivor. “I survived the crushing oppression of the iPhone. I’m a survivor!” Placing blame on an inanimate object is about as bad as it gets. Victimized by a piece of plastic and metal? Really?
  • Wow. I could not have said that better myself.
  • I don't think it's about placing blame on anything. Does alcohol cause alcoholism? No. If it did, everyone would be an alcoholic. It's the people that abuse something, for whatever reason, who fall victim to addiction. (Granted, some substances are physiologically more addictive than others.) A constant need of attention can be very addictive, especially to adolescents who want to feel and be apart of something. But I completely agree that it is up to each of us to do something about it. Seriously, what is Apple supposed to do, make the experience of using their devices so awful that we no longer want to use it? What does that solve? Those people would just switch to another device. I suppose they could add an option that alerts people to how long they've been "Facebooking" after an extreme amount of time, just to attempt to pull their attention away from it. Or maybe slow down their devices the longer they're using it. Haha. Modern society is addicted to stimulation, people have lost the ability to just be "bored" and enjoy the silence.
  • Apple doesn't have to do a **** thing. One is personally responsible for their own addiction.
  • I think people should take responsibility for their own actions instead of expecting manufacturers to nanny their usage. I make the choice to pick up my iPhone; I can just as easily make the choice to not pick it up.
  • The first sentence summed it all up. Responsibility is a foreign concept nowadays when more people see themselves as a victim but seldom take the time to realize that the their tormentor is none other than the person in the mirror.
  • Really Michael, that's your solution? Use a smaller phone and make the screen monochrome?
  • Good article, Michael. I would say there is at least some responsibility on the manufacturers of technology to at least provide tools to help curb user behavior. Staying with your Frankenstein analogy, the anger and frustrations inside Frankenstein's Monster ultimately came back to the doctor himself. When the Monster needed and wanted help after all of society treated him with scorn, he turned to his creator. In the end, even his creator turned his back. Manufacturers, in this analogy at least, would be Dr. Frankenstein. Devices have created a gateway to an addiction that they may have not been fully aware of at inception. With where things stand today, it only makes sense to not "turn their backs" to their users. They should indeed help curb addiction and be part of the solution.
  • “I would say there is at least some responsibility on the manufacturers of technology to at least provide tools to help curb user behavior.” No. No responsibility on the manufacturer at all. That’s a copout avoidance of personal responsibility.
  • Obviously, the majority of the responsibility lies with the user for sure. The the word "some". People have self control issues with a lot of things, money and budgeting or diet and exercise for examples. If Apple can have health monitoring as a feature, they can have usage monitoring as well. In either case, it ultimately comes down to the user to utilize the tools.
  • Actually, ALL responsibility lies with the user.
  • We have a difference in opinions. Addictions of all kinds are indeed real. People sometimes need a path to find their way. Who better than manufacturers to take the first step and provide the tools necessary?
  • I don’t see this type of thought when it comes to kids watching too much TV, not doing anything other than read books, or hit the gym at the expense of doing other things.
  • Well, it's not like you can just throw your 50" flat screen in your pocket and carry it with you every day. The fact that we all have our phones with us 24/7 I'm sure plays a part in it all.
  • How about the Gameboy and Switch? How about books? People are ignoring life to do these things. We still don’t demand people change books to make them worse. We demand better battery life, not worse our Switch to ensure that we can play it even longer.
  • Idk that a Gameboy or a Switch fall in the same category. I mean, how many 35 year old's are walking around are walking around with either..
  • A Gameboy or Switch can both be addictive though, and very easily so. Whilst with these products it's more likely to happen with younger people, it's still addictive. Books can indeed be addictive too, pretty much anything that gives you some sort of satisfaction can be. The only thing I could see Apple doing is putting in an optional timer for how long you can use applications, but you can technically do this yourself if you manually set a timer and then tell yourself to stop using the app when it goes off
  • Hey Michael great article! As a 12 stepper, I do NOT mind when people say smart phone addiction. I feel I suffer from it myself! Many 12 steppers can tell you when you give up your "drug of choice" you may fall victim to substitute or "cross" addiction. I know this from personal experience. I got "sober" from drugs and alcohol over 15 years ago, and then I started eating like crazy! Food became an addiction. Well now I'm also what we call abstinent from food. (That means I have a food plan and I eat reasonable) All that being said, I now feel I suffer from phone addiction. I have even shared about this in 12 step meetings! The phone, and or being connected is definitely an issue! One of the things that I do, is tech free days. Usually 1 Sunday a month, turn off the phones, TVs, tablets etc! Spend time with loved ones.
  • While I appreciate the sentiment these shiny devices are like the candy jar. It's certainly not impossible to monitor. We do it pretty successfully. But kids spend a great deal of time trying to figure out if they can get some without getting caught. If instead I can give usage time for any app. Or unlimited usage time for drawing or coding apps.. It would make the battle far easier and more just. We would love to let the kids do educational and creative things as much as they like. But we want to limit snapchat. I have no sympathy for adults who can't control themselves.
  • Smartphones are just computers. So the problem is an addiction to the Internet, specifically social media. Granted smartphones make it infinitely easier to have the Internet with us all the time. But to blame Apple or Samsung is ridiculous.
  • Addiction can be to anything that gives you satisfaction. Really the same help you would get for addiction to gambling should help you likewise with this. People already have places where they can get help, I don't see tech companies needing to do anything
  • “I know several people who suffer from alcoholism or drug abuse who take a little offense at lumping a disease with people who can't put down their phone or tablet” This is really surprising if true. It kinda sounds like you are making that up. And this article is super insensitive and frankly ignorant towards those who struggle with addiction, smartphone or otherwise. Seriously read any scientific article about how addiction works. Next you can write an article about how alcoholics should just be able to stop drinking alcohol on their own. Why don’t they just take some personal responsibility, right? 🙄
  • Alcohol is chemically addictive. Smartphones are not addictive.
  • A number of studies definitely challenge that opinion. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mobile_phone_overuse
  • The wiki page you linked also points to an article that says there’s a link between cell phones and brain cancer...
  • Indeed. I appreciate the skepticism, for sure. the WHO studies on cancer are inconclusive, however it is something being looked at by several health/cancer institutions. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/radiation/cel... Regarding phone addiction, from what I've read, some people truly do have an issue. I'm sure you've noticed for yourself how people behave while in public these days. In restaurants, walking on the street, etc. Some people just can't put their screens down.
  • And before it was smartphones, it was iPods or magazines (and yes, I have seen that). People distract themselves in the real world, when you’d think they should be paying attention. The only difference is we have a more useful distraction than ever before. This is not a new and exciting phenomenon. After the smartphone, we will be demonizing the next big addictive thing. And nobody will look into the idea that maybe what we are doing is normal.
  • I can see what you're saying. The idea that the will "always be something". But Apple just introduced DND for a reason, for example, to help reduce distractions while on the road. Does that not speak to a change in behavior that Apple recognized and decided to take some responsibility?
  • DND is about the annoyances of notification sounds like you’re trying to do something else, not an admission of anything. It has nothing to do with the lie that is the smartphone addiction. We are not addicted to smartphones, people just love stimulation and the iPhone provides it.
  • Apple says otherwise.. https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT208090
  • True addiction is defined by consequences. Alcohol, heroin, gambling, ***, cigarette smoking etc. ADDICTIONS mean that you continue the behavior regardless of the consequences. Your health deteriorates. You lose your job. You gamble away all of your money. Your spouse/children leave you. When these things happen and you are in denial/still can't stop, you are addicted. No one has EVER lost their job/spouse/health/money due to a phone. Period. The above pic of teenage girls using phones between classes is NOT "addiction". They are just killing time. They could be reading a book, they could be researching something. They could be texting. They could be watching a movie. All of which beats just sitting and staring off into space. Now, if they are doing this in class, ignoring assignments, failing tests, then THAT would be true addiction. Can't stop in the face of bad consequences. So the PARENTS take the phone away. Everyone I know has a phone. No one I know is "addicted" to it. Some may use it a lot, but that is NOT the same as addiction.
  • S*e*x gets censored here? Really? Grow up.
  • Only for us plebs in the comments section.
  • Always blame someone else. Apple has nothing to do with those who cannot control their emotions. ADDICTIONS are selfish people who only thick of themselves.
  • That's a myopic and callous view of the people with addictions and the circumstances that often lead to them.
  • Become a moderator of a group or forum. In no time at all, you'll want to spend less time on your phone. Worked for me.
  • I agree that curbing smartphone overuse is an individual responsibility; however, I think that some people would like to choose not to have the potentially addictive stuff in their pocket. Apple seems uniquely positioned among manufacturers (due to its control over the ecosystem, lack of third party bloatware, etc.) to offer a robust feature phone - picture an SE sized device preloaded with Maps, Camera, Music, iMessage, Contacts, Dialer and Notes, and that's it. No app store, safari, email, no notifications at all except for incoming texts and calls. Siri would be limited to voice control for preloaded apps only. With a product like this in the lineup, Apple could tell anyone concerned about social media and other smartphone addiction issues that they sell a great feature phone and be done with it. And they could sell a bunch more apple music subscriptions since that would be the only music app on the phone.
  • I doubt Apple would do this, it'd be like them releasing a MacBook with restricted features. If people want a phone like that, that's what the redesigned Nokia 3310 is for