On Sunday, the day before Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference, news broke that Facebook was yet again embroiled in a privacy scandal. The New York Times reported that years ago, the social network made deals with smartphone makers to give them access to users' data. Though Facebook denied any wrongdoing, critics were quick to point out that, yet again, Facebook had to be forced to answer for its practices rather than simply coming clean.
When Apple's Tim Cook took the stage Monday for the WWDC conference keynote, it was into that context that he spoke. Faced with privacy scandals, concern about abuse and political interference, and worry about tech addiction, Silicon Valley is experiencing a backlash after being adored for years.
It was a significant moment, then, when Apple declared that its Safari browser on Mac would include new privacy features to stop users from being tracked — and demonstrated the feature by showing Facebook on screen. It was a clear broadside against the social network and a declaration of a war on its tech competitors. In fact, the entire tone of the WWDC keynote seemed like a response to the techlash, with Apple claiming that it alone is the company that consumers can really trust. Yet as Apple positions itself as the savior of tech, its own conflicts are also hard to ignore.
That didn't stop Apple from doing everything it could to prove it's an oasis in the tech world. The argument began at the outset of the presentation, with Apple SVP Craig Federighi claiming that the upcoming iOS 12, the software that runs iPhones and iPads, will not only focus extensively on performance, but rather than slowing older devices down, it will also work on products over five years old.
Particularly in light of the battery scandal that saw Apple throttling some older iPhones, it seemed like a clear response to the long-time criticism that the company fosters planned obsolescence to get users to upgrade to the latest gear. The company also took a shot at Google when it pointed out that, meanwhile, Android users upgrade to the newest software at a far lower rate, if they do at all. The message was clear: If you want your device to be supported for years after you first use it, buy Apple.
Similarly, new features in iOS 12 to help users limit their screen time, track which apps they use, and better control notifications appeared to try and address the concerns about tech addiction (though here Apple wasn't alone as Google announced similar features a few weeks earlier). Of particular note were new settings to help parents limits kids' screen times, which seemed like a direct answer to criticism made by two prominent Apple investors earlier this year that the company must do more to deal with the effect of its tech on children.
In that sense, Apple was continuing its long tradition of defining itself as a company more focused on the end user than any other. Years ago, Steve Jobs claimed Apple's purpose was to merge technology and the liberal arts; we are the human tech company, he implied, and the new privacy features that challenge Facebook and Google seem to be in that tradition. While other companies are making tools or gadgets, Apple insists it is making things to unleash creativity, or, more simply, that are just a pleasure to use.
In fact, pleasure was part of much of the earlier part of the digital revolution. When things like blogging, social media, smartphones, and apps were all new there was a kind of joy attached to the sheer novelty — this feeling that every few months, you were doing things that no one in history had done before.
Yet now with our feet firmly planted in the digital era, we see that such pleasure has a downside — that it's exactly the enjoyment of getting notifications or new updates that produces a compulsive, attention-sapping effect. There are also potential mental health effects from using social media born of a desire to compare ourselves to others or feel dissatisfied with our own lives.
For Apple to suggest it thus stands alone is bound to be an ambivalent claim. On the one hand, the new privacy features that starkly contradict Facebook and Google's approach of tracking users' data seems commendable. It establishes two distinct paths in tech, one user-centric and the other data-centric. On this point, Apple seems on the right side of history.
But Apple's other features that limit app time or control children's use seem a little more suspect. After all, it's precisely Apple's focus on producing appealing tech that is part of our occasionally troubled relationship to our devices. If Apple is doing anything, it is attempting to fix a problem of its own making.
Shortly after talking about its new iPhone capabilities to restrict attention, Apple turned to the Watch, and demonstrated new features that let a user view web content on their wrist, all while competing against friends in workouts on a stationary bike. It was a strange juxtaposition — just after announcing new features to help you use tech less, it introduced new ones to induce you to use tech more. This is precisely the problem: Tech is so indelibly part of our lives, we cannot help but avoid it, even as it may harm us or invade our privacy.
Apple's own confusion seems to point to the bind both it and we users find ourselves in: surrounded by technology, yet unable to decide whether it is friend or foe.