Technology’s really great at helping people to remember.
You can say to a shiny piece of kit, “Hey, remind me about that great thing that I absolutely cannot forget about”, and it will do so, enabling you to get on with more important matters, such as unearthing yet more videos of cute skateboarding dogs on YouTube.
The memory remains
As I get older, my memory’s started trolling me. Words occasionally lurk frustratingly out of reach (handy, given that I’m a writer), and I’m pretty terrible at recalling upcoming events. I therefore now quite often rely on various bits of technology periodically yelling at me: It’s a loved one’s birthday next week! That TV show you really wanted to see starts tonight! Don’t forget to eat!
Increasingly, though, I’m finding that notifications are broken, because they’re being abused by companies and developers. Instead of helping, these systems now have a tendency to hinder, adding noise and irritation to life, rather than ushering in some kind of technological utopia where we can bask in the glory of never having to remember anything, while an infinite number of cute animal videos are beamed directly into our brains.
Email, as we all know, was ruined a very long time ago. A small number of idiots unleashing a barrage of spam saw to that, aided in no small part by every company in the world following suit in their own way, deciding that you had to know about this new and not terribly important piece of information right now.
Then social networks started to become inundated with rubbish beyond content and adverts – notifications that you’d been ‘poked’ and that someone had ‘favourited’ something you said. Great. Thanks. My life is now so much richer.
These were at least silos, where you’d get splattered with a smattering of not-informative garbage on making the decision to enter. But now systems cross-post, social networks emailing you about notifications you’ve already seen; elsewhere, companies have taken advantage of system-wide notifications to doom them too.
On iOS, Notification Center started off as a smart idea – in part pilfered from Android – providing a central repository for important nuggets of information: missed calls; imminently ending eBay auctions; calendar events. But then apps and games hijacked everything.
For example, I have EA’s Scrabble installed, and it just won’t shut up. It’s constantly sending inane messages that I’ve not played in a while, and there are random opponents out there “looking for a challenge”. I got so sick of it that I manually turned off all notifications for the game, and inevitably now end up not realising when the few people I’m actually playing games with take their turn.
Parcel Panic 2 went a step further, ramping up the pointless setting beyond 11 to some hitherto unknown number that even our finest scientific minds cannot comprehend. I’d enjoyed the original game, a sort of Crazy Taxi set on a desert island, and so downloaded the sequel. It was a bit grindy, and so after a half-hour of churn, I shut the app and got on with something else. Barely half a day later, I got a notification, which in its entirety read: “Come on! Play Parcel Panic 2!”
After a moment’s disbelief, the red mist descended. This was worth a notification? This was worth snapping me out of whatever else I was doing at the time? Someone seriously thought it a smart move to bug me to play a game I’d launched only the previous day?
Driving us to distraction
Perhaps because there’s so much competition for our attention, companies, social networks and developers feel compelled to nudge and prompt, thinking of this as encouragement. But all they’re really doing is creating an epidemic of noise, training people to screen everything out or turn off notifications by default.
They’re continuing to break the system, transforming something that should be hugely useful into the equivalent of a digital doorstep, and it’s time to call on everyone to stop. I’d ask everyone myself, but I probably won’t remember, having turned off all my notifications in a flurry of fury.