It starts innocently enough. You download an app and the app asks for your permission to send you push notifications. Sure, you think. What harm can come of it? I would like to know when my package arrives or if my burrito is ready. But then you download Lake apps, and they all need your permission to send you notifications, and before you know it, your lock screen will be inundated with apps screaming for your attention.
The apps never shut up. They are hungry for engagement. They want you to know that your favorite items are on sale, that you didn’t practice your Spanish today, that your delivery person is five stops away, that your child has just had a blowout at daycare – all day, all at once. Welcome to a place where we all live, a place called Notification Hell.
We haven’t always lived here. For a while, companies like Apple didn’t just let app developers do anything with the power to grab our attention at any time of the day. They insisted that power should be used for good, not evil. That didn’t last long. App developers are now allowed to send us marketing notifications as long as we have opted in. And guess what, if you’ve chosen to get notifications, you’ve chosen a lot of them. The call now even comes from within – Apple is promoting its services in the settings menus and Samsung tries to sell you a new phone… while using your Samsung phone. You really have nowhere to hide.
It’s not just ads that are the problem. Our phones’ digital assistants do their best to learn our behavior and predict our every move. Probably because they are robots they don’t really understand what is useful and what is not. Like when Siri sees I have a flight in my calendar so it suggests a shortcut to put my phone into airplane mode. Immediately after, he asks if I want to dial in to the meeting in my agenda: my flight. The road to Notification Hell is paved with well-intentioned digital assistants.
It’s not an assistant, but Google Photos regularly commits reporting crimes. It’s always learning new tricks like how to spot a beer or latte in a photo, then pestering you to see how it can identify all the photos you’ve taken of beer and lattes. It also really wants me to know when it finds some similar photos of my cat sleeping on different pieces of furniture, and spotlights them unsolicited, like a dog found a stick. My brother in Christ, I took the pictures. I know they look alike.
Our operating system developers are not totally indifferent to our suffering; they threw us a few lifelines. On iOS, you can have non-time sensitive notifications collected in a daily summary and delivered once a day. You can also set focus modes – for which the UI is its own kind of hell – or have some apps quietly deliver notifications unless they’re time-sensitive. But if you do, you must first solve some kind of riddle.
I tried this once with Amazon. I thought I configured it so that I would only get notifications when a package arrives. Apparently I was doing this wrong, because on the night of July 4, there was a grocery order in front of my house for five hours. I now let Amazon send me as many notifications as it wants.
That sums up our situation: we are stuck in reporting hell and there will be no rescue. We have some meager resources at our disposal, but it’s up to us to find our way out. Until I know my notification settings, I know I’m here for the long haul. For now it is comforting to know that there are others with me, for misery loves company.