Google wants to cure our phone addiction. How about that for irony? | Matt Haig

Google wants to cure our phone addiction. How about that for irony? | Matt Haig

Thu 10 May 2018 08.40 EDT Last modified on Thu 10 May 2018 08.42 EDT

Worried about the hours you spend scrolling your phone, sinking into despair, gazing at glamorous Instagrammers leaning against palm trees while you try to get out of bed?

Worry no longer: help is coming. And it’s coming from, um, Google. Yes, that’s right. Google is now trying to improve our “digital wellbeing’” by making our phones less addictive. Its newest version of Android includes an array of features with the stated aim of keeping us from our phones.

Among the many latest additions is a “dashboard” app that tells you at a glance how – and how often – you’ve been using your phone. It will enable you to set time limits via an app timer, and give you warnings when you’ve been using it for too long.

This is Google doing what it always does. It is trying to be the solution to every aspect of our lives. It already wants to be our librarian, our encyclopedia, our dictionary, our map, our navigator, our wallet, our postman, our calendar, our newsagent, and now it wants to be our therapist. It wants us to believe it’s on our side.

There is something suspect about deploying more technology to use less technology. And something ironic about a company that fuels our tech addiction telling us that it holds the key to weaning us off it. It doubles as good PR, and pre-empts any future criticism about corporate irresponsibility.

Google may be the world’s most valuable brand, but it is has been consistently dogged by criticisms including over privacy, search neutrality and paying its fair share of tax. Amid a new era of scepticism towards the privacy-neglecting practices of Silicon Valley behemoths and awareness of technology’s potential harm to our mental health, Google’s move looks like a classic attempt to get ahead of the game. People no longer want a life-work balance, they want a life-tech balance. And Google is here to assist.

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“Seventy percent of people want more help striking this balance,” said Sameer Samat, vice-president of product management at Google at its annual showcase last Tuesday. So they could be seen to be acting as the will of the people, a wise move for a company which boasts – for its search engine alone – way over a billion users.

The trouble is that while Google professes to acknowledge the dangers of technology taking over our lives, it keeps on seeking new ways for, well, technology to take over our lives. At the very same showcase, it unveiled something else it is working on. A Google Assistant, straight out of a dystopian sci-fi movie: a type of AI that makes phone calls on your behalf.

An audience of tech fans watched with palpable joy as Google CEO Sundar Pichai showed a demo of Google Assistant booking a hair appointment over the phone. The bit that really got them when the “assistant” dropped a casually affirmative “mmm-hmm” into the call. Pichai told the crowd, “The amazing thing is that Assistant can actually understand the nuances of conversation.” It also unveiled Google Lens, a visual search tool that looks for information in the objects around you, and showed a demo of it identifying everything in your friend’s apartment, even the blurb of a Zadie Smith novel. (Zadie Smith, as a self-described “luddite abstainer”, was a brave choice.) (110) add

Ultimately, it looks like Google is ready to wean us off our phone addiction because tech is no longer just about phones and laptops. Google’s ultimate prize is to be involved with every aspect of your life. Like an overbearing parent, it wants you to sit down and take it easy, as it does everything for you, even phone the hairdresser. It wants to know everything about you. It wants, quite literally, to get inside your eyeballs. And it will sell us this, the way it sells everything: without us even noticing. It will make something so convenient we’ll wonder how we got by without it. (106) add

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In the name of convenience, Google is not just mining our data, it is eroding our unique humanity. We need a time-out. Technology is evolving far faster than we are. We need to be asking Google bigger questions than: “Can you book my hair appointment?” Starting with: if tech can do everything we can do, what is the point of us?

• Matt Haig is a novelist and journalist. His book Notes on a Nervous Planet is published in July

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