It starts innocently enough. You download an app, and the app asks for your permission to send you push notifications. Sure, you think. What damage can it cause? I would like to know when my package arrives or my burrito is ready. But then you download more apps, and they all need your permission to send you notifications, and before you know it, your lock screen is flooded with apps demanding 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 driver is five stops away, that your child at daycare just had a tantrum—all day, all at once. Welcome to a place we all live, a place called Notification Hell.
We haven’t always lived here. For a while, companies like Apple wouldn’t let app developers run wild with the power to demand our attention at any time of the day. They insisted that power should be used for good, not evil. It 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 opted in to have any notifications at all, you’ve opted in to a lot of them. The call is even coming from inside the house now – Apple it is market their services in the settings menus and Samsung is trying to sell you a new phone…while you are using your Samsung phone. There really is nowhere to hide.
It’s not just ads that are the problem. The digital assistants of our phones try hard 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 that I have a flight on my calendar, it suggests a shortcut to put the phone in airplane mode. Immediately after that, it asks if I want to call the meeting on my calendar: my flight. The road to Notification Hell is paved with digital assistants with good intentions.
It’s not an assistant, but Google Photos often commits notification crimes. It’s always learning new tricks, like how to identify a beer or a latte in a photo, then agonizing over how it can identify all the photos you took of beer and lattes. It also really wants me to know when it finds a bunch of similar photos of my cat sleeping on various pieces of furniture, and brings them to my attention unbidden, like a dog that found a stick. My brother in Christ, I took the pictures. I know they are the same.
Our operating system developers are not entirely indifferent to our suffering; they throw us a couple of lifelines. On iOS, you can get non-time-sensitive notifications aggregated into a daily summary and delivered once a day. You can also set up focus modes—the UI is its own kind of hell—or have some apps deliver notifications silently unless they’re time-sensitive. But if you do, you sort of have to solve a puzzle first.
I tried this once with Amazon. I thought I had it configured so that I only get notifications when a package arrives. I did this wrong, apparently, because a grocery order sat outside my house for five hours on the night of the Fourth of July. I now allow Amazon to send me as many notifications as it wants.
That sums up our situation: we are trapped in notification hell, and there will be no escape. We have a few meager tools at hand, but it’s up to us to find our way out. Until I figure out my notification settings, I know I’m here for the long haul. For now, it’s just a comfort to know there are others with me too, because misery loves company.