Google's digital wellbeing experiments make a mockery of the bigger issue

Google's digital wellbeing experiments make a mockery of the bigger issue

When Google launched its Digital Wellbeing initiative as part of Android Pie, it was met with some skepticism in our editorial office. Accusations of hypocrisy were launched, but personally I felt it was better than nothing, a step in the right direction at least. Now, with its 'Experiments with Google', the company risks making a mockery of the whole thing.

Google claims it is concerned that many people feel that they spend too much time on their phones and struggle to find a balance with technology. To help its users tackle their smartphone addiction, it has been playing around with various new features and products that aim to make you use their other products less. It sounds a bit like a pub landlord trying to talk his punters into doing Dry January. There is a clear conflict of interest here, but that's not my main issue with what is going on.

What kind of experiments is Google doing?

You may have come across some of these digital wellbeing experiments over the past months. They range from the quite sensible to the ridiculous. There's Post Box, a feature that delivers notifications to your phone just once or twice a day as if you were receiving them at the same frequency you receive your mail. That's not the worst idea, and this idea that slower communication is better for our digital health is a theme that some messaging apps are running with as well.

Then there's Paper Phone - a printable version of your smartphone that is designed to give you all of the vital bits of information you need for a whole day. The idea is that you can print a one-day phone and leave your real one at home. It will include information such as your schedule, weather information, maps you may need and even a QR code for contactless payments.

The latest from the Google Special Projects lab is called Envelope - a set of envelopes that "temporarily transform your phone into a simpler, calmer device, helping you to take a break away from your digital world". More paper is put to work here. By sliding your phone into a special envelope, Google wants to transform its functionality. One envelope turns your phone into a very basic device that can only make and receive calls. Another turns your phone into a photo and video camera with no screen. You can download these envelopes as a PDF and print them out. Currently, the only phone supported is the Google Pixel 3a...

As you can see in the video, an app reduces your smartphone to the bare essentials to correspond with the new paper interface you've just put over the top. Light from the display can still seep through, and it can do things like show you the time by highlighting numbers on the dialer.

Whilst I am not completely against these kinds of experiments in principle, I am increasingly finding Google's Special Projects around Digital Wellbeing laughable. It's one thing to download an app that locks you out of your phone for a certain period of time, it's another to walk around with a Pixel 3a in your pocket covered by paper that essentially turns it into a Light Phone.

I accept that these are just experiments and that Google is playing around with ideas here and seeing what sticks, but the increasing absurdity of the projects, combined with the almost tongue-in-cheek explanation videos, makes a whole mockery of digital wellbeing. It takes something that is seriously impacting our society and our social lives and turns into something that can be shared on the social media platforms we're addicted to as a bit of fun.

Anyone who is serious about improving their digital wellbeing is going to need will power and motivation just like someone who is quitting smoking or drinking alcohol would. Could Google's Envelope be the equivalent of nicotine gum for smartphone addicts? In theory, yes. But can we lose the comical marketing? It looks like Google is having a laugh at us here.

I should end this piece by saying that not everything coming out of the Google Creative Lab is on the same level of gimmicky as Envelope and Paper Phone. The new Screen Stopwatch is exactly the kind of thing I think Mountain View should be doing with its digital wellbeing efforts. The tool is just a live wallpaper that acts as a way to show you how long you spend on your phone each day. A simple (and rather huge) stopwatch will count up when you have the screen unlocked, and stop when you put the phone down and lock the screen. The size of your on-screen display is key here, as you wear your smartphone shame for all to see every time you pull out your device on the subway.

google screen stopwatch
Screen Stopwatch tells you how long you spend on your phone each day. / © Google

I'd like to see a little of Screen Stopwatch and little less of Envelope. If Google is going to convince anyone that it is taking digital wellbeing seriously - and let's face it that's going to be a big ask anyway - it needs to put an end to these initiatives that are starting to look like satire.

What do you think? Let us know if you have tried any of Google's Digital Wellbeing Experiments below the line.

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