That sounds promising enough, but there is a strong argument to be made that the greatest impact Apple can have on our overall wellness is by helping us take more breaks from our screens. When you spend your workday in front of a computer and your downtime doomscrolling news sites or double-tapping Instagram photos, a cardio routine on an iPad is perhaps not the greatest choice.
Apple knows this. The company goes to extraordinary lengths to demonstrate its appreciation for natural environments. As Cook proudly told me, its leafy headquarters and preponderance of inviting outdoor space was an idea “unheard of in Silicon Valley,” where the norm has been monolithic buildings that aim to keep employees cloistered inside. “We all operate on inspiration and motivation,” Cook said early in our conversation, and nothing provides him more of both than the natural world. “When I’m in nature, I feel so small in the scheme of things that the issues of the day become fractions.”
So what is Apple doing to help us put down our devices so we can experience some of that stress relief? And what about all those people pulling out their iPhones on sketchy cliffs in national parks to get a winning selfie? Shouldn’t Apple be addressing that?
“My advice to everyone who goes to a national park is to leave your selfie stick behind and just soak in the beauty of the park itself, because that will stay with you a lot longer,” Cook says. “But it’s a difficult issue. As a platform owner, we have a responsibility for how a product is used, and not just to throw something out there and see what the implications of it are. But everybody doesn’t have that frame of mind, unfortunately.”
It sure feels like Cook is pointing the finger at other tech companies, but I can see why. He doesn’t run a social media property that feeds on our incessant clicking and liking, or an advertising colossus that wants to mine our user data. He’s emphatic that Apple has no interest in owning our attention. Apple’s business is selling us hardware, along with the software and services that go with it.
“We’ve never designed our products to dominate people’s lives,” he insists. “That’s never been our purpose. We’ve never been into ‘How long is somebody spending on our property? Let’s try to figure out a way to make that as high as possible.’”
Cook makes the case that the Apple Watch has ushered in a new era of fitness tracking, and not just for dedicated athletes. It enables scientists to “democratize research.”
Cook points to the Screen Time feature on iPhones and iPads, introduced in 2018 as a tool to make people aware of how long they spend looking at a specific app or website, and to help them set limits for themselves. “For me personally, it was my estimates versus the reality that were very different,” he says.
Does he remember the numbers?
“They were high,” he offers with a laugh. “So I started asking myself, Why do I need all these notifications? Do I really need to understand things in the moment that they’re happening? And I started taking a meat ax to some of the things that would grab my attention but didn’t need to.”
Screen Time is something, I suppose. But it hardly feels like a robust commitment to the problem. Simply informing us of our usage level and encouraging us to self-regulate sets us up to feel bad without helping us do better. It’s like giving someone who’s trying to be more active a step counter but no help setting target goals. Where’s the motivating activity ring for stepping away?
Near the end of our conversation, we sat at a picnic table in the Apple Park courtyard. Cook had admitted that Apple didn’t have all the answers when it came to helping users unplug more often, and he assured me that there was “more to do.” But I wanted to circle back to the topic and offer up a proposal. What if Apple made teaching customers to use its devices more wisely its number-one priority? Wouldn’t that be the ultimate mission for a company that has long asked us to Think Different?
“We take the challenge to continue innovating in that space just as seriously as we take the challenge to keep innovating in each of the product categories we’re in,” he responded. “My simple rule is, if you’re looking at your device more than you’re looking in somebody’s eyes, you’re doing the wrong thing. I recognize that there are many people who are doing that. And some number of those are unhappy that they’re doing it, and some number are not. And where we’ve placed our energy thus far is on making people aware, not playing the heavy hand to tell them what’s good for them.”
It wasn’t the answer I was hoping for. At this stage of the game, we’re not getting much benefit from simple awareness. We need vigorous tools to help us pull away from our devices—Screen Time with teeth. Or maybe the solution is more of a gentle nudge. The Watch, after all, comes preset to remind users to stand up and move for at least a minute of every waking hour. In two months of wearing one, I’ve started shrugging off at least half those reminders with an eye roll. But other times I do stand up and pace my home office or even step outside into the sun. It’s enough to make me believe that technology really can make us healthier, if only those who make it would fully embrace the moment.