Gaslight Gatekeep Google: Dragging Digital Wellbeing by Google

Disclaimer: this article is roughly 65% criticism, 30% speculation, and 15% satire. Proceed at your own risk!

I discovered something ungodly upon searching “digital wellness” on DuckDuckGo: Google has released a digital wellbeing app, which they creatively named Digital Wellbeing.

I checked Google Trends and “digital wellbeing” ranks consistently higher in search terms than “digital wellness”, so it makes sense why they picked the name. The answer is probably a combination of money and to appear as if they’re spearheading the digital wellbeing movement.

I dared not download it, but I did thoroughly stalk the website so you don’t have to. The website contains a series of platitudes about how we ought to live life both on and offline, and highlights all the ways the features of this app helps cope with the misery of our metaphysically split existence.

Though the wellbeing insights strike as tone deaf coming from Google, the messages alone were solid. I will concede that the research it presents is concise and well-articulated; they did a better job than I’ve done in some ways. Probably because they got paid out the nose and had every resource at their disposal, and I’m just a lab rat with an Ethernet cord hooked to my brain trying to do my job.

To no one’s surprise, Google does not address its own shortcomings that aren’t bandaged by the app. Even more hilarious is the way that the site identifies its own products as distracting — they literally display an image with their own apps categorized under “distracting”. This is the height of self-awareness for the company, so enjoy it while it lasts.

The website features a survey on assessing digital wellbeing habits, which I foolishly opted to complete. Each question is a statement about a digital habit superimposed over pictures of happy-looking people who aren’t interacting with Google products. Answers are given as a numerical degree of how much you resonate with the given statement, using a sliding wheel with a pretty UI.

Nothing diagnostic comes at the end of the survey; better yet, it seems like the advice shown doesn’t even have to do with your answers. This may just be another means of harvesting your data on your wellbeing habits, met with an app advertisement as a reward.

Even better, there are now classes available for you to learn how to be a digital wellbeing coach in the exact way that Google wants! And you have to pay for it!

By now you’re probably as confused as I am. It’s clear why Google would consider this a good PR move, like Exxon Mobil feigning support for a carbon tax they admittedly recognize will never happen. They’ll never face the consequences of supporting the countermovement, and they look a lot less evil when they do.

Whenever I see attempts at making tech better through internal regulation by big tech, I always wonder why these features are sold separately and not integrated into the existing products like you would expect with major developments on user behavior.

The answer is both sad and easy. It is well known that Google and most other big tech companies use slot machine engineering strategies and other addiction-promoting features as basic components of their products. When suffering is the default, people stay longer. Time spent outside or with family is time not spent on the app, and time is money. That’s just showbiz, baby.

By fulfilling the minimum amount of responsibility, Google can point to this time and time again to escape from accusations of aforementioned awful engineering strategies, which sure comes in handy when the public is starting to turn on you.

Which still raises the question:

“But Lauren, isn’t this an important development that we should encourage? And isn’t it best that these features are personalized only by the choice of the consumer to maximize user freedom?

Yes and no.

I agree we should encourage these types of services and the research behind their creation. That’s kind of my whole schtick (welcome if you’re new here).

What I don’t agree with is having to opt into personalization for features as important as digital wellbeing by using a separate product. An issue this size, proven by research both in and out of Google, should be addressed within the existing products that create the problems, not capitalized on in a batteries-not-included fakeout.

I will acknowledge that the app’s ability to control notifications and screen time on non-Google apps running on the Android OS is a useful feature. If it gets people to pay attention and get help for their tech using habits, it’s a lot better than nothing. That being said, plenty of negative features remain after notifications and screen time are controlled; these ought to be addressed and integrated.

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