The App That Reminds You You’re Going to Die

It helped me find inner peace.

illustration of smartphone as tombstone sticking out of grass
Alvaro Dominguez

Five times a day for the past three months, an app called WeCroak has been telling me I’m going to die. It does not mince words. It surprises me at unpredictable intervals, always with the same blunt message: “Don’t forget, you’re going to die.”

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Sending these notices is WeCroak’s sole function. They arrive “at random times and at any moment just like death,” according to the app’s website, and are accompanied by a quote meant to encourage “contemplation, conscious breathing or meditation.” Though the quotes are not intended to induce nausea and despair, this is sometimes their effect. I’m eating lunch with my husband one afternoon when WeCroak presents a line from the Zen poet Gary Snyder: “The other side of the ‘sacred’ is the sight of your beloved in the underworld, dripping with maggots.”

I welcomed these grisly reminders into my life in the hope that WeCroak, along with half a dozen other mindfulness apps, could help transform my iPhone from a stressful distraction into a source of clarity and peace. According to a study by a research firm called Dscout, Americans check their phone an average of 76 times a day for a cumulative two and a half hours—and while many would like to cut back, simple willpower isn’t always enough. Amid growing concerns over our phone fixation, Silicon Valley has, in typical fashion, proposed technology as the solution; there are now more than 1,000 mindfulness apps designed to help us disconnect.

“You can become a master of this powerful device rather than a slave to it,” says Michael Acton Smith, a co-founder of Calm, an app that offers guided meditation and soothing soundtracks and has surpassed 14 million downloads. Headspace, a rival app that provides meditation sessions led by a former Buddhist monk, has been downloaded more than 18 million times. There are apps to improve your breathing; apps that track the time you spend on other apps; and apps to teach you to be mindful while running, eating, giving birth, browsing the web, or, per the Buddhify app, “waiting around.” I decided to test whether technology could be both malady and cure.

On a beautiful morning this past summer, I woke up to an email—subject line: “Death Makes You Happy”—that I initially mistook for Silicon Valley satire. It was a pitch for WeCroak, which was inspired by a “famous Bhutanese folk saying” averring that “to be a truly happy person, one must contemplate death five times daily.” “Because we are either unable or unwilling to live a rural life in the picturesque Himalayas where time for contemplation may happen more easily,” the email explained, the app’s creators had developed the next best thing: a 99-cent app that would “foster happiness” and “cultivate mindfulness” by pestering users with reminders about death. I installed it mostly to see whether it was a joke.

In fact, WeCroak is the very real passion project of Ian Thomas, a 27-year-old freelance app developer, and Hansa Bergwall, a 35-year-old publicist, who met through Airbnb. Last spring, Thomas, who is based in California, rented a room in Bergwall’s Brooklyn apartment while taking an artificial-intelligence class, and one evening, Bergwall brought up the Bhutanese maxim. He’d come across it the previous year while researching Himalayan ashrams, and had attempted to put it into practice. “I would get to the end of the day and realize I’d forgotten the entire day to think about death,” Bergwall told me. “And it occurred to me, This is so easy: I could just get my phone to remind me.” Thomas was intrigued by the idea and began building a prototype that very night. Six weeks later, on July 26, WeCroak debuted on Apple’s App Store. (An Android version is not yet available.) The app has since been downloaded 84 times.

One impediment to its success: Next to other mindfulness apps, WeCroak is a serious downer. Whereas Calm greets me with uplifting prompts to “take a deep breath,” WeCroak interrupts to warn that “the grave has no sunny corners.” (This is tame compared with traditional Buddhist meditation fodder: A foundational fifth-century text suggests viewing the 10 stages of a decomposing corpse—including “the bloated,” “the festering,” “the bleeding,” “the worm-infested,” and “the hacked and scattered”—and Buddhists from Southeast Asia use YouTube to share videos of cadavers turning black or crawling with flies.)

Still, I do not immediately delete WeCroak, and by the fourth week, I begin to enjoy its company. Trembling with nerves before giving a talk to a group of strangers, I get a ping: “Don’t forget, you’re going to die.” What’s a little public speaking next to the terrifying finality of my inevitable demise? Soon after, I’m at a friend’s wedding, sulking about an impending deadline, when WeCroak again reminds me, “Don’t forget, you’re going to die.” I loosen up, finish my champagne, and opt to enjoy myself. With each day the app sounds less like a Hobbesian warning—“Life is short”—and more like an Oprah-esque affirmation: “Life’s too short!”

The simplicity of WeCroak also begins to charm me. This is not an app on which I can linger. It has no feed, no option to browse previous quotes, no way to procrastinate. (The only button on the app, “About,” repeats what users already know: This is WeCroak, and it sends you five quotes a day.) Bergwall and Thomas contemplated adding other features, such as links to learn more about the quotes’ authors or a sliding scale to decrease the frequency of notifications. But they ultimately nixed everything beyond the basic template in an effort, Thomas told me, to “disengage people as quickly as possible.”

Despite buzzing me five times a day, WeCroak comes to feel less obtrusive than the other mindfulness apps on my phone. These apps are meant to be an antidote to Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram—the sorts of digital media that, according to my Calm meditation coach, are creating “an epidemic of overwhelm.” The irony is that although mindfulness apps promise to help us disengage from our devices, they also have incentives to keep us tethered—and they use many of the same techniques as the Facebooks of the world.

“Our community generates more meditation minutes than any other app,” boasts Insight Timer, sounding distinctly un-Zen. That app automatically displays an activity feed (“Karen is meditating to Sacred Journey of the Shamans Gong”) that exploits our innate desire to socialize and distracts us from actually meditating. Calm, meanwhile, emails me every few days to say, for example, “Christi from Calm” is “here to support you on your mindfulness journey”—a tactic, called an “external trigger,” meant to nudge users back to the app. Headspace conditions users by rewarding consistent meditators with adorable animations, such as a pink brain doing push-ups, that reinforce desirable behavior. All of these apps incorporate a “streak” feature that, by tracking consecutive days of meditation, taps into users’ competitive drive.

WeCroak, in its inability to do anything besides a single, highly specific task, offers a model for designing software that respects our attention rather than inducing glassy-eyed scrolling. So many online services try to hook us through what Tristan Harris, a former Google ethicist, has called a “bottomless bowl” of content—auto-play videos and clickbait and continuously repopulating feeds. (I profiled Harris for this magazine in 2016.) “What if we designed devices for quick in-and-out uses, not endless interactions?” asks Harris’s nonprofit advocacy organization, Time Well Spent, on its website. The result might resemble WeCroak.

A Time Well Spent survey of 200,000 iPhone users found that people spend an average of 20 minutes a day on Insight Timer, and 10 minutes a day on Calm. According to Thomas, people spend an average of 36 seconds a day on WeCroak.

Over time, WeCroak changes the way I relate to my phone. As I scroll through Instagram or refresh Twitter, WeCroak interrupts with the sobering reminder that it is not just my attention these other apps are consuming, but chunks of my life. This was Bergwall’s ambition: Having struggled with a Candy Crush addiction, he hoped WeCroak would restore his power over his device. “I’ve gotten angry at my phone and all the apps on it one too many times,” he told me. “I wanted to do something about it, take matters into my own hands, and create something that would reclaim it as a space that wouldn’t just knock me off track, but also put me back on.”

I’ve come to embrace WeCroak as the anti-app. Social-media platforms seduce by providing a distraction from the tedium of everyday life—the awkward silences, boring waits in line, and unpleasant thoughts, chief among them the fact that we, and everyone we love, will kick the bucket. WeCroak makes escapism feel futile: We’re all going to die. The phone buzzes for thee.

This article appears in the January/February 2018 print edition with the headline “When Death Pings.”