Screen Time has been around for a while, supposedly allowing iPhone users to “make more informed decisions” about how they use their devices. I’ve mostly ignored it, but disgust at my own attachment to the device led me to give it a shot. It wasn’t particularly useful for controlling how much I used Twitter. But it did do one thing: It helped me see how hopeless that effort really is.
Fifteen minutes. That’s the daily limit I set up for Twitter. I thought this would accommodate just enough time to scan for trends (and calamities), see what people were saying to (or about) me, and then get the hell out again.
Just getting Screen Time set up to do this is not easy. Apple introduced the feature in iOS 12, about a year ago, in an apparent attempt to help curtail the attention-sink hellscape to which its devices largely gave rise. By default, it tracks app usage in the background, presenting a weekly summary in the form of a complex chart that tells you that you look at your phone too much.
To do something about it, you have to go to the phone settings and create an “app limit.” The phone makes it easy to control usage by app category—social media, or games, or entertainment, for example, though the categories are broad: If you use Twitter or WhatsApp for work, for example, a “social media” limit will curtail your ability to do so. Not too much, though—you still have the option to “ignore limit,” either for 15 minutes more or for the rest of the day. It’s possible to set limits on a single app. But the process is so unintuitive, I can’t remember how I did it (this way, apparently).
Once Screen Time is enabled, the device will dutifully police your session with Twitter (or your chosen poison). First a notification: “5 minutes remaining today.” Then, when the bell tolls, a dour, white screen appears: “Time Limit. You’ve reached your limit on Twitter.” Above it, an hourglass animates to empty. No more Twitter for you today. Once their time is expended, the relevant app icons darken on the home screen, the sad hourglass flanking the app name. It’s as if a severe professor were staring sternly down half-rim spectacles at the device, and then you, and then it, and then you again.
Screen Time was always going to be a punitive matter—the feature was meant to set and enforce boundaries, after all. But all this austerity romanticizes an idea of deliberate focus long gone. The hourglass, for example, is a relic from maritime, clerical, and mercantile life that was mostly replaced more than 500 years ago by the mechanical clock. Historically, Apple has deliberately avoided this icon: The first Macintosh interface used a stylish-looking wristwatch to clock away time while the computer worked (Susan Kare, who designed it, thought people would be familiar with a watch but not an hourglass, which the earlier Apple Lisa had used). Now it uses that infuriating beach ball. It was Windows, Microsoft’s operating system, that popularized measuring delays by hourglass. Putting one on the sleek, black rectangle of your iPhone thus concocts a syrupy mélange of lithe modernism and ascetic medievalism.