How Apple Could Use Persuasive Technology to Protect and Upgrade Human Attention
The attention crisis is unprecedented, urgent, and deeply consequential. Brought into broad cultural awareness by The Social Dilemma ; humanity is still missing a comprehensive response that could bind the predatory power of limbic capitalism. Apple is the best-positioned entity to address this problem.
Given Apple’s commitment to health and fitness, its humanitarian values, and a business model not reliant on attention extraction, the company is uniquely positioned to regulate engagement-maximizing products in its ecosystem and lead the frontier of technology that upgrades human attention — to avert what could be a near-term dystopia.
Attention is a prerequisite to health, fitness, and a life well lived. Helping people make better choices and navigate life more effectively aligns with Apple’s mission and business objectives. The infrastructure required to build and distribute interventions and new features is already in place.
As a result, the innovation needed is mostly a matter of sophisticated philosophy, research, and product design. While Apple has already shown its commitment to this project (screen time, focus modes, parental controls), new insights and design directions could transform the company's capacity to lead the industry toward a sea change in human attention.
I have been at the frontier of those questions for years, with a unique focus on the humane design of persuasive technology, in an effort to advance the liberation of human attention. Based on this vision and the underlying design principle of Augmented Intentionality, I co-founded Potential, Inc. in 2021.
We’ve since prototyped, validated, and built Potential — a daily planner, home screen, and habit tracker that uses integrations and widgets to provide a choice architecture that better supports intentionality and behavior change. We’ve seen an enthusiastic response from our customers and vital signs of early Product/Market fit.
Last June, we published iOS 15, Humane — a concept for “How Apple Could Help Us Reclaim Our Attention.” It organically reached 250k readers and deeply resonated with many of them.
More recently, I developed and published Attention Settings, an iOS-focused concept demonstrating practical pathways for regulating attention-extracting products to increase consumer agency.
This work validated the principles and vision with consumer demand. Yet, it also made clear that the most potent opportunities are to be found on the level of the operating system. It became clear that there is a tremendous opportunity for Apple to focus on Attention.
I propose the following course of action:
- Prioritize Attention as a core value and vertical, similar to Privacy.
- Legitimize and Develop Attention Settings to give customers more awareness and control over how they’re being manipulated.
- Significantly reduce time spent on distracting apps by providing mindful app openings and suggestions for alternative activities.
- Research possibilities to evolve the core UX of iOS with a Focus-based Today Screen.
- Research and develop “Apple Coach” to pioneer deep persuasive technology that upgrades human attention, intentionality, and behavior change.
- Rejuvenate Apple’s iconic brand by resolving the cultural dichotomy of smart phones seducing us into dumb choices.
This proposal outlines the most audacious Attention strategy that I think Apple could pursue. It seeks to push the boundaries on what you think is possible, and provide speculative starting points for actual R&D.
Attention as a Value and Vertical
Attention could become a core value and company-wide vertical, similar to privacy: A key part of the strategy, coherently managed across the entire organization, at the heart of how the brand is marketed and experienced. Some parallels between privacy and attention:
|Bold Move||App Tracking Transparency||Attention Settings|
|App Prompt||Ask App not to Track||Review Attention Settings|
|Nutrition Card||Data Collected About You||Techniques Used to Increase Engagement|
|Ads||Oversharing, Tracked, Data Auction||Time Thieves, Vice City, …|
|Slogan||Privacy. That’s iPhone.||Your iPhone. Your Attention.|
Given the foundational nature of Attention, there are many more good reasons to prioritize it: health and fitness, mindfulness and wellbeing, creativity and productivity, consumer agency, national security, and public health. However, there are four novel frames I want to introduce:
25% of the population is struggling with problematic smartphone use. For those aged 18-25, that number is 40%. Persuasive tech is conditioning these people into compulsive and unhealthy behaviors.
It’s rendering people unable to act in their best interest, undermining their ability to meet their needs, maintain good health, improve themselves, and be effective at creating meaningful and successful lives.
The ability to delay gratification is one of the best predictors of overall life success.
Regardless of the directionality of causation between self-control and digital addiction, having supercomputers pointed at the brains of those most vulnerable can undermine their autonomy in dramatic ways.
As technology becomes increasingly addictive, it will more deeply impact many of us. Most people are already struggling with distraction. Given these products’ utility-grade scale and network effects, we must provide safe ways for vulnerable people to participate in society’s basic infrastructure — on their terms.
Read more: Digital Addiction is an Accessibility Issue
2. Psychosecurity as an Extension of Cybersecurity
We care about privacy and cybersecurity, amongst other things, because we care about the un-compromised integrity of the individual. The surveillance industry sells data, sure, but at the end of the day, its purpose is to increase the asymmetry of power in behavioral modification.
With weapons-grade communication tactics and behavioral modification aimed at them, individual autonomy is systematically undermined — and, by extension, the sovereignty of democratic nation-states. This naturally brings implications for public health and national security.
3. Applying Design Excellence to the Human Experience
We can’t just interpret the design of the Apple ecosystem in terms of Customer Experience. With devices so intimately part of ourselves, so entangled with our lives, the notion of customer satisfaction expands to life satisfaction.
How does all of this technology — and the ways of being it facilitates — make us feel at the end of the day? It’s about who we’re able to become in relationship to it, about our ability to grow into more evolved versions of ourselves.
When limbic capitalism competes to reduce us to our most primitive nature, what would it take to make technology that is on our team and helps us reach our highest human and superhuman potential?
When the default is limbic hijack, can we make technology that provides a secular equivalent of divine guidance? When the products Apple designs end up shaping how a billion people live, what would it mean to do this excellently?
4. Reinterpreting the Mission Statement
Apple products are being used 12-18 hours a day, every day, over the course of a lifetime.
How could we reframe the mission statement in a way commensurate with the consequentiality of this? When our products inevitably condition our people’s patterns of attention and behavior, inevitably shaping who they become, how do we take appropriate responsibility for this?
Given the commitment to “make the world’s best products”, how do we relate to the fact that these products shape the people that use them, and the lives that they default to living?
Whatever the specifics, it needs to be deeply informed by a more holistic framing of health, eudaimonic wellbeing, evolutionary fitness, and a life well lived.
Steve Jobs has always been about self-actualization and transcendence. Apple’s greatest ads celebrated the most iconic examples of the further reaches of human potential. Thinking different ultimately is about self-authorship; in pursuit of something greater than ourselves.
Ultimately, attention is only the surface layer of our stack of capacities by which we navigate life. There is an opportunity to apply persuasive tech to help people do more of the things that are good for them. The better we can get at that, the more we’ll be able to upgrade the baseline of human intentionality — and advance human development.
With Attention as a new vertical, there are many opportunities across the OS, products, and services that could help protect and upgrade it. The rest of this document will describe some specific opportunities that I believe are worth exploring.
- How could we best regulate attention-extractive products to bind their predatory power?
People deserve transparency and control over how technology manipulates them. Attention Settings are a practical pathway for the OS-level regulation of attention-extracting products to increase consumer agency.
The basic idea is to give users awareness over how they're being manipulated and tools to selectively opt out of the most engaging features — to reclaim their attentional, cognitive, and behavioral sovereignty.
Products with over 10 million users could be required to provide a) transparency about the techniques they use to increase engagement and b) the option to opt out of these techniques and features via Attention Kit — as a condition for passing App Review.
If a product uses persuasive design, every one of these techniques and features should be listed in the AppStore nutrition card and the Attention Settings providing the user with the option to opt out. There should be an educational element to inform users about how these techniques work on them and why they should consider opting out.
It's a very audacious proposal, and I hear your doubts:
- This interferes with 3rd party products in unprecedented ways
- Legal and political pushback is almost inevitable
- On what basis could we possibly do this?
- This will overwhelm users
These are valid concerns, yet I will ask you to put them aside for a minute. If I addressed all your doubts and we would be able to implement this on a waterproof legal and cultural basis, at a user-friendly level of simplicity — would it be the right thing to do?
I believe so. And it's possible to a) create this basis of legitimacy and b) make it simple. There are two fundamental questions to answer:
1: What is classified as engagement-maximizing and by whom?
Who is to say that a particular feature is attention-maximizing? Where is the line between good UX and manipulation? I believe this is a relatively straightforward question to answer. A consortium of independent organizations, informed by Apple's foundational research, could surely come up with practical definitions.
2: What might be a sufficient basis of legal legitimacy?
The surveillance-industrial complex will push back on this, and there are plenty of directions they could take. On what basis could Apple possibly set these requirements? Isn't this yet another self-serving, monopoly-reinforcing move like ATT?
Two frames seem especially promising as a basis of legitimacy:
Instead of framing engagement-maximizing products as "bad for everyone", there is a reasonably straightforward argument that problematic smartphone use and social media addiction are handicapping a minority of the population.
From poor self-control to mental health issues and precarious life circumstances, regardless of what causes someone to be more vulnerable to limbic hijack, vicious feedback loops can have catastrophic consequences on people's wellbeing and productivity.
Not providing the comprehensive tooling required for neurodiverse and otherwise disadvantaged people to participate in the use of these products safely would mean neglecting support to some of our most vulnerable populations.
Persuasive technologies, especially social media, exert undue influence — a severe and systematic form of manipulation that is legally recognized in other contexts. Platform providers like Apple have a fiduciary responsibility to protect their customers from such undue influence.
Based on the technical legal definitions provided by psychologists, persuasive technologies have crossed the threshold from persuasion to coercion — and thus need to be classified as undue influence.
I suggest investing significant resources in constructing a solid legal specification of Undue Influence in the context of persuasive tech. With recursive loops of red-teaming and risk analysis, it should be possible to reach a point where Apple could confidently use this as a legal basis for Attention Settings.
Facebook et al. will complain, and legal pushback is likely. Still, they would have to make a case against Undue Influence, in democratic courts, under the eye of legislators and a public that has been waiting for a comprehensive articulation of and response to these companies' perverted practices.
Four qualities of persuasive technology stand out, on which legal experts could construct a definitive argument:
- Privileged Information: With sophisticated psychological profiles, thousands of data points, and years of meta-data on every user, social media companies have a comprehensive set of privileged information.
- Statistical Influenceability: If a particular feature or design change influences real-world behaviors with statistical reliability, that's a sound basis for an undue influence.
- Asymmetry of Power: Facebook’s data and their ability to use that data to modify user behavior is orders of magnitude greater than the average user’s awareness, understanding, and ability to protect themselves from that manipulation.
- Lack of Informed Consent: Most users have no clue that an algorithm — let alone weapons-grade behavioral modification technology — is playing against them. Facebook's research shows that they can shape emotions and behavior without triggering the users' awareness.
The cultural, ethical, and philosophical case for limbic capitalism's immorality has already been made extensively. What is undue influence, if not ruthless attention capture and behavior modification motivated by advertising revenue?
It is a worthwhile cause, and Apple might be the only entity that could pull this off. This is an opportunity to create a cultural inflection point, to take a stand on the right side of history. Apple could make an audacious move on behalf of humanity.
It’s also an opportunity to directly improve the user experience of hundreds of millions of people, helping them get less distracted from the lives they want to live.
Mindful UX Interventions with Siri Suggestions
- How might we help people spend less time mindlessly scrolling/watching and more time doing the things they truly want to do?
- How might we increase the conversion rate from “distracting” app openings to “good choices”?
- How might we increase subscription revenue by redirecting user attention to intentional activities?
Reduce Time Spent via Mindful App Openings and Alternative Activities
Equipped with a strategy for reducing engagement within distracting apps, let’s talk about how we can mitigate distractive time spent by reducing mindless app openings in the first place.
The main opportunity is to provide an opt-in for mindful moments when opening selected distracting apps and to show Siri Suggestions for alternative activities.
The success of interventions like this could be measured in the conversion rate from app opening to alternative activities or discontinuation. The better our model of the users psychological state, the better the quality of these suggestions could be.
Cognitive Arousal Index
- How might we conceptualize and measure the user’s psychophysiological state in real time?
- How might we use that as a basis for making suggestions to proactively increase their capacity to make “good choices”?
We should be able to infer the user's “compulsion/intentionality score” in real time. A Cognitive Arousal Index like this could indicate the current psychological/physiological state. This could be layered into predictions on mood, emotions, and needs to serve as the basis for predicting and suggesting attainable, attractive, and effective choices.
When the user is in a very “hot” and compulsive state, it’s pointless to suggest activities like a one-hour meditation. Instead, easy and stimulating activities that also “cool” them down would be better; eg. watching a TV episode, reading a blog post, FaceTiming a friend, or listening to music.
Meeting Needs More Effectively
- How might we help people make choices that meet their needs more effectively?
- How might we help people make “good choices” in the face of negative emotions and psychological discomfort?
Sometimes, some of us turn to our devices not mindlessly but compulsively. We’re aware of what we’re doing, jumping through all the hoops we previously set up for ourselves.
These moments are when we’re in psychological and emotional pain, looking for a bit of dopamine to numb ourselves.
An interstitial like this could help users become aware of their emotions, identify underlying unmet needs, and suggest activities that would satisfy them — assisting users in coping with negative emotions and meeting their needs more effectively.
Further, the algorithm could model your cluster of needs and the activities available to you as need satisfiers.
In Max-Neef’s “Human Scale Development” model of needs, satisfiers are placed on a spectrum from pseudo-satisfiers (meeting a single need short-term, instant gratification, etc.) to synergistic satisfiers (meeting many needs in integrative and sustainable ways).
Informed by such a model, attention and behavior could increasingly be shifted towards synergistic satisfiers that comprehensively improve your quality of life.
Time Spent and other Overlays: Visual indicators of your time spent on a given day or session. Inspired by the browser extension Nudge.
Calm Mode: time/context-based reduced saturation and greyscale, reduced motion and speed
Lengthening Attention Spans: The OS should have a model for the users’ attention span on any given day, based on average content piece length per app, time spent per app, app switching, etc. Siri suggestions could help increase attention span over time by suggesting increasingly longer-form content.
- Cooldown Mode
- Time Well Spent / Activity Review
- Focus Mode Buddies
Core UX Redesign
The home screen as we know it isn’t purpose-built to help us live intentionally. As our primary digital choice architecture is inextricably integrated with our attention, it’s part of how we navigate life, and how we allocate our time and attention — day by day, hour to hour, moment to moment.
Calendars are the best tool we know for allocating our time and attention. There is an opportunity to reinterpret and synthesize the job of calendars and home screens.
The home screen could be replaced by a Today screen that structures your day around your focus modes — showing your intentions, up next activities, suggestions, etc.
Via a new Focus Kit, apps could suggest adding certain activities to your Focus modes, which then show up on the Today screen.
Research and develop “Apple Coach”, to create a category-defining product that leverages the full persuasive tech stack to comprehensively upgrade human attention and intentionality.
The real arms race isn’t about interfaces. It’s about AI. All these interface and UX ideas are relevant because they are built around important Jobs to be Done, and they provide a natural context to plug recommendation engines into — in the form of something like Apple Coach.
An evolution of Siri from assistant to coach, it could use natural language to help users realize what’s important to them — and how to align their daily lives with those values and aspirations.
Based on comprehensive data on sleep, attention, movement, etc., Coach could give on-device, real-time recommendations for behaviors that help you meet your needs and achieve your goals more effectively.
From behavioral programs for improving sleep to effective coping strategies in the face of negative emotions, this is an opportunity for a genuinely transformative value proposition built into how you use your phone and other Apple devices: superhuman intentionality.
This is where the value proposition of Augmented Intentionality comes into full effect and where the significance of attention as a core value becomes obvious: Attention is the starting point to our capacity to consciously and successfully navigate our lives.
Brand: On Your Team
There’s an opportunity to rejuvenate Apple’s iconic brand by resolving the cultural dichotomy of smart phones seducing us into dumb choices. Devices that help people live intentionally make people feel good at the end of the day.
The attention economy is a shared enemy of humankind, and technology that’s on our team can make all the difference. An emphasis on Attention affords an abundance of stories that illustrate how Apple is both on your team, and a symbol for the highest reaches of human wisdom and potential.
Ideas for ads: A Day Well Lived, Vice City, Carpe Diem, On Your Team, Power to the people, Wise Choices, …
A Comprehensive Strategy
Attention needs to be a strategic priority at the highest level.
Augmenting human intentionality is the most significant frontier in HCI — because in the face of tech surplus and ubiquity it isn’t about more tech. It’s about who we’re able to become in relationship with it.
Just like Apple is dedicated to pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with Apple Silicon, it could push the boundaries of human potential in the context of our co-evolutionary relationship with technology. It just so happens that attention is the starting point for that very project.
From a C-Level priority, company-wide objectives, an Attention Studio with an essentially black budget, to Apple’s best brand campaign since Think Different — whatever it takes, this could transform Apple as we know it, profoundly challenge the status quo, and shape humanity for decades to come.
What would Steve do?
 The Social Dilemma, 2020
 “Limbic Capitalism” refers to a technologically advanced but socially regressive economic system and industrial complex that encourages excessive consumption and addiction to maximize profits. See The Age of Addiction, David T. Courtwright, 2019
 The Liberation of Human Attention, 2022
 iOS 15, Humane
 “Fiduciary Responsibility” applies to any relation existing between parties wherein one of the parties is in duty bound to act with the utmost good faith for the beneﬁt of the other party. Examples include the relationships between lawyers, psychologists and medical doctors to their respective clients.
 2019 global mobile consumer survey, Deloitte
 UK classifies Cambridge Analytica as weapons-grade communication tactics, The Guardian
 Social Media Enables Undue Influence, The Consilience Project, 2021
 Human Scale Development, Manfred A. Max-Neef, 1991