Google started its annual Google I/O developer conference in Mountain View, Calif. Tuesday, just a week after Facebook had invited developers and media to its own f8 conference. But while happening almost back-to-back, the two events were also worlds apart.
Struggling with the continued outfall of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spent the first 15 minutes of his keynote last week with apologies, outlining yet again what the company was doing to fight fake news, election interference and other forms of online abuse.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai also spent a few moments talking about how the company was striving to be a more responsible player, especially as new technologies like artificial intelligence emerge. “We just can’t be wide-eyed about the innovations technology creates,” he said. “The path ahead needs to be navigated carefully and deliberately.”
But Pichai didn’t talk about YouTube’s repeated problems with recommending inappropriate content. He didn’t talk about Google’s algorithms surfacing false stories from conspiracy websites. And he didn’t talk about the company’s own data collection policies. Instead, he introduced updates to the company’s smart assistant, the next version of Android and Google Maps.
Pichai’s segue from the downsides of technology to the company’s new products and features was possible because Google hasn’t experienced nearly as much of a public backlash as Facebook. Cambridge Analytica was a watershed moment for the social network, swaying public opinion and dominating the news headlines for weeks, and possibly months to come.
Google may very well have a similar moment in its future. And on Tuesday, the company outlined a very different approach to get ahead of the narrative: Instead of opening Pandora’s box on the politics of privacy, abuse and Russian trolls, it reframed digital safety around personal wellbeing.
“Helping people with their digital well-being is more important to us than ever,” said Google vice president of product management Sameer Samat. Over 70 percent of users had told Google that they wanted help striking a balance between their digital life and real-world interactions, Samat said, which is why the company added features to do just that to the next version of Android, which is currently code-named P.
Part of this is something Google calls Android Dashboard — a kind of analytics tool for your digital life, capable of telling you how often you unlocked your phone on any given day, and how much time you spent with which apps.
Android will also let you set time limit for apps, reminding you after an hour of Instagram browsing that it may be time to do something else — if that is the limit you want to set yourself. And there will be a new wind-down mode, which automatically puts the phone screen in grayscale mode later in the evening to minimize mindless phone scrolling before bedtime.
“Digital well-being is going to be a long-term theme for us,” promised Samat.
Which is a good thing. Tech companies have for too long focused solely on making their services stickier, about maximizing time spent. Tools that can help strike a more balanced interaction with devices, especially the ones that we carry around every minute of every day, are a much-needed departure from that attitude.
But a focus on personal well-being doesn’t solve some of the other downsides of technology we all are facing. At some point, Google will have to outline its plans for societal well-being as well — even if it was able to successfully avoid the topic at its developer conference this week.