Are Smartphone Notifications Sending Us Back To The Age Of Synchronous Communication?

In Computer Science,synchronous communication means that two or more entities involved in exchange of information do so simultaneously. An example of synchronous communication would be two people talking over the phone because the recipient receives and consumes the information at the same time that the sender is transmitting it.

In contrast,asynchronous communication means that the sender can transmit the message and the recipient is able to respond it at a later stage. An example of asynchronous communication would be an email or letter, which the recipient can respond to way after it has sent.

Before the dawn of the digital age,communication was mostly synchronous in that,for example,if you wanted to converse with someone,you had to call them via telephone or meet them face to face. The problem this created was that,as one would imagine,it was very time wasting because if two parties conversed over the phone for example,they had to complete their "communication session" first before being able to do anything else.

Although some mediums for asynchronous communication existed,examples being the letter and telegram,they were very slow and archaic and hence rendered communication through them impractical.

The email,in its original format back in the 1980s,was the first practical and widespread form of asynchronous communication. One could send a message and do other tasks whilst waiting for the respondent to reply at whatever time was suitable for them.Emails had some form of notifications to alert the user of an incoming reply but unlike nowadays,the notification were restricted to the desktop computer at home.

Even after the dawn of the mobile phone era in the early 1990s,notifications were there but they were constricted to small flashing LED lights or tones which alerted you,at the most basic level,about a missed call or incoming call,voicemail or incoming text message etc.

Enter the late 2000s,the smartphone era. Because now mobile phones had numerous apps,flashing LED lights and tones would not suffice because,imagine if every app on your phone had its own LED light for alerts?it would be quite a mess and very ugly to say the least. So developers had to come up with new ways of providing alerts from the different apps to the mobile phone user and hence the different badges,icons and banners that serve as notifications that we see on our phones nowadays.

But there was a  problem that app developers had to think about.Competition from other apps. Most of us have at least 5 apps on our smartphones,all competing for a sliver of our attention. To always be a step ahead in this attention economy,developers had to ensure that they get our attention by making notifications as "in your face" and intrusive as possible,at the expense of our mental well being and productivity. This meant that notifications became designed to ensure that users became glued to their screens for as long as possible because they invoked a "fear of missing out" if one was to avoid them.

Communication became more or less synchronous because people could no longer just receive alerts for messages or other things and reply to them at a later period. Notifications provided the nudge for users to immediately check and respond to these alerts,defeating the purpose of asynchronous communication mediums.

Unlike in the 1980s where notifications were restricted to a desktop computer or the 1990s and early 2000s where they were in the form of not-so-frequent blinking lights for a voicemail and tone for an incoming call,nowadays,research shows that the average smartphone user receives about 73 notifications,daily.

All these notifications have one goal and one goal only,to get your attention at the expense of your productivity and well being. Interruptions can now happen anywhere because of these notifications (i have already had about 6 notifications since starting this post).

The effect this has on individuals is that it creates a cognitive burden which can cause the release of high levels of some chemicals like cortisol which contribute to an increase in stress and anxiety levels. They can also significantly contribute to dwindling levels of productivity,the exact thing that asynchronous communication was intended to combat. How many of us have had a case where you have been studying or working and then decided to check your Whatsapp notifications "for a minute" and that minute turned into half an hour or longer?I would suppose a lot.

As much as there exist a lot of evidence that notifications can cause a lot of side tracking during productivity and are also contributing negatively to the mental well-being of smartphone users,because of the free market economy which is a result of capitalism,tech companies are possibly going to continue making them even more intrusive because it is a business model that has proven to be effective even if its success comes at the possible demise of humanity.

Others like Apple,however,are making an effort to make notifications much more manageable by introducing functionalities like "Screen Time" which allow you to track how much time you spend on your phone and how many notifications you receive and also introducing the ability to either shut off notifications entirely or limit them to some extent.

The bottom-line still remains though,that,their business is to get as much of your attention as possible so the buck stops with us,the consumers,to limit our consumption of smartphone services by using the preexisting tools which limit the notifications that we get on our phones.

The purpose of the different mediums of asynchronous mediums of communication was to help us have some time to ourselves,time we could use for more worthy things like spending time with family etc. We should not let tech companies reverse this principle for the sake of profits and turn us into digital zombies who cannot spend even a minute away from their little bright boxes.



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