When I think about how technology as a whole has improved my life and the lives of the people around me, I tend to focus on things like vaccine development, improved chemotherapy and other oncology treatments, and emergency tools like the Apple Watch drop. automated detection and notifications of dangerous weather conditions.
If I focus instead on how technology has improved my happiness, the list is much shorter. I appreciate the quality of photography that modern iPhones are capable of. I am happy to have FaceTime, Zoom and other video conferencing tools to communicate with my family and friends. Although Twitter and other social media are decidedly mixed, I’ve made new connections with people, and that’s been especially important for my mental well-being during the pandemic.
But what about pure joy? I would have struggled to give you an answer until Apple allowed us to add the Photos widget to the Home screen in iOS 14 and iPadOS 15 and use Photo Shuffle as our wallpaper option. lock screen in iOS 16. I have the Photos Widget on my first home screen, and I created a custom Photo Shuffle for my lock screen as soon as I started using iOS 16. If only Apple could extend this kind of machine learning to the My Photos screensaver on the Apple TV.
My favorite thing every morning is to see which photo appears in the Photos widget on my home screen. This widget displays entries from the For You section in Photos. You might see an entry for Memories, the quirky AI-generated collections that might include “Exploring Pittsburgh through the years” or “To this date.”
But most often I see one of my featured photos, which I prefer. Featured Photos is a small, ephemeral album that iOS puts together for me every day. Almost always these days, featured photos contain 10-20 images of happy or interesting snapshots of my life, usually featuring my children.
Featured Photos, like Memories, rely on some sort of machine-learning algorithm that Apple doesn’t describe. But I think it’s a lot more successful than Memories, which sometimes shows me slideshows of weirdly disconnected or boring images. You cannot insert photos into a featured photo stack, although you can delete them. With an image displayed in the Featured Photos collection in For You, tap the ••• icon in the upper-right corner and tap Feature This Person Less or Remove Featured Photos. The latter guarantees that you will no longer see this photo in rotation.
Featured memories and photos have the potential to induce sadness or grief, of course. All tech companies should have learned a lesson from Eric Meyer’s experience with Facebook in 2014, which rolled out a year in review feature that thoughtlessly included images of Eric’s daughter, Rebecca, aged six, who died of brain cancer that year. Some smart companies have brought Eric in to speak on the subject in hopes that his experience might help their products avoid this tragic mistake. (Rebecca’s life is commemorated with rebeccapurple, an official CSS4 color name.)
Apple seems to have found a way to avoid this. My life is not full of deaths, disasters and disagreements. But I’ve scanned almost every photo I’ve taken in the last 40 of my mumble-mumble years, including images of former romantic partners, broken or neglected friendships, and people dear to me who have passed away. I rarely see anything from this dataset, although I haven’t purged any images from my Photos library that might, out of context, cause pain. The closest are photos of my mother with my children which appear regularly, but not too frequently. She died in 2009. I find these images melancholic, sweet and a beautiful way to remember her in life.
I guess Apple’s machine learning system relies on signals stored locally and synced to my photo libraries. He knows who I identified in the People album; I don’t add the people I want to forget. I guess Photos tracks how many times I view images and videos, and it knows which ones I’ve marked as favorites. And sometimes I note that a photo needs to be removed from featured photos. That may be enough.
The new Lock Screen Photo Shuffle feature in iOS 16 has a different design which is also random but much more focused. When you set Photo Shuffle as your lock screen wallpaper, you can choose Shuffle categories: People, Pets, Nature, and Cities. With People, you’re presented with a subset of your People album, and you can select the people you want to see on a regular basis. I expect Apple to have structured these choices to further limit the appearance of unwanted images, which are less likely to be tolerable on the lock screen. You can also remove distracting photos, although it’s a tedious job: in the frequency options hidden behind the ••• icon, select Don’t Show Photo to remove it from future shuffled photos.
Although you can browse “all” the photos presented when customizing Photo Shuffle to begin with, it will add photos to the collection over time, so sometimes you’ll need to customize that lock screen again to remove an unwanted photo you the algorithm chose after your initial configuration.
I set Photo Shuffle frequency to On Lock’s ridiculous update schedule. Every time my iPhone wakes up with an incoming alert, I lift it up to see, or press the sleep button, I get a new picture. After weeks of use, I haven’t even begun to get tired of the random photo presentation of loved ones over the decades of my life.
It turns out you can design a product to produce joy. Apple chose to hide the details of how it crafted this kind of delight, and that unpredictability might just be a key aspect of the continued rediscovery fun.
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