Since I first learned to write, I have never been without one. I have six journals on my desk and the Day One, Daylio applications on my phone. Although each has a purpose, I wish there was a single notebook or app that could replace them all. Apple’s announcement of the journal app at this year’s WWDC Keynote was aimed at me.
My reaction to the keynote instead was a reflexive Hell no! My hands sweated, my heart raced, and I had to walk away from my computer desk in order to take five deep breathes. It wasn’t the fact that Apple was Sherlocking Day One that got me going. Apple’s claim that it will use “on device machine learning” to create personalized journaling prompts using your contacts, photos and music, as well as location, workouts and podcasts was what got me going. It was essentially a play on the Memories function in the Photos application. If you like, it’s a scrapbook powered by AI and a digital diary all rolled into one. This is a concern, given that the AI behind Memories… well, let’s say it’s not too smart.
Journal is not a bad idea in and of itself. Apple’s release suggests that the app is intended to cultivate gratitude through commemorating positive experiences. It’s not like the idea is a complete woo-woo. There are growing studies which suggest gratitude journaling can boost mental health. I’m not sure how to describe my problem. Based on what Apple has told us so far, this proposal feels half-baked. people don’t only photograph happy moments or things. Your camera roll may be a mess of melancholy, happy, peaceful, infuriating and mundane moments. It’s messy, because the world is chaotic. If the Journal app really takes a cue from Apple’s Memories, it could be a tactless ambush of memories that you don’t want to see or aren’t ready to.I woke up with this on my “Good Morning” Focus mode, the day before her 74th Birthday. Irony: it’s actually a smart widgets stack, because I wouldn’t put a Memory widget there. Since then, I have removed the smart widgets stack.
Memories created two slide shows of my mother’s funeral, set to a pop song. The first time was around her one-year death anniversary, and the second time was the day before her birthday. It’s happened with my last photos of me and my dad together, before he lost the battle against Parkinson’s and Alzheimer. He was in photos where he looked skeletal, half lucid and unable walk. Daisy, the beloved family dog who died eight-months ago, was also featured in photos. The first few were unplanned and made my day or even week miserable.
My parents would say that this AI-powered feature is lacking nunchi. Nunchi, a Korean word that is difficult to translate, refers to the ability of a person or machine (or a combination thereof) quickly to read nonverbal cues and adjust their behavior accordingly. It’s like a more advanced version of mind-reading and emotional intelligence mixed with reading the room. My spouse may deduce that I am sad because I am looking at pictures of my deceased family members while lying in bed comatose. They’ll buy me my favorite ice-cream or suggest a stroll without commenting. My iPhone will probably assume that I love my family because I’m always looking at their photos. (Why else would I be so happy to look at them?) They’ll suggest two slideshows with them set to funky music. My phone does not have nunchi, but my spouse does.
Please forgive me if I don’t feel 100 percent confident about the Journal app machine learning. When I download the iOS17 beta, a part of me fears that the Journal app will recommend I write about a visit to Chuncheon in Korea for an afternoon in June 2022. It will pair D.O’s – a song I listen whenever I miss mom – with photos of her gravestone looking out over rolling green hills. Or photos of my family reunited after the covid pandemic. We were red-eyed, and tried to be brave for those who couldn’t attend the funeral.
It is important to note that I do not expect nunchi technology from the current AI. However, I’d like more control, so I could tell it not to do certain things. Memories gives you an idea of what it’s like. You can’t turn it off completely, but you can disable notifications or tell it to show a certain person less. Or you can remove a person from your Photos album. This is not intuitive to someone who’s going through grief, anxiety or depression. Besides, I do not want to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Daisy, my parents, or myself. I want to keep every memory, whether it’s good or bad, because we won’t get to create new ones. is all I want to have a say when I revisit these memories. Apple should give me tools to let its AI know what photos I can’t use, when, and how long. Journal app suggestions are only half-baked without this level of customization.If every Journal entry looked like this, honestly, no one would journal.Image: Apple
Apple’s Journal app screenshots only show entries that are a bit Pollyanna. I understand why. Nobody wants to dwell upon sad or unpleasant events. It gives the app an unauthentic air, and that is bad for any journaling. It would be surprising, but also comforting, if this example said “I dreamed of surfing last night.” It’s not my usual day out on the water when this happens. I was having a difficult time getting going. The waves were choppy when Sarah picked me at 5AM and I kept crashing. Around 7AM things mellowed, and I even got a couple of good waves. I wish conditions were better but they’re the breaks. Even if the waves weren’t good, Sarah was there. It’s not just about reliving happy times. In my experience, cultivating gratitude comes from embracing your worst moments.
I could be mistaken. My concerns right now are solely based upon my past experiences with Memories, and other “On This Day”, features of social media and journaling applications. It’s possible that, since the Journal app is still in beta, it will have tools that allow users to better customize how they want this app to work. Perhaps the iOS 17 developers foresaw this and trained the machine-learning model on the device to interpret context clues. The AI might be able to recognize my mother’s portrait beside a grave and cross-reference that with photos my mom’s casket. It could also run That’s OK‘s bittersweet lyric through Google Translate and come to the conclusion this is not the best journaling prompt to use during the weeks leading up to my mom’s Birthday and holidays such as Mother’s Day. It may be able to make a connection between the facts above and determine that I’m more likely than not to enjoy the prompts during Korean holidays such as Chuseok and Parents’ Day. It might note that, despite the evidence pointing towards her death, I still keep her in my favorites and as a pin contact because she is my mother and will always be my number one.
Somehow, I doubt it.
I’m not doubting it, because I believe Apple is consciously ignoring the issue. I doubt it, because I am not the only one who has brought this issue up. This article from Wired illustrates how algorithms unintentionally repackage people’s worst moments in their lives under the guise of personalization. You may be suggested to friend your ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend on social media if you share the same social circles. ads for baby products are displayed to mothers who miscarried because the algorithms believe the baby has been born. Timehop kept showing me photos of my ex-boyfriend’s anniversaries. I was over that relationship, so why would I need an artificial intelligence to remind me to look at those pictures? I can find those photos if I want to fondly remember the times. Apple, Meta and Google are just a few of the companies who use our data, but they haven’t figured out how to curate memories with compassion. There are controls on different platforms, but they lack the nunchi that makes them helpful at times when you really need them.
The AI cannot read the digital space. I’m not sure how helpful these AI-powered features will be until they can.