It helped me find inner peace.
Five times a day for the past three months, an app called WeCroak has been telling me I’m going to die. It does not mince words. It surprises me at unpredictable intervals, always with the same blunt message: “Don’t forget, you’re going to die.”
Sending these notices is WeCroak’s sole function. They arrive “at random times and at any moment just like death,” according to the app’s website, and are accompanied by a quote meant to encourage “contemplation, conscious breathing or meditation.” Though the quotes are not intended to induce nausea and despair, this is sometimes their effect. I’m eating lunch with my husband one afternoon when WeCroak presents a line from the Zen poet Gary Snyder: “The other side of the ‘sacred’ is the sight of your beloved in the underworld, dripping with maggots.”
I welcomed these grisly reminders into my life in the hope that WeCroak, along with half a dozen other mindfulness apps, could help transform my iPhone from a stressful distraction into a source of clarity and peace. According to a study by a research firm called Dscout, Americans check their phone an average of 76 times a day for a cumulative two and a half hours—and while many would like to cut back, simple willpower isn’t always enough. Amid growing concerns over our phone fixation, Silicon Valley has, in typical fashion, proposed technology as the solution; there are now more than 1,000 mindfulness apps designed to help us disconnect.
“You can become a master of this powerful device rather than a slave to it,” says Michael Acton Smith, a co-founder of Calm, an app that offers guided meditation and soothing soundtracks and has surpassed 14 million downloads. Headspace, a rival app that provides meditation sessions led by a former Buddhist monk, has been downloaded more than 18 million times. There are apps to improve your breathing; apps that track the time you spend on other apps; and apps to teach you to be mindful while running, eating, giving birth, browsing the web, or, per the Buddhify app, “waiting around.” I decided to test whether technology could be both malady and cure.