Ever since I learned to write, I have never been without a journal. There are currently six that I use regularly on my desk, plus the Day One and Daylio apps on my phone. Each has its own purpose, but I often find myself wishing for one app or notebook to replace the others. On paper, I’m the guy Apple was appealing to when it announced the Journal app at this year’s WWDC.
Instead, my reaction as I watched the keynote was knee-jerk. My hands were sweaty, my heart pounding, and I finally stepped away from my desk to take five deep breaths. The fact that Apple is Sherlocking Day One isn’t what disappoints me. The fact was, Apple said it would use “on-device machine learning” to create personalized journal prompts based on your contacts, photos, music, workouts, location data, and even podcasts. It was essentially pitched as a riff on the Memories feature in the Photos app. An AI-powered scrapbook and digital diary rolled into one, if you will. And that’s worrying considering the AI behind Memories is…let’s just say it’s not too bright.
The Journal app itself isn’t an inherently bad idea. According to Apple’s press release, it seems the intention is to help you cultivate gratitude by celebrating positive moments. There’s a growing body of research that suggests that keeping a gratitude journal can help improve your mental health—so it’s not like the premise is completely woo-woo snake oil. My problem, based on the preliminary details Apple gave us, is this proposed execution feels half-baked. People don’t only take pictures of happy things or moments that cause joy. If your camera is anything like mine, it’s a mix of happy, calm, infuriating, vain, mundane, and melancholy moments. It’s confusing because life is messy. And if the Journal app does take a page from Apple’s Memories feature, there’s a good chance it will tactlessly bombard you with memories you either don’t want or aren’t ready to see.
Last year, Memories made two slideshows of my mother’s funeral, set to an upbeat pop tune. Once about a year after her death—and again the day before her birthday. I wish I could say it was a fluke, but the same thing happened with the last photos I have of my dad and I together before he lost his battle with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Photos where he is in a skeletal state, semi-conscious and unable to walk. And again with pictures of Daisy, our beloved family dog who passed away eight months ago. The first few times were unexpected and ruined my day or week.
If my parents were alive, they would say that this AI-powered feature has no nunchi. Nunchi is one of those untranslatable words, but it’s a Korean term for quickly detecting other people’s feelings and adjusting your behavior based mainly on non-verbal context clues. It’s kind of like an extended version of room reading mixed with mind reading and emotional intelligence. For example, my wife might infer that I’m feeling sad because I’m looking at pictures of my dead family while lying in a coma in bed. Without comment, they will bring me a bowl of my favorite ice cream or suggest we go for a walk. My iPhone will probably just assume I just really love my family (why else would I look at pictures if not to feel happy?!) and offer up two new slideshows featuring them, set to sassy songs. My wife has nunki; my phone doesn’t work
So, forgive me for not feeling 100 percent confident in the Journal app’s machine learning. Part of me is terrified that when I download the iOS 17 beta, I’ll open the Journal app and it will recommend that I write about an afternoon visit to Chuncheon, Korea in June 2022. That it will pair DO ‘s This is good — a song I listen to whenever I miss my mother – with pictures of her tombstone overlooking picturesque rolling green hills. Or the photos of me and my relatives gathered for the first time since the covid pandemic, red-eyed and trying to put on a brave face for the relatives who couldn’t make it to the funeral.
To be clear, I don’t expect nunchi from current AI technology. What I would like though is more granular control so I can tell it what not to do. The Memories feature gives you a semblance of that. While you can’t disable it entirely, you can disable notifications, tell it to include less people, or remove someone as a significant person in your photo album. However, this is not intuitive at all for someone who is in grief, depression or anxiety. Besides, I don’t want to The brilliance of the pure mind my mother, my father and Daisy. I want to keep every bad, good and in-between memory of them because we will never be able to create new ones. I just want the floor when I turn into these memories. I want Apple to give me the tools to tell its AI what types of photos are prohibited, under what circumstances, and for how long. Without this kind of customizability, Journal app offerings can be anything but half-baked.
It doesn’t help that any screenshots of the Journal app provided by Apple only feature Pollyanna-like entries. I understand why. No one wants to dwell on sad or unpleasant things. The problem is that it gives the app a fake look – and inauthenticity is poison for any kind of diary. It would be surprising (though I think comforting) if the example above said, “Last night I dreamed of surfing. Usually when this happens I have a great day on the water but today was not my day. I had a rough start. When Sarah picked me up around 5am the waves were choppy and I just kept wiping myself off. Things mellowed around 7am though and hey I got a good wave or two. I wish the conditions were better, but it’s the holidays. But even if it wasn’t great, at least Sarah was with me.” The thing about cultivating gratitude is that it doesn’t just come from noting or experiencing happy moments. In my experience, it comes from experiencing your worst moments and practicing how to reframe that ugliness into a lesson you can learn from.
I could be wrong. Right now, my concerns are based solely on my previous experience with Memories and other “On This Day” features from social media and journaling apps. The Journal app isn’t out of beta yet, and it’s entirely possible that the final version will include tools that give users a greater say in how this app can work best for them. Perhaps the developers of iOS 17 anticipated this and taught the device’s machine learning model how to interpret complex context clues. Perhaps the artificial intelligence is able to recognize the graveside portrait of my mother by matching it with photos of my mother’s casket, This is goodbittersweet texts via Google Translate and concluded that this probably wasn’t an appropriate journaling prompt for weeks around my mom’s birthday and during holidays like Mother’s Day. Maybe he’ll put two and two together from the above facts and realize that I’m more likely to appreciate the prompt during Korean holidays like Chuseok or Parents’ Day. She might point out that despite all the evidence pointing to death, I keep her as a fixed contact and in my favorites because she is my mother and will always be number one in my phone.
I don’t doubt it because I think Apple is deliberately ignoring the problem. I doubt it because I’m not the first to raise this question. Like this With cable history beautifully illustrates, algorithms unwittingly repackage the worst parts of people’s lives every day in the name of personalization. Social media will offer you to befriend your ex’s new friend simply because you both live in the same circles. Mothers who have miscarried are hounded by baby product ads because algorithms think the baby is born. I had to delete Timehop because it kept showing me anniversary photos with an ex – I got over it a long time ago, but why do I need an AI to prompt me to revisit those photos? If I want to remember those times fondly, I know where to find them. Apple, Meta, Google, and the millions of other companies that use our data still haven’t figured out how to compassionately maintain memories. Some controls exist across platforms, but most lack the nunchi to be useful when you need them most.
The main problem here is that the AI can’t read the digital room. Until it can, I have my doubts about how healing these AI-powered features can really be.