Illustration Credit: Timothy R. Butler

Warned to Death

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 3:38 PM

I can barely hear right now. The cicadas’ songs are in full swing. One cicada isn’t that loud and many are still a wonder of the world, but what of the less pleasant cacophony of man-made noise we call “warnings” and “alerts”?

We are over-warned. Warnings for the obviously dangerous (“don’t smoke while pumping gas”), warnings for obvious proper food preparation (“don’t eat this raw meat”), warnings for the non-applicable (“a flood warning has been extended,” Alexa reports, despite being on high ground). Warnings, warnings, warmings everywhere — they’ve come to mean nothing.

A few weeks ago I had to reset my Apple account password due to an overly trigger happy security procedure and ever since I’ve been reminded of this problem. I don’t begrudge the initial extra security precaution, but for all that Apple gets right about ease of use, a unified system login for its account is not one of them.

When one changes an iCloud password, it becomes obvious how many places it needs to be entered on every Apple devices. While iCloud has a unified preference panel, there are a fair number of individual places that have to be logged in (Messages, FaceTime, Apple Music, etc.).

And that comes back to the warnings. Oh, the warnings.

Every service on every device that gets logged back in triggers a warning on every other device that a new iPad, iPhone, Mac or Apple Watch has logged in. It doesn’t say which device logged in, so if a hacker fortuitously broke in at the same time, I wouldn’t be able to discern so, but at least I was warned! The warnings are incessant as different services come back to life.

But, it isn’t just those rare occasions. If one doesn’t use an Apple device for a few weeks, the same process of warnings repeats. No identifying information, just “A new iPad logged in…” When the iPad isn’t new and wasn’t just logged in, one thinks, “Have I been hacked?” There is no simple way to tell.

The deluge makes the warnings meaningless. Every time I see one, I click it away and think, “Oh, yesterday when I opened my old, long retired iPad, I must have triggered that.” Did I really? I’m not sure.

Often, the warnings, and associated desire to verify one’s information, come in frenzy of multiple messages back-to-back. Sometimes I’ll have to click “OK” multiple times, spaced apart just long enough to have returned to whatever I was trying to do only to be stopped again.

As I start to do something, get interrupted, start, get interrupted — admittedly, I start tapping and quit reading what I’m tapping.

Useless warnings.

I remember when Apple mocked Microsoft mercilessly for the warning mania of Windows Vista, the heightened security response to incessant viruses and malware that hit Windows XP. Apple’s point was valid.

Yes, warnings to keep people from harming their systems, losing their information or, in the real world, blowing themselves up at gas stations, can do something good. But when we are constantly inundated with them on everything about everything, they become akin to the fan that’s been blowing in the background of a summer evening for awhile: we tune it out.

Sometimes, I suspect, they even want us to ignore them. Certainly with those dreaded “EULAs” we have to agree to on software: the point is not to have someone read through it carefully. Sometimes not reading it is just a side effect: like the deluge of cookie acceptance requests we now get thanks to the EU trying to save everyone from being tracked by cookies.

The computer world is rife with examples perhaps more than anywhere else and it conditions us to ignore those other warnings too.

The State of California “knows” almost everything causes cancer — thanks “P65” — but because they put those warnings on seemingly everything made in recent years, does it actually alert us to anything genuinely carcinogenic?

Somehow, I doubt it. If you avoided everything that had a P65 warning, you’d have to live like a pioneer, making everything yourself out in the wilderness. And hope a California bureaucrat didn’t stop by, because he’d probably slap a P65 warning on it when you finished.

Knowing things genuinely likely to cause cancer do is helpful, but labeling everything as carcinogenic hides the real dangers. Just as seeing innumerable warnings on my Mac or iPhone have gotten me to the point where a useful protective function — warning me someone tried to log into my account — is as good as no warning at all.

We need consolidation and a way to turn off the lawyer-inspired over publication of warnings. Take away the P65 warnings on stuff that we have too little contact with to typically risk getting cancer. When a password changes and one’s devices need to be given the new password, don’t send a panicked alert to a bunch of places over and over — how about a consolidated message that outlines the activity and says, “It appears you added your new password to [bulleted list of devices]. Is this correct?”

We can only take so much information. Anyone genuinely wanting to issue helpful warnings needs to help by boiling away the excessiveness.

We need less noise so we can enjoy life around us. Like the more meaningful noise of the 13 year cicadas buzzing away as I write this in the woods. Sure after a bit my mind doesn’t perceive that so much either, but at least it is a wonder of nature and not a needless warning.

Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business. He also serves as a pastor at Little Hills Church and FaithTree Christian Fellowship.

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