Is Apple’s “theater mode” – a setting for using your iPhone in the cinema – such a bad idea?

Who is this update for? Live-tweeters? People without watches? Someone involved in a very high-maintenance pre-wedding group WhatsApp?

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If you read any film criticism at all last year, you will have read at least one journalist getting misty-eyed over Spotlight, the Oscar-winning film about, yes, journalists uncovering the sexual abuse committed by Catholic priests. I myself was gripped, leaning forward in my seat as Mark Ruffalo’s furious rage against injustice began to unfold – until a man’s phone rang loudly for the seventh time that screening.

We all know how annoying it is when a phone ruins a film, and now it seems that Apple wants to introduce a “theater mode” that aims to make phone usage in cinemas less distracting for the rest of the audience. A prolific Apple leaker, Sonny Dickson, tweeted that the option is planned to arrive on 10 January software update iOS 10.3 beta, and that it will be switched on and off via a popcorn-shaped Control Centre icon. AppleInsider added that the update may, “disable system sounds and haptic feedback, block incoming calls and messages and reduce initial screen brightness during a movie”.

For me, the cinema is a sacred space – the idea of a “theater mode” immediately frustrated me. The movies and the theatre are some of the only places that we can escape into a fantasy for significant periods of time without being interrupted by the hideous world we live in. Why encourage people to break out of that by making it more palatable for them to check their phones?

But I know that some people don’t have the luxury of true escape from life’s commitments. For new mothers, doctors and nurses on call, carers, or relatives of people who are very unwell, a trip to the cinema might be impossible without the option of occasionally checking one’s phone for emergency calls or messages. Why not make it a less disruptive, anxiety-inducing and embarrassing experience for everyone involved?

If that is who this update is aimed at, though, the rumoured features leave me puzzled. If theater mode does “block incoming calls and messages”, why would anyone need to check their phones at all? Who is this update for? Live-tweeters? People without watches? Someone involved in a very high-maintenance pre-wedding group WhatsApp?

If we take a closer look at a patent Apple filed in 2012 that outlines rough ideas surrounding a mode they’re calling “Movie Theater”, it suggests the following possible features. A Movie Theatre template would “(i) disable audible ringer; (ii) vibrating mode enabled (low); (iii) no wakeup for incoming calls or text messages; and (iv) display enabled for “dim” mode only.” So – your phone would be darker (many imagine dark mode would invert the basic display to a dark background with white text), it wouldn’t light up when you got a text, it would vibrate extra quietly, and, of course, it wouldn’t audibly ring.

The patent also suggests that, either by using GPS or WiFi network data, this mode could be automatically enabled whenever a user walks inside a cinema – a vaguely terrifying invasion of privacy, sure, but not one that strikes me as encouraging audiences to use their phones more.

I am a dedicated cinema-goer, one who uses it first and foremost as a way to zone out of real life for extended periods of time. I’d prefer it if nobody looked at their phones during a film, but I find it hard to feel outraged by Apple’s attempt to make checking one’s phone less disruptive. All I really want is to see Spotlight without a tinny ringer drowning out Ruffalo’s dulcet tones.

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.

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