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.
On a beautiful morning this past summer, I woke up to an email—subject line: “Death Makes You Happy”—that I initially mistook for Silicon Valley satire. It was a pitch for WeCroak, which was inspired by a “famous Bhutanese folk saying” averring that “to be a truly happy person, one must contemplate death five times daily.” “Because we are either unable or unwilling to live a rural life in the picturesque Himalayas where time for contemplation may happen more easily,” the email explained, the app’s creators had developed the next best thing: a 99-cent app that would “foster happiness” and “cultivate mindfulness” by pestering users with reminders about death. I installed it mostly to see whether it was a joke.
One impediment to its success: Next to other mindfulness apps, WeCroak is a serious downer. Whereas Calm greets me with uplifting prompts to “take a deep breath,” WeCroak interrupts to warn that “the grave has no sunny corners.” (This is tame compared with traditional Buddhist meditation fodder: A foundational fifth-century text suggests viewing the 10 stages of a decomposing corpse—including “the bloated,” “the festering,” “the bleeding,” “the worm-infested,” and “the hacked and scattered”—and Buddhists from Southeast Asia use YouTube to share videos of cadavers turning black or crawling with flies.)
The simplicity of WeCroak also begins to charm me. This is not an app on which I can linger. It has no feed, no option to browse previous quotes, no way to procrastinate. (The only button on the app, “About,” repeats what users already know: This is WeCroak, and it sends you five quotes a day.) Bergwall and Thomas contemplated adding other features, such as links to learn more about the quotes’ authors or a sliding scale to decrease the frequency of notifications. But they ultimately nixed everything beyond the basic template in an effort, Thomas told me, to “disengage people as quickly as possible.”
Despite buzzing me five times a day, WeCroak comes to feel less obtrusive than the other mindfulness apps on my phone. These apps are meant to be an antidote to Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram—the sorts of digital media that, according to my Calm meditation coach, are creating “an epidemic of overwhelm.” The irony is that although mindfulness apps promise to help us disengage from our devices, they also have incentives to keep us tethered—and they use many of the same techniques as the Facebooks of the world.
WeCroak, in its inability to do anything besides a single, highly specific task, offers a model for designing software that respects our attention rather than inducing glassy-eyed scrolling. So many online services try to hook us through what Tristan Harris, a former Google ethicist, has called a “bottomless bowl” of content—auto-play videos and clickbait and continuously repopulating feeds. (I profiled Harris for this magazine in 2016.) “What if we designed devices for quick in-and-out uses, not endless interactions?” asks Harris’s nonprofit advocacy organization, Time Well Spent, on its website. The result might resemble WeCroak.
Over time, WeCroak changes the way I relate to my phone. As I scroll through Instagram or refresh Twitter, WeCroak interrupts with the sobering reminder that it is not just my attention these other apps are consuming, but chunks of my life. This was Bergwall’s ambition: Having struggled with a Candy Crush addiction, he hoped WeCroak would restore his power over his device. “I’ve gotten angry at my phone and all the apps on it one too many times,” he told me. “I wanted to do something about it, take matters into my own hands, and create something that would reclaim it as a space that wouldn’t just knock me off track, but also put me back on.”
I’ve come to embrace WeCroak as the anti-app. Social-media platforms seduce by providing a distraction from the tedium of everyday life—the awkward silences, boring waits in line, and unpleasant thoughts, chief among them the fact that we, and everyone we love, will kick the bucket. WeCroak makes escapism feel futile: We’re all going to die. The phone buzzes for thee.
This article appears in the January/February 2018 print edition with the headline “When Death Pings.”