Earlier this week, word began to circulate that the next update of the iPhone’s operating system, iOS 10.3, would include a feature called “theater mode,” which was promptly followed by speculation that it would be some combination of settings designed to minimize the distraction to others when using your phone during a movie screening.
Maybe adding a theater mode would normalize bad behavior, but it could also institutionalize good, which is to say more thoughtful, behavior as well. If iPhones have a theater mode, people will use it, but at least some of them will be the ones who sit down in the third row and blithely hold their phones up to their faces at full brightness so the entire theater can see them as they do. If adding a dedicated feature pushes them toward the idea that cellphones should be used differently in a darkened movie theater than in broad daylight, that’s a win.
It’s already possible to put an iPhone into something resembling “theater mode”: Switch it to vibrate, dim the brightness, and, in the phone’s accessibility settings, set it to invert the screen’s colors when you triple-tap the home button, which changes black to white and greatly reduces ambient light. It’s not perfect, but it’s the equivalent of whispering to the person next to you rather than belting out “What did he just say?” as if you’re asking someone in the next room. A reasonably proficient iPhone user can do all three steps in about five seconds, less time than it takes to ignore a multiplex’s “Please silence your phones” announcement, but many people don’t—at least in some cases because it doesn’t occur to them. If theater mode gets them to think long enough to press the relevant button, that’s a step in the right direction.