When the first telephones were installed in homes in the late 19th century, the excitement with which a new owner ran out to answer, on hearing it ring, was matched only by the resentment of the person they'd been quietly playing cards with before the call came in.

Today, we've become used to the interruptive nature of the telephone; there's an assumption that the call is probably coming in for a good reason and, by and large, we're happy to put whatever we're doing on hold in order to take it. But smartphones now ding, vibrate or flash at us for many different reasons; these are termed "notifications" but they're more like disturbifications, interruptifications. Even if we're broadly tolerant of the ding-ding alerts from Instagram, Snapchat or Scrabble, the same cannot always be said of the people we're sitting in the room with. "Excuse me, I must take this call" might pass the etiquette test, but "Excuse me, I must deal with just having been outbid for a sideboard on eBay" might not.

My phone offers terrifying flexibility when it comes to controlling the way it alerts me to things going on, and adjusting the settings represents an administrative headache akin to filing a tax return. Banners, lock screen alerts, app icons, alert sounds and display preferences can be minutely adjusted back and forth for every individual app I own; I could set aside an hour or two to optimise all this, but in practice, I delve in furiously when I feel I'm being over-notified and turn everything off. Then, days later, I realise that I haven't been notified about things that I wish I had been.

It's maddening: we have this profoundly useful communication tool at our disposal, but sometimes we just don't want to know things – or maybe we do, but just not right now; perhaps in a little while, we're not sure exactly when, it depends on the nature of information that we've decided that we don't want to know about. You can see why catering to our whims is potentially problematic for phone and app developers.

One solution, and the way things seem to be drifting, is to make the process of dealing with notifications slightly less annoying. Apple recently announced "interactive notifications" for its forthcoming iOS8 operating system; you'll be able to, say, reply to messages from the alert itself rather than having to switch to another app to do so. In a world where we're using our phones to catch up on last night's TV or play online games, that'll be useful – indeed, Android and Blackberry realised this a while back.

But it still doesn't address the balance between need-to-know and nice-to-know, and how notifications should be prioritised. There's a growing assumption that we've all developed a Must Act Now mentality, that multitasking is sacred and distraction is almost demanded. This was perhaps proven this week with the news that Apple has just filed for a patent for displaying notifications on an iPad cover. Not the iPad; the cover.

But I'm more interested in innovations such as the Android app that has the catchy title of Echo Notification Lock Screen; it learns your attitude towards types of notification, based upon past behaviour, and prioritises them accordingly. Of course, there is always the nuclear option of turning the phone off completely, or the thermonuclear option of smashing it with a brick. Let's hope technology finds an answer before I get that tetchy.

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