I’m sure anyone with a phone in their pocket nowadays has stuffed it full (or had it come out of the box stuffed full) of apps. From Twitter and Google Maps, to Rocket Man and Instagram, apps are the route by which a staggering amount of information in our world is mediated and packaged for our use.
But having a phone in your pocket with instant access fosters an intimate relationship with the apps in your life. Emotions come into play — we have apps that reassure us that we’re not lost, that we’re ever closer to becoming fluent in Dutch, that everyone around us is trying to catch Pokémon too, so we must be cool. Jesse Barron of Real Lifehas analyzed this heretofore uncomplicated intimacy, in a piece that takes Silicon Valley to task for the infantilizing virtual relationship with our most closely trusted apps.
Barron’s analysis begins as a screed against Seamless, which rolled out a New-York-City-specific ad campaign that used a “cool babysitter” tone to convince users to basically abandon their autonomy and social relationships, in favour of using their app to order restaurant food for delivery. Barron then began to see a tonal trend in other apps, like Yelp, Lyft, and Uber, where the modus operandi favoured the cutesy over the slick, the brightly coloured over the sleek monochrome, and the mascot-laden over the utilitarian.
On first assessment, this trend towards soothingly cute app experiences can be seen as a “demand-side” phenomenon: in today’s uncertain times, nervous users just want to be coddled and made to feel as secure as they were when they were children.
But Barron does not believe this theory holds water. He posits that the power in this relationship emanates from the Silicon Valley development offices where these apps are born, and it is wielded to a very specific purpose — to eventually make the giving up of personal information for the purposes of monetization so innocuous-seeming that it becomes unremarkable.
I would bet that Pokémon and similar games will ultimately allow corporations to collect real-time photographic data on almost anything they want, anywhere in the world. An investment bank wants to put money into McDonald’s, but the rumor is that third-quarter earnings will be weak. Ten thousand Pikachus appear in ten thousand restaurants, luring customers in to serve as unwitting spies on the success of the entire chain in real time. The privacy agreement allows Niantic Labs to snap a photo of what the user thinks is a Pikachu but Niantic knows is $500,000 worth of market research. Now imagine the client is a police chief, or the Department of Homeland Security.”
The philosophical and moral position this puts us in as users is deeply interesting — not only have we internalized the fallacy that it is our needs driving the sickly-sweetening of our online lives, but that anyone who objects to it is against fun, openness, and joy — which is what these apps purport to foster. Can we continue to live online lives where an app’s cheery helpfulness is what makes it suspect?