At no other point in history has it been easier to buy and sell stocks, be picked up by a car, order food, find a place to sleep, or find someone to go on a date with than it is now. A majority of those living in Western Civilization can simply pick up their smart phone and do any of the aforementioned activities by simply pushing a few icons on their device of choice (who are we kidding?—their iPhone or Android of choice). Phone apps have become a trillion dollar industry. Getting in on the ground floor of the next big app can make you a billionaire. And, quite unfortunately, this flood of easily accessible cash has led many tech gurus and pundits to declare that it is apps that will save us (Dan Nainan alert on that last hyperlink). This is insane and dangerous.
On its face, it makes sense. There are apps that allow you to save money. There are apps that make it possible to finance microloans in poor countries. Apps that can help you invest like a trust fund baby. Apps that will plan your day, tell you when to eat, lock your doors, and track your sleep patterns. Apps that can connect the best and brightest in their fields across oceans. All of these are cool and good in the very abstract sense. I certainly need to do a better job eating, budgeting, donating, and connecting with fellow geniuses. However, solving all these problems isn’t going to save us.
The multitude of problems that apps are supposed to be able to fix isn’t the only thing that boosters point out when declaiming the efficacy of their preferred software. The newest killer app is always also about “disruption.” Uber “disrupted” the taxi industry; Grubhub “disrupted” the takeout industry—the same for AirBnB, Tinder, TaskRabbit and countless others. But the problem is that simply causing disruption does not make them good. Uber hasn’t made a single dollar in its years of existence and is currently under intense scrutiny for allegations of sexism, fraud, and outright illegal practices both with its drivers and its corporate employees. The same goes for Tinder, PayPal, and others as well. Rather than help workers make a few extra bucks to help ends meet (a sentence whose regularity of use should be scary in its own right), they are often forcing people into hard to escape “gig economy” half-employment, constantly working longer and longer days just to pay rent.
Apps may be great for those who don’t suffer their consequences, but they certainly can’t fix structural problems.
Apps in and of themselves aren’t bad of course. Being able to refresh Twitter for hours, watch Netflix, or slice some damn cartoon fruit is fine for what it is. The problems arise when people start to believe there is some piece of software that can fix all of our problems. A carbon emissions tracking app isn’t going to save the environment. An app based voting system won’t fix our democracy. Apps exist within and were created by our current neoliberal economic system. At best they can work to alleviate some of the symptoms of rampant neoliberalism; at worst, they’ll just aggravate or create new ones. So next time you hear about the newest, best, and most important app, remember, unless it’s fun to play with, it won’t do shit for you in the long run.