planet of the apps
Superhuman or spoilt brat? With apps bringing the world to our fingertips, we’re able to track, rate and demand anything our heart desires. But is instant gratification turning us into obnoxious assholes? Here’s what happens when Meg Mason switches to lif
As our lives move increasingly online, are we empowered or turning into spoilt brats?
Remember the first thing you bought on the internet? Mine was a paperback copy of Slouching Towards Bethlehem from a new website called “Amazon”. It was 1999 and it only took 25 minutes to connect the modem, sign up with my Hotmail account, work out where to put in my address and credit-card details, and then a mere two weeks later, there was Didion on my doorstep! Well, technically, there was a card telling me to pick it up at the post office because I’d missed the delivery and would have to go get it, passing three bookshops on the way. But still! What a time to be alive.
Now it’s 2017 and what kind of bullshit is that? Two weeks! I could write a book myself in that time. I want it now, and don’t we all? After the introduction of the iphone in 2007 and the App Store in 2008, there’s been a proliferation of retail and service apps and, it would seem, a rapid decrease in the amount of time and inconvenience we’re willing to put up with when it comes to ordering our sushi, booking a barre class, stocking up on that salon-only shampoo and finding an apartment. And a boyfriend. And cheap flights to Bali.
Australia might have been slower on the uptake of service apps than the US, where population density makes delivering a $5 taco at no charge a workable business model, but the anticipated arrival of Amazon on our shores signals an end to all that. More than 85 per cent of our daily smart-phone usage is already “in app”, according to research conducted by insight company Forrester, and as more on-demand apps appear, the more our daily activities will migrate that way – driven, unsurprisingly, by millennials. What’s more, over 100,000 Australians are already employed in our app industry, and with more than a third of all Aussies freelancing in some capacity last year, this “gigging economy” suggests there’s plenty of labour supply to meet the demand of our booming app market.
“The internet makes human desires more easily attainable,” said Twitter co-founder Evan Williams. “If you study what the really big things on the internet are, you realise they are [the] masters at making things fast and not making people think.” But aside from what the “Uberisation” of everything will mean to regular retailers, and the missing-tooth look of our formerly beloved shopping strips – one shuttered store after another – what will it do to us as individuals? Will we become, as UK columnist Josh Glancy argued, “swaddled, coddled, pampered little aristocrat[s]”?
“Consumers are starting to think in hours, not days, when it comes to what they want,” says Tom West of the Australian tech agency Hyper Apps. “Everything is on demand and it’s getting easier and easier to have everything brought to you.” Or done for you. Why build your own flat-pack desk when a friendly Airtasker worker can do it for you? Why trek to an outlying suburb you’ve never heard of to pick up an ebay purchase when you can buy off 5miles, which only lists items in your immediate neighbourhood?
“CONSUMERS ARE STARTING TO THINK IN HOURS, NOT DAYS, WHEN IT COMES TO WHAT THEY WANT. EVERYTHING IS ON DEMAND”
In the US, Wrench sends a mechanic to your door, Wag! a dog-walker and Pager a doctor. In Sweden and China, Wheelys now has 24-hour unstaffed convenience stores, controlled entirely by an app. Still, instead of being, say, grateful that we don’t have to perform so many mundane, time-sucking activities now and even less in the future, our expectations are becoming evermore exacting, letting us play to our inner brat. The power of our one-star reviews means that service and retail are becoming “entirely consumer-focused and customer-first”, according to Stephen Molloy, author of How Apps Are Changing The World. “It used to be that customers were at the end of the buying process, but there has been a power shift. We want cheaper, faster and better, and apps/businesses that source new products based on customer demand will win.” Maybe that’s why we’re so quick to delete apps that don’t live up to our high standards. We found it underwhelming, so we’re done.
There’s been a basic revolution in how we shop and eat and exist as people. So is it possible that there’s a connection between performing more and more activities by ourselves and at home, and the fact that we’re lonelier and less connected in the IRL sense than ever before? The New York Times wondered recently if “staying in [is] the new going out?”, killing the “What did you do on the weekend?” question because ordering in, watching Netflix and barely looking away from your phone and into your Tinder-boyfriend’s eyes is no kind of answer. US food delivery company Seamless markets itself as a way to avoid people more than a way to get Chinese food, and an Airtasker worker isn’t going to chat to you while hanging your pictures the way your dad would if you’d asked him over to do it instead. The on-demand economy is “a lonely economy” on both sides of the deal, said one writer in The New Yorker. Thank goodness, then, that there’s a range of apps to fix that, such as Dealing With Loneliness, which coaches you in how to cope with isolation. Then there’s the research project Ellie, an online avatar that can help diagnose depression (presumably if Headspace stops working on you).
It’s just one theory, and so is this. As app giants like Amazon take over more and more of our daily life, could their push notifications begin to shape our behaviour and desires more than merely supporting them, and make us overall more homogenous as people, doing the same things, at the same time, from the same phones? Does it necessarily make you a Luddite to say you’ll miss aspects of pre-app life? Bumping into friends in a bar without an alert telling you they’re there, wandering up the street to buy wine, the ecstatic relief of seeing a cab with its light on when you’re kerbside with heels in hand after a night out... Apps are taking away the arduous parts of life, but will they take the tiny pleasures, too – the ones that make you feel like a regular, non-spoilt human?
There’s only one way to find out: by becoming an all-apps all-thetime consumer for one whole week. Like everyone in the universe, I already use Uber, but what else can I make people bring me and do for me and to me, as it were, all from the command centre that is my iphone? And will it make me a happier, savvier and less harried consumer, or a giant asshole who cannot – who will not – wait three days for the tongue scraper she suddenly needs after reading a thing about tongue scrapers on the bus home? Let’s find out...