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

ELLE (Australia) - - Contents -

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?


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...

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