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22 May 2024

Trapped by apps

Thanks to the digitisation of everyday essentials, we waste a far greater proportion of our lives on admin than our parents’ generation ever did.

By Ed Smith

 Among dreaded phrases that signal a ruined morning ahead, “Scan the QR code here to download  the app” is now right up there with “Rail replacement service”. In pursuit of our personal data, app developers have inveigled their way so deeply into modern life that we’ve forgotten how much better things were without them.

We had pulled up outside the medieval Catalan village of Peratallada, just inland from the Costa Brava. It was a dreamy spring morning: wildflower meadows in bloom; honeyed sandstone walls; children baying for ice-cream. But in order to park your car, of course, first you had to download the app. So instead of wandering ancient alleyways, I was marooned in a municipal car park squinting at drop-down menus trying to punch in my address, date of birth and credit card details. The cost in time and annoyance: high. The cost in money: one euro. If I hadn’t given up, that is, and spent the rest of the morning wondering if I’d been given a parking ticket.

This is what “convenience” looks like today. Our leisure time and attention is hoovered into the small black rectangle that we daren’t leave at home. What an odd version of capitalism: no choice, no marketplace, no competition. Instead, a for-profit monoculture with the consumer bullied and beaten into submission. Thank you, Silicon Valley.

This constitutes a large chunk of commercial activity now. Instead of creating real businesses that do things better than existing rivals, it appears much easier to hunt down imprisoned consumers who lack access to alternatives and grab their data in return for basic services.

There’s always been boring admin, always will be. But the automation and digitalisation of everyday essentials has not advanced convenience. It has generated inconvenience, while expanding profits for people who don’t deserve it.

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My unscientific proposition is this: we waste a far greater proportion of life on unavoidable admin than our parents’ generation did. As a child, I remember watching my dad – about once a fortnight – disappear into a quiet corner of the house with a pile of paperwork and his chequebook. After some disappointed sighs, he would emerge, half an hour later, having “cleared his desk” – bills settled, forms signed, tedious letters answered. That was it. The evenings, for the most part, were for books and music. The hours we waste complying with online check-ins, he spent reading Philip Larkin and listening to Miles Davis.

The appification of life has been so subtle that it’s easy to miss the essential pillars. They are dependence and convergence. Dependence, because there’s no other way. You can’t pay cash, no one answers the phone and it’s increasingly hard to pay for anything without a tiresome struggle not to give up your own personal information. App developers know that machines are more patient than humans: they’re counting on you to run out of resilience and cough it all up eventually.

Convergence, because they want your phone in your hand all day and all night. Fourteen years ago, I was working for a big media group when the iPad came out. I attended a presentation by some software gurus explaining where tablets would fit into modern work and life. Afterwards, one of the tech experts confided: “It’s probably only a temporary thing. Ultimately, the second device [the tablet] isn’t that big a deal. The real goal is to make people have one device [the smartphone] in their hand all the time.”

Because once it’s all inextricably jumbled up on the same screen – professional work (email and the rest), essential services (parking, ticketing, banking), leisure (streaming, shopping) – then they’ve really got us, good and proper. No distinction between work and play. No life offline. No way out.

I’m no Luddite. I’ve benefited from apps. When I was selector for England cricket, my iPad alternated between two apps that had been developed to make professional life more efficient. One captured video footage and scouting reports for every player in contention for England. My fellow selectors and I could watch any sequence of balls, bowled in any county match, at any time. The second automatically “weighted” and then ranked player performance data, incorporating match conditions and the quality of the opposition – it turned raw information into valuable insight.

Those apps did what apps are supposed to do. They updated in real time, hence saving people from wasting time creating cumbersome files and PDFs to capture information that would already be out of date before it was consumed. The apps generated extra bandwidth for thinking and problem-solving.

More often, the mission is to drag people away from real life and towards viewing adverts or releasing valuable personal information – the voided space that is neither work nor fun.

Maybe the next generation will look to their grandparents to learn about fun. For her eighth birthday, my daughter was given a vinyl record player. Within a few minutes, she’d dug out some old LPs that once belonged to my parents. Next thing, everyone was sitting on the floor, laughing and arguing about favourite songs, passing record sleeves around, listening to the Beatles. Not an app in sight.

Ed Smith is director of the Institute of Sports Humanities

[See also: The lonely land]

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This article appears in the 22 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Special 2024