There's an App for That - but Should There Be?
9 min read
There’s an app for that (How tech is helping us avoid negative experiences)
Technology is great, and I’m not just saying that because I work for a technology business and am being paid to say that technology is great. Technology has made our lives immeasurably easier. It allows us to focus on what we find most important by reducing, or even eliminating, time spent performing unpleasant tasks or experiencing unpleasant emotions.
By looking at some of the world’s most popular mobile apps, we can see that, on some level, they aim to rid us of these unpleasant experiences:
- Tinder, Bumble remove the potential for embarrassment from dating,
- Uber, Deliveroo, Jinn reduce the effort required for daily tasks,
- Whatsapp, Messenger connect you with people when you’re lonely,
- Google, Siri, and Alexa provide answers to difficult questions,
- Mindful and Headspace reduce your stress levels.
Essentially, there’s a boatload of apps on the market that make people feel better about themselves and ostensibly improve their life.
Or so it seems…
These apps all arrive with the goal of making your life better, but are they too heavily focused on short-term goals? None of us, perhaps excluding my friends in the sadist community, want to feel lonely, or bored, or stressed-out – but what if there’s a need for these types of feelings to exist within our minds? There’s a reason we experience negative emotions, there has to be – otherwise, we would have evolved them right out of our system and chucked them onto the scrapheap of human obsolescence together with all those appendices, tails, and whiskers that we discarded on the way to now.
So, I thought it might be quite interesting to take a look at a handful of apps that are used by millions in their daily lives and identify if they’re actually helping us, or if they are actually stunting our growth by not subjecting us to these negative experiences.
The Shame Game
The modern world is fraught with opportunities for profound and shameful public embarrassment – a prime area for technology to expand into and make our lives less pathetic. Tinder and Bumble have revolutionised the ways in which we establish relationships (I’m using the term ‘relationship’ loosely here). No longer do you have to awkwardly determine if that person at the bar would be interested in talking to you. No longer do you have to awkwardly sidle over and produce some witty, off-the-cuff. No longer do you have to defeatedly trudge back to where you were standing in front of an onlooking bar full of people. These apps aim to: only connect you with someone if there is mutual interest, allow to prepare hilarious chat-up lines well in advance of meeting, and keep the encounter completely private.
So far, so good. You can just keep swiping and swiping. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get a response - it doesn’t matter! Within 10 minutes, you will have swiped enough disembodied faces to have filled a 1998 World Cup Panini sticker album. The romantic world is your digital oyster! There are plenty of fish in the sea, but why go to the effort of swimming when you can just round them up in a barrel and take your pick?
So why is the avoidance of publicly embarrassing oneself necessarily a bad thing? Well it turns out, rejection is vital for human development. Without the reinforcement of embarrassment, we would never feel the impulse to conquer our fears in the attempt to avoid feeling that way in the future. Similarly, we would never learn that rejection is not always intended to be a direct personal affront. And perhaps most importantly, social embarrassment allows us to move on from people that we would tend to fixate upon otherwise – a firm but brief ‘no’ is more humane, and more useful, than a lifetime of what-ifs and romantic delusion.
A couple of months ago, I was making my way across Manchester to meet a friend on the other side of town. From my flat, the journey would have taken about 15-20 minutes on foot. Approximately two minutes after setting off, I felt the strong urge to give up walking and order an Uber. Whether I got the Uber or not is inconsequential (I did), the more important point is that modern technology gives us the opportunity for instant gratification in nearly all aspects of our lives.
The delayed gratification of not grabbing an Uber is not as easy to define as the famous marshmallow test, but essentially, I was giving up future benefits for immediate rewards. There was the £8 that would be wrestled from my bank account, the 15 minutes of brisk walking that my body desperately needs, and the self-satisfaction of not funding a company that treats its employees poorly. This was compounded by the journey taking just as long as it would have done on foot due to the Saturday evening traffic. As I popped out of the Uber, I felt as though I had made the wrong decision.
By having all the things that I want available at the imprint of a thumb, my brain is slowly learning that I don’t need to wait for anything or indeed work for anything. The inability to delay gratification has severe impacts on the human decision-making process; it imposes blinkers on our judgements, and we become increasingly unable to determine if more rewarding experiences are available further down the line if we could just avoid the one directly in front of our face right now.
Obviously, this has far-ranging impacts across our life: at school, we may take the instantly gratifying option of playing video games instead of revising for exams; at work, we might confront our boss over a minor grievance rather than waiting to cool down and consider the consequences; at home, we might have that slice of cake that’s been seducing us ever since we came through the door, disregarding the diet we’ve been attempting to stick to.
We are so prone to giving in to instant gratification because the emotional half of our brain responds positively to such stimulation and will try to push you to take the immediate hit of happiness over the long-term benefits.
In theory, it might sound easy to drown out the sounds of your brain once you know it is trying to actively betray you; In practice, the allure of instant gratification is incredibly difficult for our fickle minds to ignore, and the rapid growth of the on-demand industry only serves to make the easy option harder to resist. Take me for example, what’s the first thing that I did after arriving home after the realisation that my Uber trip was not at all fulfilling? That’s right, I ordered an on-demand burger to be delivered to my on-demand flat, to complete my on-demand life. Sanctuary in solitude.
It’s not nice to be lonely, but there’s a reason that we feel it from time to time. It motivates us to find human contact and establish relationships with people that make us happy. And whilst advances in communication technology can allow us to conduct ‘virtual’ relationships online, they are no substitute for the real thing.
Users with shyness or varying degrees of social anxiety can use messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Messenger and whatever the kids are using these days to ‘practice’ social skills in a less-daunting setting and without the pressures that are evident in real-life social situations. This can be very useful for these users, however; it only allows them to practice a small aspect of the larger whole of human interaction.
This is since we do not exclusively communicate through words; we augment the tone of our voice, we demonstrate body language, and we use touch – all to convey different sub-textual meanings. And although messaging apps have built in emojis to try and help convey these meanings, they cannot capture the nuance of natural human communication. For example, it cannot capture the eye-roll, shrug of the shoulders, flatness of tone, and slight sigh when I’m asked, “is vegetarian lasagne alright for dinner?”
Besides, the shy ones among us might feel that virtual social interactions provide them with sufficient degree of social engagement without needing to experience any of the usual awkwardness of face-to-face interactions. While this is true to an extent, this ‘awkwardness’ is inextricably linked to the profound depth provided by face-to-face interactions. Without experiencing this, we’d never be able to communicate beyond a superficial level of interaction with those around us – essentially preventing us from developing meaningful relationships.
These apps give us an impression of real human interaction for long enough that it suppresses the urge to find a real person to talk to. Although we will never achieve the complete depth of real relationships and will continue to believe that a virtual relationship is sufficient.
In writing this article I’ve probably glanced at a thesaurus approximately 1500 times. If I’m not satisfied with a word or the flow of a sentence, then it’s easy for me to find another
word locution that will make that sentence flow better. I’ll neglect to think of words myself, or even consider that the structure of the sentence should be overhauled to make the meaning clearer. I’m substituting my own creativity for a bland resource that anyone can access.
Our brains are the best resource we have, they have the power to think laterally and draw connections from anywhere - it’s amazing. Yet we give up and let Google, Siri or Dictionary.com do it for us via a process of cognitive offloading. The brain is a muscle: a big, weird, slimy muscle – and it needs to be exercised to get the most out of it. By simply yielding to online resources, we’re never going to give our brains the workout that they need, and all of that magnificent creativity will become increasingly harder to access.
Stress is More
There are plenty of apps that claim to help you manage stress, avoid stress, or even make you believe that stress doesn’t exist at all.
You’re not going to like this next sentence. Stress can be good for you. It’s true. Obviously, too much stress is bad for anyone, I’m not proclaiming that we should add a pack of rabid dogs to your morning run to get your cortisol levels up – but a little bit of good stress can be good.
Without the risk of sounding like a probiotic yoghurt advert, there is good stress and bad stress. Bad stress causes you to stay up at night and tear your hair out. Good stress, however, can help you to hit deadlines, focus on the task-in-hand, and generally just be on it while you’re at work, studying, or playing sport.
This simple graph above show demonstrates the Yerkes-Dodson Law, and demonstrates how humans perform under stress, which has unsettlingly been referred to as ‘arousal’ in this instance. Yerkes and Dodson argue that we perform at our peak when we experience a level of stress that sits at the mid-point between low and high. When faced with too little stress, we are not interested in completing the task at hand; too much stress however, and we completely lose our nut and are unable to perform the task at all.
Different tasks require different levels of stress. So, you may decide that you’re getting too anxious about running the upcoming London marathon and you can’t bear to eat all those important carbs the morning of the race. You may use a mindfulness app to ‘find your centre’ and chill out so you can chuck a load of pasta down your gullet. But then you’ve lost that buzz of anxiety that may guide you past the last 10 miles of the race.
Stress is our internal Mr Motivator; we need him so that we can get off the sofa every now and again so we can get stuff done. The idea of spending the whole day with Mr. Motivator, however, fills me with lycra-clad dread – and the same goes for stress. Once you feel overwhelmed with pressures and anxiety, you should look for ways to calm down, and maybe even try one of these apps that I’ve been condemning throughout this article! The point being that stress is a vital catalyst for achieving everyday tasks – as long as we can maintain it between manageable levels.
Although Not Too Much
It’s probably worth chucking a wee disclaimer in here before work yourself up into a frenzied ball of stress and anxiety in order to be on top form in tomorrow’s early-morning meeting. Too much of anything is bad for you, and this applies more so with regards to negative feelings. If you’re so shy that you can’t express yourself, it doesn’t matter how creative you are. We don’t want to become so patient that we never act to do anything about it and simply wait for situations to work themselves out. We don’t want to become so fearful of rejection that we pack up and sequester ourselves in a monastery for the rest of our days. Everything exists on a scale – we shouldn’t welcome these negative experiences, but nor should we expect/aim to avoid them for the rest of our lives.