PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Reviews

'The Imaginary App' Shows How Real Apps Have Become to Us

Apps changed everything. The Imaginary App explains how.


The Imaginary App

Publisher: MIT Press
Length: 320 pages
Author: Paul D. Miller and Svitlana Matviyenko
Price: $29.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-08
Amazon

“There’s an app for that.” Such a simple phrase, one that only dates to about six years old. As some may remember, it was part of a 2009 Apple advertising campaign.

Apps themselves, as noted in The Imaginary App, have only been part of our lives since 2008. They have been around for less than a decade, yet they are now considered by many to be indispensable. The prevalent attitude for most, particularly the companies who make apps, is, as noted in the introduction of The Imaginary App, simply: “If you have a problem, look for an app, the ultimate solution -- always, anytime, anywhere”.

Considering how popular apps have become in such a short period of time, it’s somewhat surprising that more thoughtful commentary hasn’t been written about apps. Sure, it’s easy to find articles reviewing apps, listing the best apps, or telling people how to create an app. However, we don’t have many books that discuss the cultural significance of apps. Books on the cultural significance of the internet, essays on the damage the internet is doing to our brains, studies on how social media has changed marketing, books on the major players in the tech world are all so easy to find. Books about how apps are changing our economy, the way we find information, the way we work, the way we play, and the way we think are noticeably more difficult to find.

The Imaginary App, edited by Paul D. Miller and Svitlana Matviyencho, is a book that looks at many of these things, and even a few more. One of its most impressive aspects is simply its range, as it is composed of 19 essays and interviews. Some authors will be familiar to anyone who regularly studies new media; a Lev Manovich essay opens the fourth section, for example. Other names may be less familiar, but this doesn’t make their thoughts any less intriguing or in some instances controversial. Many of the essays are written by academics, such as doctoral candidates, theorists, college professors. The words of musicians, bloggers, and artists are also included in the book.

Another one of the nice things about the book is that it incorporates the arts. So often, the arts and technology/science are positioned as polar opposites. This book closes with fake apps; the editors “invited graphic designers and artists to explore users’ expectations of technology by designing icons for impossible, imaginary apps and formulating descriptions mocking the standards of the online app stores”. Examples include the End of Water app, the third in a series of Apocalyptic apps; the Telephort app, which would eliminate the need for public transportation, cars, and planes; and the iLuck app, which leads users on a merry chase for the ever elusive four leaf clover. It’s a fun way to end the book -- and kudos to MIT press for printing the icons in color.

The essays themselves are thoughtful, and many of them deal with the tricky question of defining exactly what an app is. Some of the authors deal with this in very practical fashion while others are more figurative. In the essay, “Must We Burn Virilio? The App and the Human System”, Dock Currie suggests “the app is not a program; it is a hulking wound in our nervous system, and it is the synthetic flesh that grows in its place, and it is crawling”.

Dan Mallamphy and Nandita Biswas Mellamphy, authors of the chapter “From the Digital to the Tentacular, or From iPods to Cephalopods: Apps, Traps, and Entrées-without-Exit”, suggest comparing an app to the octopus: “To approach apps as traps with tentacular savvy is not simply to engage in hyperbole or fancy; it is akin, we would argue, to adopting a strategy taken by the military when engaging with an ‘asymmetrical’ enemy—an opponent that has many guises and thus cannot be readily or distinctly discerned”. Mallamphy and Mallamphy continue, stating that no matter how “friendly” or “benign” apps may seem, they are really “bait…in and of a capitalist game of coursing, hunting and/or trapping”.

What apps are or how they should be defined are only two of the many questions the book tackles. Another question is "Why?": why in the past five or six years have apps become such a seemingly necessary part of life? In the essay “The App as an Extension of Man’s Desires”, Eric Kluitenberg, for example, wonders “what is it that holds hundreds of millions of people under its spell and can account for the phenomenal expansion of the app universe” and believes there is “something deeply phantasmatic about the app universe: a promise of new possibilities beyond the limitations of ‘life before the app’”.

Kluitenberg thinks these promises of increased efficiency in both people’s personal and professional lives are one of the reasons why apps are so popular. For Kluitenberg, however, it’s also not quite that simple. To be truthful, a lesson that all these chapters teach is that there is nothing simple about the app universe.

The collection doesn’t focus solely on the user either. The chapter titled “App Worker” by Nick Dyer-Witheford talks about the different types of labor required to create apps and examines whether or not apps are creating a new (and wealthy) class: the appillionaires.

At the end of the preface, editor Paul D. Miller concludes “[this book] comprises some of the best thinking about the immense potential apps have in modern life, and the effects they have had on everything. I invite you to use a haptic sensibility to explore the immaterial and ethereal realms it manifests. Press ‘Play,’ sit back, read, and immerse.” It’s a fitting opening to the collection.

The book is not a casual while away the afternoon kind of read. There is some great writing, but at times, the language is a little dense and/or academic. Sometimes readers may wish ideas could be stated just a touch more clearly, but those willing to invest the time will find a thought-provoking book, full of research and practical and theoretical ideas.

8

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.

Books

Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon
Music

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.

Music

'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.

Music

ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.

Music

The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.

Books

Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.

Film

Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.

Music

Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".

Music

John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.

Music

The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.

Music

Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.

Music

In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.

Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.