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'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

“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.


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