North Wind And Sun

Amherst Bytes: An App Store Named Desire

Posted in Amherst Bytes by Ricardo Bilton on 10-December-2009

Originally published in the Amherst Student on 9 December 2009

The surety of success is often measured by the certainty of numbers. Every once in a while, Apple’s iPhone App Store reaches a new threshold, and Apple, the proud frontrunner in all things App, takes each new numerical achievement and runs with it. The most recent milestone is 100,000 – a number that succinctly captures how far the App store has come since its inception last summer.

But 100,000 means different things to different people. For Apple, it means the company can more effectively position the App Store as the standard, increasing the legitimacy of the iPhone brand by forcing other smart phones to exist in eternal comparison to it. For consumers, 100,000 means choice in the most capitalistic form of the word  –  choice between a virtual zipper or a virtual stapler, a virtual beer-counter or a virtual baby shaker. For the more diligent of consumers, 100,000 means sifting through that same mire, finding the gems within the muck that are worth the price attached to them. 100,000 also evokes a certain sense of impossibility. It would cost about $32,000 for one to purchase every single iPhone app; even then, the iPhone can only house 148 apps concurrently, so the impossibility is twofold. 100,000, it would seem, lacks the universality that its status as a number might lead us to suggest.

Indeed, the now famous (and popularly maligned) quip, “There’s an app for that,” gets closer and closer every day to becoming a truism. There is an iPhone app that tracks Swine Flu cases, an app that aims to help people get over their fear of flying, and even an app that helps men track the menstrual cycles of their girlfriends. Many with attention spans greater than my own have espoused the wonders of the niche iPhone app, so I’ll spare you the drudgery. But I will say this: the iPhone app store functions by filling voids that you didn’t know you had.

That is not to say that this is particularly unique. The whole of capitalism operates in much the same vein. Vendors function and sustain themselves via convincing consumers that a certain product, just by its sheer novelty, will change their lives, ostensibly for the better. Technology seems particularly prone to this tendency. It’s one marked by jargon, buzzwords and gloss. A new computer is a new opportunity, each successive iteration filling in the gaps left by its predecessor, each a chance for manufacturers to deliver on their perpetual promises. It’s founded on engineered obsolescence, of both the systemic and stylistic kind.

At the risk of undermining my own integrity, let’s consider The Onion’s Dec. 3 coverage of the release of a “new device.” Nearly reading as a template for the release of any new gadget  –  seriously, plug in iPhone wherever “device” appears  – the article manages to capture, in less than 600 words, the crux of technological fetishism. Spokespeople, consumers and authors alike indifferently rattle off the features of the “new device.” The consumers, in particular, elicit the most chagrin: “The new device brings me satisfaction” said one interviewee, and it is at this point that we realize the problem with the article, the point where its satire strikes the reader most soundly, is in the realization that these consumers don’t sound like people at all. Instead they sound programmed, not too far removed from the devices themselves.

It’s hard to argue that any one consumer operates in a mode where they see their endless streams of purchases as a limitless pursuit of desires  – but in a certain sense that is exactly what is happening. Web sites like Gizmodo and Engadget feel at points almost pornographic; in reading these sites, it’s rarely long before you witness the word “sexy” applied to the latest Apple release. Moments like that make me cringe. We at times seem to be caught in a loop of new devices breeding new desires, points where our desires cross and become muddled. Some notable journalist, whose name has since been lost to the voids of time and my memory, once compared the Xbox 360’s distinctive curvature to that of the average female. There was, he thought, something beautiful, even sexy, in the elegance of the Xbox 360’s shape, evidence of design mimicking life.

The comparison is evocative of a certain kind of juxtaposition popular among adolescent boys with unfettered access to the Internet. It’s achieved by taking a woman, stripping her of her clothing, and covering up any and all nether regions with video game components  – controllers, consoles, games. Something compelling is created in this combination, an indescribable satisfaction obtained via the substitution of nudity with technology, one fetish taking the place of another. It’s confounding, fascinating and, on some level, disturbing. Where sex meets technology we find uncertain ground, a place that challenges our distinction between our definition of desire and the devices we direct it at. That new iPhone may be sexy, but it certainly doesn’t know it.

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When technology competes with teaching

Posted in College, learning by Ricardo Bilton on 23-August-2008

The interaction between technology and teaching tends to skew towards either academic augmentation or destructive interference. Academic augmentation typically occurs a professor and student jointly embrace technology and create a novel implementation of it, thereby improving the learning atmosphere. Destructive inference is far more one sided, rearing its head when the student/teacher engagement is absent and technology, usually in the form of a laptop computer takes its place.

An article in the New York Times underscores some of the nuances of this interaction. A number of American Universities have taken a step towards supersaturating the already-striking device-to-student ratio, gifting their first years with one of the more desirable products on the market – the Apple iPhone.

The portability of the iPhone, as well as its ability to be built upon, say these Universities, makes the iPhone the ideal device in the effort towards enhancing technological learning. Of course, that very same portability will inevitably inspire – as it already has with the iPhone’s spiritual precursor, the laptop computer – students to enhance their learning by bringing the device to class.

That ability carries with it a number of drawbacks. A dull lecture by a professor coupled with the presence of a laptop computer or iPhone will inevitably give way to temptation, and a few seconds of casual browsing or email checking adds up over the course of a class meeting or a semester. While lost in their computer screens, students miss classroom questions and announcements. Multitasking is problem enough outside of the classroom environment, and it is certain that professors face an uphill struggle in competing with computers in the classroom.

But as with most new technologies, the worth of the iPhone in the classroom lies in its ability to augment the learning experience. The iPhone’s potential as a learning device certainly there for a plethora of new teaching techniques and applications. Right now, it’s simply a question of whether those applications will actually be developed and whether professors will be able to keep up with them.

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