From Apps to a map of the Meta-App

version 24 juni 2011

The app in a metaphysical and cognitive perspective



Will the present flood of apps, most of them of a fairly trivial nature and geared toward personalization of the data-mountains we face in this information age, lead to a philosophical or psychological breakthrough? Such a question seems not very relevant for the hundreds of thousands developers, companies and  users of apps. They rather talk about monetization, business models, viral marketing and what will become the best-selling app next week. We think it is useful to contemplate on where do apps sit in the development tree of our sense-extensions, as M. McLuhan described media. When in history could we combine touch, speech, sound, image and movement in an interactive connection to (nearly) everyone and (soon) everything using the massive amounts of stored knowledge, art and  entertainment? Are apps bringing back the dialogue and interactive quality that already Socrates (Plato, Phaedrus 245-250) noted as lacking in the written world? Will Internet use, with the help of apps, grow more towards the exploration or even use of the unknown, the “unseen”and the metaphysical? Does this promise to ultimately yield the Meta-App that will bring happiness, connectedness and consciousness to us, the brave new app-worlders?

Looking through the list of apps, one sees a jungle that has grown so fast it’s hard to see the trees from the forest. In general, apps now are ways of customizing the access to what we call information. This information is in fact no more than the massive mountain of digital noise with some useful, touching or entertaining bits here and there. Our search is trying to find out what hits us, as “a bit is only information if it bytes you”.

Apps are really handy: you can get location based indication of what is happening, what to do, you can get the distraction that fits you anytime, anywhere, you can have your life and experiences fit the fashionable model of the day. It has, however, this air of superficiality. What looks like individuation is in fact nothing but compliance; you will find what you (or your search engine, which is nothing but a common denominator agglutinator) are looking for, not what you really need, or even beyond – , access to true novelty. The Google-isation of search, i.e., of tacitly limiting our search to what the system accepts and allows, is like looking for the lost keys there where the lamp’s light is shinning, as in the Sufi tale. The complexity of our needs is not mirrored in the search and archiving methodology of the present Internet, even as it is evolving fast towards multimedia metadata and semantic based searching.  A tag-cloud is a refreshing way to look at something or someone, but hardly opens the door to deeper levels.

It can be assumed that new generation(s) of digerati will develop new senses, habits, capacities or tools to get what they need out of the data mountain, creating new sports, challenges, art-forms and media, selfhelp and psychological tools and medical at-a-distance therapies. Your apps will soon control whatever is controllable in the material world via IPv6 addressing. But the driven searchers for meaning will undoubtly go further, finding or inventing tools not unlike what the Tarot, the I Ching or age-old Magic have offered us. A couple of decades ago Cyber-paganism had already become a reality with proponents like Mark Pesce and Sarah Reeder, the cyber-coven an easy meeting place for virtual rituals. Myths and mysticism have claimed their place in cyberspace, from multiplayer adventure games to Skype meditation and chanting sessions. The present day Second Life or diehard Facebook user, or hard core gamer can be seen as a cyber-hermit usually not bothered to engage in much physical contact. 

Apps are an interesting new kid on the block, but distributed processing, dumb terminals, thin clients, central databases, mainframes, agents, bots and Software as a Service have been around for a long time, and so has Cloud computing. Apps did bring all this together, with the help of touch-technology, the mobile (digital) device giving the needed push to accelerate it, and by now, apps are infiltrating our worldview like rodents, multiplying and sneaking in everywhere.  The “app in the browser” trend, allowing an app to be started and used from within the browser environment and thus on all platforms and devices, will widen the scope of the app even more.

Most normal activities, like shopping, buying-and-selling, content-access, navigation, dating, payments, medical monitoring, art and very soon military actions will become apps. Participating in cyber-wars via malware and bots (a kind of guerrilla app) is already app-oriented, soon you’ll be  able to be a for-hire soldier guiding tanks or planes in real-life wars thousands of miles away.  Augmented reality is the new keyword, but is the lack of real contact between the cyber-soldier guiding unmanned aircraft bombing targets in Libya an evolutionary  step forward or backward?

The horizon

Such a widespread use of apps calls for a philosophical assessment: where are we heading? Where is this new movement going, is it just a  practical digital tool, or can we discern an impact that surpasses that of the invention of the wheel, the alphabet and the atomic bomb, and which will lead us to new forms of cooperation, communication and well being?

In physics (the old description, Natural History, much better describes what in Plato’s days was understood to be a dynamic, development oriented model of nature -- Phusis),  we went from atomization to relativity to quantum uncertainty and now consciousness as a dimension within it.

We have exteriorized our experience and memory of the world to the extent that now our history, our personal identifiers and our archives are increasingly online. We have put our soul online and why not: as the believers in AI and computer consciousness would state, computers can better deal with many practical aspects of life than we, mere humans can. But then there is the other side, the fear that we are losing control and giving power over ourselves and our identity  to an anonymous system.

The rise of the app in this respect is quite a step, as apps are like the Swiss army knife in cyberspace, handy, fast and comfortable (our passport to cyber-happiness?)  Should we welcome this development or just see it as another step towards an atomized, reductionist elimination of true connectedness, a rationalization of information, and thus a far cry from the integration of the consciousness dimension in our lives?

We believe apps are a stepping stone to a much wider use of digital technology, as their integration of the senses, notably that of touch and movement, really opens a new vista, a mega jump.

So where are we heading, and what can we expect from this development? Is there a map towards the ultimate app, the meta-app that satisfies not only our basic emotional and physical needs (dating-eating-sports), and the cognitive and intellectual ones, but  – ultimately, also our needs for finding meaning and purpose, our thirst for beauty?

In the nineties, the New Edge movement of Mondo 2000, bridging the gap between the different New Age communities and the digital Frontier, Virtual Reality exploration, Extropians, and psychonauts, was heading towards a truly holistic approach.  For a short period, a creative confrontation of the rational and the magical, the “seen” and the “unseen”, seemed possible; Virtual Reality was (not in public or the scientific world, of course) compared to the psychedelic experience (the recent Avatar movie illustrates this beautifully), and cognitive scientists like Francisco Varela came close to the position of quantum physicists like Nick Herbert, but this movement has more or less died out. VR is now a commercial moneymaker  and technical tool, like 3D, no longer a psychological stepping stone for understanding  the psyche.  Sound and audio-technology, at that time seen as a major inroad into the sub- and unconscious via binaural and hypnotic techniques, are used today as forms of escapism, not as tools for mind exploration and the spiritual quest.

Apps are, in their present form, and in the context of the quasi-freedom mobile technology provides, quest-killers, they take away the adventure of finding out for yourself. Mobile connectivity, the always on-always connected-always quasi-safe  sedation and numbing of the underlying fears, is an anti-depressant that flattens our experience of reality. It focuses us on the good, white, obedient one of Plato’s twin horses, and denies the wild, black, creative one, that wants to go its own way. This focus has many aspects, not all positive.

Jaron Lanier’s serious warning against Digital Maoism (i.e., that the omnipresent access to free and publicly created information like in Wikipedia will foster the mediocre and status-quo codification and canonization of knowledge) should be paid due attention. The “bad” horse of Plato is necessary to have progress, to prevent  the ossification we have noticed in societies, organisations and systems that tried to limit individuality in order to promote the collective interest.

The more than rational

The less rational dimensions of our lives are now beginning to pop up in the digital realm as well, the Internet moving not only towards “the internet of things”  but also becoming a tool for the expression of emotions and the aesthetic experience. Beyond the mere consumption of art we see applications that help create, combine and remix art, where new senses like touch and movement (the Kinetic wave) offer new possibilities. As for emotions, blogs have been a real stimulus to express oneself, and research by people like Sepp Kamvar of Stanford with that we are learning to be more emotional in our online communication.  His website, We Feel Fine, traces and combs blogs for expressions of emotion and provides a way to explore the emotional contours of cyberspace interaction. On this level, and beyond Weizenbaum’s classic Eliza program, we now see much more interest in the use of the Internet for therapeutic contact, like psychotherapy delivered through electronic devices, and it is clear that this can benefit patients (and save a lot of money). Distance therapy, for many medical disciplines, is a reality, an anaesthesiologist watching, monitoring and treating multiple patients at the same time via electronic media  is common practice now.

And yet, cyber magic is also there, we all know that some of us get more, better and faster results out of computers than others, that mind over matter works in cyberspace too. The short lived rise of what Bruce Eisner coined Mindware in the late 80s, will have a revival in the apps-age, we expect. We will get bored with the data-oriented apps, the filters, aggregators, and other agents that take over the adventuring, the psychological rewarding process of trying, failing and learning we need to experience in the real world in order to grow and develop. Artificiality, now so prevalent in the social networks, not yielding the happiness results we expect and seek, will give way to a new interest in the Other, the unknown  dimensions beyond and within. We will have magical apps, tools to help us have visions, all kinds of spells, digital auguries, and random generators intended to render a connection to the unseen, the future, the subconscious. Far beyond the I Ching looms the ultimate future engine, not only interpreting the present, extending past trends, following telltale signs and extended scenarios in a mechanical way, but really connecting us to the manic and divine connection that Plato ascribed to the prophets.

Understanding the deep realities, the gnosis that encompasses the real and the virtual, all the dimensions, is what life is all about, at least for those that venture beyond the purely material. By tapping the connections between the seen and the unseen worlds, knowing and using what the old sages called correspondences, what in the Vedas is indicated in the phrase Ya Evam Veda, is the challenge ahead. People like Lynn McTaggart and movies like The Secret  are showing us the importance of intention in  mind-matter interactions, and this idea is now resonating with the cultural creatives  who look beyond the obvious.  They don’t want just a cool computer, they want it to be their friend, companion, guide and confidant, stimulating and sometimes confronting, ultimately the pocket-guru if not their cyber-lover. 

This sounds like a far out projection, but it is how media and tools in general usually evolve. As a means of communication and an access medium to what is known, computers are a great tool. They seem limited to the very “hard” digital, but just as the stones of a church establish a safe and sacred place where one can address the otherworldly, now we see applications that go beyond the purely digital realm and make the computer into a sacred object of some sort.  The concept of the computer or smart phone as a magical tool, comparable to the wand of the sorcerer, seems a bit weird, but observe how much psychological attachment the average user has to these new magical possessions!  If we see the apps as the oil that lubricates digital connectivity and pervades our social lives, how long before it crosses the borders of the tangible? No doubt with a lot of quasi wizardry, but the initial outlines of an info-theistic trend can already be traced, the Church of the Digital is already emerging (see Ben Goertzel’s Turing Church).

A new step in consciousness

Are apps a major step in this techgnosis development (see Erik Davis’ Techgnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information), offering us themes (tech memes) equal to the genes and memes that now anchor our lives? Is there a map towards the ultimate app, the Meta-App that bridges the realm of art, where emotions are central, with psychology, and our need for self-realization, growth and the connection to the all and everything?

Such an app, probably a combination of many apps and in itself ushering a new paradigm, more powerful than the Conscious Computer dreams of Ray Kurzweil, has the potential to bridge the now separate worlds of religion/belief and science, but we have also to watch out for its dangerous counterpart, the Big Brother, surveillance and control mechanisms and tendencies that loom in the background. Tools always have two sides, and the shadowy one is normally overlooked.

The negative physiological effects of extended computer use, especially in concentrated applications like gaming, are recognised. The mouse interface is connected to the Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and most of us have some doubts about the radiation of all this new technology, but more recently its general effects on the brain are being studied. Nicholas Carr in The Shallows indicates that potentially our brains are negatively influenced and effects like addiction (mostly to gaming) might result. On the other hand, studies at UCLA show that for older people, regularly using the computer and the Internet might help their cognitive functions.

The dark side of the cloud and app movement is also that we yield control of our data, our communications and our privacy to large corporations with close ties to government organizations in countries like the US, that feel free to do whatever they want with it. The system takes over, or rather we let it take over, as it is more convenient, cheaper and gives us bonuses or points; we go along with the game, happily put our most private and precious moments on YouTube, Facebook and are then surprised that marketers and government are looking over our shoulder.

It is not by accident, that it was Apple that made apps the significant trend of data-processing in recent years; it has been a company that valued more the form (the appearance, the mask) -- in  contrast to an older ICT-giant  like IBM,  where content was more the focus. Apple was and is different, it appealed to the cultural creatives, the individualists, and has led them into the new land of the western frontier, into mobile digital Autarkia. Providing applications to personalize that content, they made the app the new snake oil of Cyber-exploitation, the neoliberal and individualistic ego trip business.

Apple exploited the Us-Them divide paradigm brilliantly, although there are ethical questions related to that approach, for by offering a shiny, fashionable, friendly and noticeable “superiority environment” to those in need of covering their inferiority feelings, it has had a phenomenal success. However, since the Third Reich we know that this approach is also the hallmark of the fascist mindset, and it has less than favourable side effects towards those not willing to jump on the bandwagon. By now, having an iPhone or an iPad on you makes you a badge-carrying member of the digital party, the bitten-off Apple a hypnotic symbol referring to the Tree of Knowledge.

And yet, the apps now bring a new dimension of connectivity and interface modalities to the user with touch, movement and even emotions and feelings: a horizontal workspace with far more intuitive appeal that the vertical screen we have associated with information work for the past few decades. We already see apps that use these new possibilities in never dreamt of uses, contacts and applications, and there is more to come.

2011 by Luc Sala & Zarko Almuli