At a time when holier-than-thou online articles about how smartphones are ruining our social lives outnumber the apps in the App Store, a recent app called pplkpr might, at first, seem like the perfect support for the anti-smartphone argument. Pronounced “people keeper,” this app aims to do exactly that: it auto-manages your relationships, helping you decide who to hang out with and who to avoid.
Filmmaker Miranda July also recently put out a socially-focused app, Somebody, which aims to improve human connection IRL. When you use Somebody to send a friend a message, the message doesn’t go to your friend, but rather to whichever Somebody user happens to be in nearest physical proximity to your friend. This person must then deliver the message to them, facilitating a random social interaction. Not in the mood to listen to your best friend complaining? Use Somebody. Need to break up with your boyfriend, but don’t want to tell him yourself? Don’t worry, a random stranger can do it for you.
Both these apps take on the idea that apps are making us anti-social, that we’re all wasting our lives away one tweet at a time and have lost the ability to communicate with other humans outside of the Internet. But there’s no need to make an app to point out that smartphones have irrevocably changed the way we interact with the world around us. Everyone with a smartphone knows that already. Somebody and pplkpr are aiming higher. These are apps—part art piece, part social experiment—that want us to think about what happens next.
“We hope that seeing and trying the app will enable people to think critically about this future,” Lauren McCarthy and Kyle McDonald, pplkpr’s developers, write on the app’s website, referring to a future in which all lives are quantified. McCarthy and McDonald are artist-programmers whose work focuses on our relationship to technology. The duo’s other recent collaborations include Friend Flop (2013), a browser extension that mixes up your friends’ online profiles (“reminding you that everyone is saying the same shit anyway”), and Social Soul (2014), a 3D installation in which the visitor is immersed in someone else’s social media stream.
McCarthy and McDonald created pplkpr as an attempt at answering the question: can an algorithm can manage human relationships better than a person? As apps for tracking sleep cycles, exercise habits, and food consumption rise in popularity, it’s clear that most of us enjoy collecting absurdly detailed data about ourselves. pplkpr functions similarly to most other life-management apps: using a wristband which monitors your heart rate, pplkpr tracks when you’re emotionally stimulated and prompts you to record who you’re with and how you’re feeling. In this way, the app can tell you “who should be auto-scheduled into your life and who should be removed.”
While pplkpr uses advanced tech in an attempt to improve your real-life relationships, Somebody seems like an app that doesn’t want to be an app at all: its website bills it as “the antithesis of the utilitarian efficiency that tech promises.” At the same time, Somebody is also described as “half app/half human,” neatly echoing the rhetoric of pplkpr’s developers, who referred to their app as “not a separate entity or companion, but an extension of your self” in a recent interview with Hyperallergic.
However, while McCarthy and McDonald are firm believers in the validity of digital interactions, Somebody represents a backlash against non-IRL communication, insisting that “the most high-tech part of Somebody is not in the phone, it’s in the users.” Somebody is an act of resistance against the futuristic technology-as-self concept that pplkpr champions.
As art pieces, these apps definitely fall into the realm of performance—but the possibilities for creating socially-critical visual art with apps are equally exciting. Look at filmmaker and artist David O’Reilly’s Mountain: a simple, beautiful, and seemingly pointless app in which you watch over a tiny mountain living inside your phone. Mountain is marketed as a game, but “no controls” is listed as a feature on its website; other features include “time moves forward” and “things grow and things die.” Released in 2014, the app elicited strong reactions from users and critics (“Welcome to an existential nightmare,” one reviewer said).
Intentionally futile games have been around for some time: The Sims (circa 2000) was essentially a more complex, human-based version of Mountain, and artist Cory Arcangel has been modifying video games into aimless versions of their former selves since 2002. But Mountain is a more beautiful and even more pared-down instance of this concept. Like pplkpr and Somebody, Mountain turns a conventional app idea upside down.
We usually think of an app as something functional—a piece of digital technology that can be used to enhance our non-digital life. But the practical functionality of all three of these apps is questionable. From one perspective, they’re artistic critiques of changing social norms; on the other hand, they’re just entertaining ways to waste time on your phone, like most other apps. But one big difference is that, within these apps, users are denied the ability to carry out the sort of instantaneous and easy actions apps usually promise. WhatsApp instantly sends messages, Skype conducts real-time video calls, Tumblr and Instagram promise endlessly-refreshing feeds where you can favourite and comment all you want. In contrast, pplkpr tells you how to conduct your relationships, Somebody gets someone else to send your messages, and Mountain doesn’t let you do anything at all, except sit back and watch.
By taking control away from the user—alienating them from the standard user/interface narrative and instead leaving them to wonder what the app will do next—pplkpr, Somebody, and Mountain force users to question not only their relationship to apps, but to the digital world in general.