Essays on Technology and Culture

The Shortcomings of Becoming the App

When the original iPad was released in 2010, a single phrase by Adam Engst described the device perfectly: “The iPad becomes the app…” This transformational ability explains the heavy physicality of iOS before iOS 7. Skeuomorphic software design helps the device identify itself as the thing it is emulating, be it a book, a map, a game table, or an audio player. Whether this was actually necessary is a matter of debate, as is whether iOS 7 went too far in the other direction. The logic behind the skeuomorphic design is that familiarity reduced the learning curve, especially when your device is nothing but a blank surface that can become any interface.

Except that it can’t. Whatever the iPad, or any other touch-based digital devices tries to do, it’s still pictures under glass. It’s important to think about this when we consider how we relate to the a device that can become anything, versus a physical object that is only one thing?

The digital object doesn’t so much have “a function” as a series of functions under an umbrella of one or two metafunctions… The association between object and function that was often one-to-one has become multiplied, perhaps receding into infinity…

Navneet Alang – “Calculating the Weight of the Object” – Snarkmarket

Like skeuomorphic software design, the tension between physicality and multiple functions puts the cultural divide around eBooks and physical books into perspective. Even a dedicated eBook reader, like the e-ink Amazon Kindle, has other functions beyond reading book. A book doesn’t let you browse the web, look up definitions of words without leaving the text, or play word games. Those limitations are encoded in its very form. There is precious little you can do with a book and have it still be a book. Door stops and leveling out extremely wobbly tables come to mind. Those in the physical book camp have internalized this disconnect and summarized it as “I like the physicality of a real book.”

We relate to single-purpose objects in a very different way, and it’s a relationship defined by simplicity. These objects represent a singularity of purpose, and their function is embodied in their form. When we reach for a physical book over an iPad or a Kindle, we are making a deliberate restriction of our possible choices. Even if we would have been reaching for that iPad or Kindle so we could read something on it, the physical book is a commitment to just reading. When a writer uses a mechanical typewriter to bang out their first draft, they make a similar commitment. While it’s possible to use a multi-functional digital device for a single task, it takes a lot more willpower not to switch modes. It’s even harder when the device is set up to bother you whenever something else demands your attention.

Believers in the idea that physical media will go away and that print will vanish ignore the value in the simple relationship between a thing and its purpose. Believers in the idea that digital media is a fad, and that multi-function devices are more trouble than they’re worth are giving up a wealth of power and new tools that can be used to create previously impossible new ideas. There’s room in our lives for multi-purpose devices and the single-purpose objects they purport to supplant. Those of us living in this transition have the opportunity to not only find the balance that works for us, but also define this balance for future generations.

If you’re old enough to remember life before we could read a thousand page book on device that weighs only a pound (or less), it’s hard to imagine a world where you never experience a single-purpose, non-digital device. I don’t expect this will come to pass, but I do expect that multi-function digital devices will be the primary way people born today will interact with media. We may save the physical stuff for things we want a special connection with. A part of the human psyche demands to have tangibility, and it’s best we don’t forget it.