Review by Chris Gerben, St. Edward's University

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The Imaginary App

Paul D. Miller and Svitlana Matviyenko
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014. 320. Non-fiction.


Cover of Imaginary Apps

"We believe the future of TV is apps." This is how Apple CEO Tim Cook succinctly and directly pointed to the relevance of apps in all things, including mass media, during a late 2015 pronouncement. Apps—what Paul D. Miller, co-editor of the collection The Imaginary App (MIT Press, 2014), refers to as "the basic interpretation of thought into action, a sense into sensation"—are computer programs, things that have been ubiquitous to our electronic lives for decades. However, Cook's statement echoes the ever-increasing encroachment of software-driven (often mobile) technology into our everyday lives. By now many of us have phones and mobile devices that feature myriad apps for specific uses. However, apps offer much more, and in more places, posits Miller and over twenty authors featured in his collection. Though referenced only obliquely in the collection, "The Internet of Things" has become an early 21st century phrase hinting at every technology that is now connected to the computing cloud, and to companies' servers. Apple is in our TVs, Google's Nest controls our thermostats, and even traditional manufacturing corporations like GM are investing heavily in driverless cars for the future even as our cars today can become wireless hotspots connecting us to our favorite devices and apps.

As a result, The Imaginary App, co-edited by Svitlana Matviyenko, could hardly be more relevant to the world we live in. No matter what contexts we inhabit, apps are indeed capturing our attention and forming our world. The collection—spanning complementary sections on technology, lived-in worlds, economics, and language—is at its best when it offers in situ observations from this contemporary terrain. In her introduction, Matviyenko expertly touches on salient issues including privacy, access, and immediacy all the while referencing quickly antiquated technology like Google Glass or installations from the collection's sister art exhibition that asked artists to create imaginary app descriptions meant to mock "the standards of the online app stores." Matviyenko, like several of the authors featured here, sees her duty as revealing the unseen, or the under-evaluated. She argues, "our tools have become so 'good' that we truly do not think of how they work [so] new questions should be asked about the consequences of such invisibility."

These questions of invisibility are the focus of the book's best pieces. In the collection's opening section on "Architectures," Danish researchers Soren Bro Pold and Christian Ulrik Andersen raise the paradox of apps representing free expression and sharing of data while being tools of "controlled consumption" within the monopolistic realm of app stores (which they equate to distribution centers) run by Apple or others. Likewise, Eric Kluitenberg, in the second section of the book, "Prosthetics," points to apps' "ability to project imaginary solutions for potentially unattainable aspirations." He argues that apps are successful not so much because of their marketing or mobility, but because of their ability to deliver "partial solutions" that bring users back to them despite never completely being fulfilled by their initial promises. In the "Economy" section—the book's most salient and relevant given its global(ized) scope of authors and topics—Nick Dyer-Witherford equally discusses unfulfilled promises in addressing "app workers," those who design (or hope to design) apps as a way to break free of more traditional modes of manufacturing and thought. However, Dyer-Witherford paints a potentially more realistic, dystopian outlook where programming (like textile or other light industry work before it) may be shipped offshore to the cheapest bidders, creating yet another instance of a paradox between what we see apps as capable of and what they actually represent.

Published in 2014, one of the biggest hindrances to The Imaginary App's success is timeliness and staying power. While the collection contains important historical contextualization—such as the multiple references to the launching of Apple's App Store in mid-2008 and subsequent coining of the now ubiquitous marketing phrase "There's an app for that"—and a much needed highlighting of the globalization of the mobile subset of the technology industry and its implications on democracy, economy, and labor, the collection risks feeling obsolete as soon as it began its first press. The editors' choice to focus on major themes instead of specific technologies is smart, and will give this book deserved room on some office bookshelves. Yet, a specific focus on latest-available-data, such as Dal Yong Jin's quantitative chapter on the app economy in Korea or Steven Millward's chapter on consumer and political demands of app culture in China, equally put the book at risk of becoming a heavy reference guide anchored to a very specific time and place.

The bigger concern is that The Imaginary App is a collection of authors in search of a collection of readers. While the three interviews in the collection (including an exciting, optimistic one with Stephen Wolfram) are accessible, and balance technological concern with human care, the remaining 16 chapters oscillate from jargon and overly-academic (e.g. Bratton's "On Apps and Elementary Forms of Interfacial Life") to clever yet uncompelling (e.g. Burk's self-proclaimed "app-fiction" in the book's final section, "Remediations.") Even the inclusion of Lev Manovich in the final section doesn't seem to move seasoned readers' comprehension forward; it equally wouldn't serve as a purposeful introduction for new readers in the way that Manovich's expert 2001 Language of New Media still does.

Throughout the collection, authors take a philosophical view of the ways that a globalized market based in one umbrella product can affect economies, cultures, and identities. None of the pieces dwell too heavily in history, and none (thankfully) take on a futurist perspective, ending their gaze forward with a non-committal dot dot dot. Still, for all the truth and perspective contained in the book's nearly 300 pages, it never delivers on co-editor Miller's implied promise of taking us somewhere new within "the immense potential [that] apps have in modern life." Despite addressing issues of self- and artistic expression, and pointing a lens away from the United States and into several corners of the world, the book never escapes the gravity of its basic premise: that apps are everywhere, and as Tim Cook promises, are the future. As a result, its biggest flaw may be that despite the title, this collection displays no imagination beyond what now seems inevitable.



Chris Gerben is a teacher at St. Edward's University. His research interests include online writing and educational technologies.


© 2016 Chris Gerben, used by permission

Technoculture Volume 6 (2016)