- Introduction to Focus:The App Issue
Infinite Variance: Apps and Quantified Reality
What is an app but an aggregation of scripts and their expression in code. It's that simple, and it's that complex. Apps are a ubiquitous phenomenon in this era of mobile media. According to Statista, a well-known digital analytics company, in 2019 the number of mobile phone users is estimated to reach around 4.68 billion. Toward the end of the year that number is expected to surpass the 5 billion mark—over 60% of the world's population. What holds this all together is operating systems: iOS, Android, and some of their lesser kindred spirits, like Windows, and Linux based OS's like Sailfish OS, Tizen, KaiOS, Ubuntu Touch, PureOS/Librem, Firefox OS, and the apps that govern the mobile devices that navigate the Internet. When you boil it all down though, it's all scripts, protocols, and an elegant mathematics of the world of large numbers: It's all patterns.
Mathematicians get this idea of pattern recognition as an artform. Check out a 1940 essay by the influential mathematician G. H. Hardy, "A Mathematician's Apology," where he opined,
The mathematician's patterns, like the painter's or poet's must be beautiful; the ideas like the colours or the words, must fit together in a harmonious way. Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics.
What Hardy wanted to envision was the lyrical space between equations that draws on the world of applied mathematics that we see unfolding in all aspects of modern life from statistics, economics, and computer science, and what he wanted to view as "pure," or theoretical mathematics. We live in that spectral world Hardy envisioned and yes—we can really say "there's an app for that."
It seems more and more irrefutable that we live in an era of "cognitive bias" where the uninformed opinions and breathtakingly myopic views of people have massive and unintended consequences. From Brexit to the 2016 elections, to the ongoing crisis of climate refugees and immigration, we can see how in a data driven world, where quantification has become the basic fabric of digital society, it seems inevitable that people choose to ignore data and the deep connections it can create at their own peril. Think of strategy and warfare as information used to create social dynamic structures and keep going from there. From the Crusades to Vietnam, history is littered with examples of stupidity, obduracy, brutality and sheer breath-taking incompetence—where people don't pay attention to information about the world around them. It's a continuous, millennia long lesson: you are faced with a crisis of confidence in human agency. Lack of communication, technological failure, and a misplaced sense of superiority has led to catastrophe and massive disruptions of human societies. But imagine if we could actually quantify and learn from our mistakes? This issue is a broad spectrum exploration of possibilities. Using a combination of history, human interest, and archival materials underlying many of the books I selected for review, I wanted to create a tapestry of different styles.
What does this have to do with Apps? I edited an anthology called The Imaginary App with digital media theoretician, Svitlana Matviyenko for MIT Press a couple of years ago. It led me down a path of investigation into how software and mobile media had intersected with the myriad ways that the data driven society we live in has changed under the impact of the main item of our time: the way computational power had become more and more inexpensive and has allowed more people to participate in the cybernetic systems made by engineers, mathematicians, scientists and, coders. For most of the last several centuries there has been a huge gap between those who had access to mathematics and those who were affected by mathematics—meaning the general populace. Today, the vernacular of our time is a new kind of language—a collision between code and culture at the heart of the twenty-first century's data driven life.
Think of the subtle things happening to our...