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The Imaginary App

The Imaginary App

by Paul D. Miller and Svitlana Matviyenko, Editors
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2014
320 pp., illus. 40 b/w, 18 col. Trade: $29.95, ebook $19.95
ISBN: 9780262027489; ISBN: 9780262320788.

Reviewed by Mike Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University,


There's much of interest in the collection The Imaginary App, things I didn't know, insights to share with my Experience Design grad students, and some new ways of looking at the contemporary phenomenon of the app.

In her Introduction, Svitlana Matviyenko reminds us "There's an app for that" was a phrase trademarked by Apple in 2009, two years after the company's iPhone hit the market. The mobile operating system iOS and its readily available Software Developers' Kit (SDK), plus that of the Android OS developed by Google, let to a burst of development activity for stripped-down, focused applications. There were 45 billion apps downloaded for the Apple iPad in 2012 (two years after launch), and 50 billion downloads downloaded from Google Android's Play Store. Mobile devices create a different metaphor for their applications: most of them are not really resident upon your personal device, but are merely gateways to the cloud (term first used in 1996), the distant datasphere (farewell to the cryptography that the cypherpunks of two decades ago assiduously created to protect our personal information from snoopers). Consequently, users' personal data is in the possession of cloud owners. Google Glass was marketed with the line "Everything is recorded," as if that was desirable in all circumstances; it soon saw "glassholes" barred from public sites like San Francisco's Rite Spot bar.

Boosters praise a new "app economy", but exactly what does it mean for those who labor in it? Sleep as Android is an app that monitors its user's sleep, gently but insistently waking user for maximum productivity over the course of a day. Nick Dyer-Witherford analyzes the economics of the "App Worker", finding that some developers do very well, others are well-compensated by employers, but the majority fail to make a living from their work. Other chapters discuss marketplace attractors, and Korean and Chinese app marketplaces.

Lev Manovich differentiates media software that modifies or manipulates specific data types (JPG, .MP3, .MOV) with metamediums that contain multiple softwares. Unlike desktop programs that usually tended to bloat with additional features upon each new release, apps are designed with an aesthetic of interfaciality, showing only those elements of computing the user is immediately allowed to use. Douglas Engelbart, worries that low prices cause people to load their phones and tablets with "junkware", used less than three times in any given week. Anna Munster contemplates the app Type N Walk, which uses an iPhone's rear-mounted camera to create an illusion of the phone's complete transparency, supposedly making it safer to text while walking; one is reminded of the YouTube video of a guy, immersed in his phone, walking into a large bear roaming around a Los Angeles canyon neighborhood.

Philosophy is periodically downloaded like an app, whether as "auxiliary organs" that McLuhan praised or whose absence Deleuze and Guattari note in the prevailing Body Without Organs. To Dock Currie, the app can serve like Stelarc's body augmentation (as he asks "Must We Burn Virilio?"), while Drew S. Burk parodies Spinoza's writing style to assemble "The Spinoza Lens-Grinder App", replete with "oraxions", axioms at their most confidently oracular. Though elsewhere in the book, a 2012 magazine cover is cited, showing Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon as giant undersea squids in a death struggle, Dan and Nandita Mellamphy compare apps to cephalopods trapping their unsuspecting prey.

As so often in the tech world, some of the possibilities of the medium of the app are first demonstrated in fine art, or conceptual art, manifestations. I Am Rich, priced $999.99 US and 799.99 Euros, showed a gleaming red gem and displayed text that read "I am rich/I deserve it/I am good, healthy and successful." Though it was removed from Apple's App Store after 24 hours, it generated many thousands of dollars in sales. The Blue Brains team's app maps site-specific music to the National Mall in Washington, DC, while Situationiste suggests another city's grid to consider, rather than the city streets the user faces. The apps End of Water and Wikilution document ecological devastation and opportunities for organized resistance.

This is the third book by Paul D. Miller for MIT Press; his first Rhythm Science examined the remix aesthetic. His own remix artwork, under the name DJ Spooky the Subliminal Kid, includes the 2009 project "Rebirth of a Nation," recutting and reframing D.W. Griffith's technically innovative but racist and politically repugnant 1915 movie. I was writing this review at the time of the 100th anniversary of Griffith's movie and found myself alerting a colleague who teaches black history to DJ Spooky's creative work, even as I was telling my graduate students what I'd just learned from reading the intellectual Paul D. MIller.

Last Updated 2nd Mar 2015

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