There’s not an app for that

The post originally appeared on the Tufts ACM blog. 

I was thrilled when I heard Tufts was hosting a hackathon, I was thrilled. A collaborative all-nighter coding with sponsorship and prizes from big-name companies in my backyard? It would be programming nirvana. Sign me up!

But when git push came to shove, most of the ideas were built on the “social, local, mobile” paradigm. That didn’t strike me as particularly innovative. We already have Facebook and the iPhone. I resisted the notion that everything is better as a mobile app.

I wanted an app that allows me to have more conversations. I brainstormed such an app with a colleague, which would have been called, “Get off your phone!”. It would serve up suggestions like “look up at the unique architecture” or “go talk to that person over there,” but we concluded that even if you put in a rating system it would just be a place for crude jokes and pickup lines. I abandoned the idea, along with hope in a hair-of-the-dog solution. I wound up working on a school project instead.

One of the things I love about computer science is how diverse its applications are. You can mine data for scientific research, or design a clean and functional website, or write utilities that help manage a company’s workflow, or make a video game, or just become more aware of the patterns and relations of the things around us. Not everything we build has to be a time-waster for rich people (and on the global scale, we are all rich people). In fact, to build only these apps is a shameful waste of the privileged position we occupy as educated people.

The future is here. We all carry devices in our pockets that can tell us anything, anywhere. We’re living the always-on dream, but it’s time to wake up. We have crises in real life to attend to, like feeding seven billion people while fighting climate change.

There are some things apps just can’t do, and I don’t mean solve the halting problem. Our devices have caused us to be less connected, not more. Put the toy technologies back in your pocket. Time to go do something else now. Have coffee with a good friend, perhaps. Or at least a Monster with a teammate.

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