Why Does There Always Have To Be An App For That?

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“There’s an app for that.”

Apple’s marketing slogan — meant to illustrate the vast size of its mobile application store — is increasingly accurate in terms of appifying aspects of our everyday lives. The trend is bubbling up in a number of major urban markets where users are happily ordering everything from transportation to cleaning services by tapping buttons on their phones. What’s less clear, however, is when and if all this appifying will ever stop, or whether or not every aspect of our real lives will be fed into the machine.

Don’t get me wrong. Ordering things like cabs and cars, hotel rooms, hair appointments, restaurant reservations and more on the computer you carry makes a lot of sense. These are things urban residents, business travelers, and, basically, the average on-the-go Joe, need to do anyway, so making the exercises more convenient is a natural next step. You see, there was a digital equivalent for this in the pre-app world. It was called placing a phone call, and the method sufficed for most of these things. (That is, if you happened to be somewhere where you couldn’t hail a cab with a wave or your hand.)

But today, there are other areas, also potentially exploitable, also potentially profitable, where apps are of more questionable value.

What prompted this line of thinking was hearing about a couple of the newest “there’s an app for that” apps. One of these is Coaster, which claims to make it easier to order drinks at a bar. Covered here by Ryan, the startup makes a good case for what the current problem is (ordering at bars is a mess, I totally agree there), and how using an app could make the process more efficient. I can see young urbanites eating this one up.

Another app in development is aiming to appify the difficult process of retrieving your car from a valet. You see, you have to stand there and wait. Wouldn’t it be more efficient if the car were ready for you with a push of your button? Plus, valet companies could then use the channel to target you with offers, based on which restaurants, hotels and shops you visited when using their service. It’s a win-win, right?

Well.

Now clearly, this is a symptom of my old age, because as much as I love apps (I have 400+ installed on my phone — issues, I tell you, I have issues), some apps turn me off in ways I can’t quite put my finger on. Rationally, I’m sold on their efficiencies. My gut, meanwhile, rebels.

I guess I’m not the only one. Dozens of reader comments on the Coaster post ferociously debated the value of efficiency over…well….the lack of humanity in the solution. Here’s an example:

The primary reason I don’t like this idea is that it renders the bartender as some soulless automaton whose job it is now to answer to your app. I hope none of the bars I visit adopt this, and that all of the people I hate go to bars that adopt this.

Exactly.

The thing is, putting life’s messier functions into software can iron out the kinks. It can reduce wait times, process requests more efficiently and more fairly, and increase revenues and bottom lines, and that’s a good thing, I suppose. But in some cases, it also reduces the need for person-to-person communication, turning people into nothing more than data sources feeding into the app. This is where they lose me. It’s not that I’m not sold on the general “betterness” of their system for X. It’s that I’m not convinced we should be digitizing every aspect of our lives simply because we can, and because there might be money to be made by doing so.

Look, I know what it’s like to have to push your way up to a crowded bar, brandish your dollar bills or credit card, try to catch the bartender’s eye, get shoved into other people doing the same, awkward smile at each other with an “I’m sorry,” shrug, sharing a moment of commiseration. I also remember (briefly, in my youth) being a hopelessly ineffective bartender poolside at a hotel for a summer. I also get that the app is aiming for high-volume bars, not the mythical “Cheers,” where you tell your troubles to your good buddy bartender.

Yes, the current drink-ordering system can be inefficient, uncomfortable, frustrating, and messy – but you know what? That’s okay. Life is supposed to be a little messy, and no matter how much you try to plug its processes into some hyper-efficient, money-making algorithm, sometimes you just have to deal. With disorganization. With a touch of chaos. With people in uncomfortable situations. Because, man, that’s living.

Because seriously: it’s an app for ordering a drink at a bar. Ordering a drink. At a bar. C’mon, people. My god.

I didn’t mean to pick on Coaster, specifically, it’s just the latest example of this craze to digitize all the fun out of life. And yes, by fun, I do mean the challenge and accompanying victory of successfully ordering drinks at a crowded bar. (After all, how are folks supposed to impress their dates if they can’t go, “here, let me try”?)

There are other things that make me sad/confused in similar ways. For example, apps that try to tell you if a bar is “happening” that night based on the number of check-ins; MLB’s app that lets you order food from your seat while at the ballpark (because one day, we may never hear “popcorn! peanuts!” ever again…hooray?); and mobile icebreaker/dating apps that address users’ social anxiety issues*. (And no, I don’t mean Grindr, that one’s genius). So efficient and functional. So depressing.

Efficiency alone isn’t enough. Look at Square, for example, which efficiently replaces knuckle-busters and hardwired, expensive terminals. Did you know that collecting digital signatures isn’t a requirement for most Square purchases? But the option is ON not OFF by default. Why? Well, Square warns that skipping the screen means customers can’t leave tips, but I believe there’s more to it than that. It’s because finger-signing is a little awkward, a little messy, and very real. It connects you with the technology in a familiar, and therefore comfortable way. It stirs something within us that makes Square’s efficiency feel more natural. And note, too, that Square’s replacement for finger-signing is saying your name at checkout. Do you know how that works? You look someone in the eye, and say “Hi, I’m so-and-so. I just paid.” And they look at your face and then at a screen, look back at you, and say “yep, here you go, thanks.” People connecting via technology, not technology replacing people.

Bottom line: people aren’t data sources for apps, and efficiency isn’t the best selling point. Joy is. And maybe tapping buttons to be fed more and more alcohol in the most efficient manner possible is the future of living, but I’d argue that until you’ve been elbowed in the gut just for trying to order a couple of rum and coke’s, you haven’t really lived.

* By the way, getting shoved into people at a crowded bar is a nice way to never need a dating app in the first place, you know.