Unpacking the App Effect

Another Apple keynote, another blog post. This time, we deconstruct their video “The App Effect”. The invisible style of Apple’s marketing videos can make it difficult to discern the rhetorical work being done, but rest assured a lot is being done, and there is much to unpack.

Apps plus handheld devices. I think that’s a watershed moment in civilization. I’d put it up there with the invention of the microscope and the telescope. Here we live in a time where the most powerful tools ever imagined to investigate and probe our world are in the hand of essentially everyone.
— Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysicist

Thanks to the microscope, we can understand how microorganisms and other tiny things affect our own lives. Thanks to the telescope, we can investigate the origins of our very existence. And thanks to the iPhone, we can send pictures of our genitals to our loved ones.

I’m being somewhat facetious. After all, the introduction of MedicalKit allows researchers to gather data like never before. And what’s a better sample of the population than iPhone and Apple Watch owners? Oh wait. I guess I wasn’t being facetious.

If you think the Industrial Revolution was transformational, the App Store is way bigger. I don’t think we’ve seen anything reach mass adoption at anything close to this pace. It took for example electricity over a hundred years to get to its first fifty million users. It took television thirteen years, and the App Store got to fifty million users in only seventeen months.
— James Manyika, Director, McKinsey Global Institute

These figures, though staggering at first glance, are actually quite meaningless. The history of electric power transmission begins in roughly the late 19th century, when the world population was estimated to be around 1.5 billion. The App Store launched in 2008, when the world population was approaching 7 billion. When viewed in terms of percentage of world population, the nominal increase in adoption rate becomes far less exciting.

Furthermore, the infrastructure that powers the App Store relies on the advances made by electricity and television. To say that the App Store is way bigger than the Industrial Revolution is to somehow separate the two and ignore a very obvious causal link.

We don’t have to own things. We don’t have to own our own cars, we don’t have to own our own music. We can call it up when we need it. That’s a big change, all flowing from the idea of not just convenience, but people building up an infrastructure around that. We’re now talking not about hundreds of people getting the benefits of an idea but millions.
— Joshua Gans, Economist, University of Toronto

Gans would have us believe that the takeaway of the App Store’s social proliferation is the subsequent proliferation of “the benefits of an idea” (whatever that means). What he does not mention (explicitly) is that the rise of mobile computing (here synonymous with the rise of the App Store) has expanded the renter class. Sure, we don’t have to “own” a book to read it, or an album to listen to it, or a movie to watch it, but this commodity fetishism belies the power we grant to our new landlords, the owners and distributors of the media we consume. The fetishism comes easy: the physical book/record/film object is replaced with an infinitely reproducible copy, one that takes up no space in our shrinking (rented) apartments.

But what happens when the owner revokes the distribution rights? You might remember Netflix's highly publicized media debacle of 2013, in which the company failed to renew distribution agreements with multiple rights holders, resulting in the loss of thousands of movies. In a somewhat dated example, I was recently gifted a copy of The Shining soundtrack, a vinyl album that was never reissued on successive media formats due to rights disagreements. It’s a fabulous collection of the music of Wendy Carlos, György Ligeti, and Krzysztof Penderecki, but you won’t find it on Spotify.

The infrastructure that Gans mentions only works when there are no commercial interests involved, when the renting economy becomes a sharing economy. The result of the contractual battles and stalemates that have beset Netflix and others is that media becomes relic, and the so-called benefits of an idea reach not millions, but none.