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The app effect

July 28, 2014

I have a theory which I’m slightly embarrassed about but whatever, that’s what blogs are for, I’m going to talk about it. And I have no data for this whatsoever, although I’d be interested to hear thoughts on how to collect some.

Namely, I think a sizable amount of social change we’ve seen in the past few decades, for better and for worse, can be ascribed to what I call “the app effect,” namely the tendency for everyone, but young men in particular to be playing games on their phones or their xbox360’s or whatever rather than interacting with each other.

Look at crime rates. I am not claiming that crime rates have fallen solely because of the app effect over other reasonable effects, like the availability of abortions, or less lead paint, or people having more air conditioning.

But, let’s face it, when I was growing up in Boston in the 1980’s, you’d just see way more people out on the streets on summer evenings because it was too freaking hot to do anything inside and people were damn bored. That’s when the trouble would start. Nowadays you just don’t see that nearly as much. What are people doing? My guess is that they’re playing a shit load of video games. Tell me if I’m wrong.

Here’s another example. People are less politically engaged. Partly it’s because Congress sucks, but partly – yes – it’s because people are playing Candy Crush! They used to maybe spend time going to work reading the paper and otherwise doing the civic duty thing but nowadays they’re just trying to pass level 187. I’ve been there so I know about it.

Also, when the train stops? In the tunnel? And it’s dark and really hot? Everyone just plays their games even harder, where you used to maybe start talking, or shouting, or freaking out. It is a pacifier for grown-ups, a nationwide babysitting service that keeps people in line.

It’s good and bad. Sometimes getting out of line serves a purpose, sometimes it’s just destructive and the wrong thing to do. My worry, as a person who wants to see political engagement, is that we have trained an entire population to take refuge in a pointless activity that doesn’t serve any real purpose except to distract us and to mollify us, not to mention collect our data for later marketing purposes.

Another way to imagine this is, if all the apps and all the video games stopped working for a few weeks, what would happen? What would people do with themselves?

Categories: musing
  1. July 28, 2014 at 8:00 am

    Don’t know about apps, but I would say that for many types of crime, excluding homicides, crime stats being down does not imply crime being down, rather data has cause cops to under-report crimes. I’ve seen cops in NYC try to convince victims NOT to report a crime. You can’t hide homicides, so stats for homicides tend to be true.

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  2. July 28, 2014 at 8:08 am

    On one hand I think you’re simply acknowledging that new media (telephone, radio, television, now internet etc.) always have disruptive aspects on society, some good some ill. On the other hand, you’re right to be concerned because perhaps for the first time ever newer generations are growing accustomed to a wholesale forfeiture of privacy (maybe even in turn, freedom) for the passing joys the new media deliver.

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  3. Zathras
    July 28, 2014 at 9:00 am

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention porn availability here. Or is porn just another app in this context?

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    • July 28, 2014 at 9:01 am

      yeah, I think it is. but thanks for the mention, my bad.

      On Mon, Jul 28, 2014 at 9:00 AM, mathbabe wrote:

      >

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  4. July 28, 2014 at 10:09 am

    I’ve heard something like this mostly in the context of video games. Because the fact is, young guys really are playing games instead of going out and doing dumb shit. I would offer that it’s more than just a distraction. Video games offer a chance for competition and an outlet for aggression that would otherwise be left unchecked.

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  5. Wing
    July 28, 2014 at 10:15 am

    Assuming your theory is correct, I wish politicians, military leaders, and corporate CEOs played more video games during working hours.

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    • Min
      July 28, 2014 at 10:20 am

      ; ; ;

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  6. LKT
    July 28, 2014 at 12:20 pm

    This is of course predicted by Star Trek TNG (as all great problems are) in “The Game” which, other than being well known for the kiss between Wil Wheaton and Ashley Judd, confronted the issue of a pointless but addictive game that rapidly spreads through the crew with the nefarious plot point to take over the Enterprise!

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Game_(Star_Trek:_The_Next_Generation)

    Allegory for modern society? Do note that throughout the episode while the crew plays the game, the Enterprise not out doing the traditional Cowboy diplomacy of the show. Rather, it is docile and sitting there, waiting…

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  7. July 28, 2014 at 12:21 pm

    like the attn to deeper sociological implications of games. another similar topic, “gamification” increasingly studied by academics/ experts & some new companies/ startups built on the idea. unf it appears to me that political engagement has been on a long decline in US long predating video games. this reminds me of “cycle of nations” misattributed to Tytler. http://www.flhef.org/pdf/The%20Cycle%20of%20Nations.pdf http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Fraser_Tytler#Misattribution

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  8. July 28, 2014 at 12:40 pm

    But what if I use RSS reader apps to stay politically informed with news and science and math blogs. Maybe I am reading more now than I did before because it has become so easy to digest a wide variety of sources. I find that many of my apps have allowed me to be more efficient and more up to the moment than when I was still rocking a slider-phone five years ago.

    tl;dr
    There are a lot of apps that aren’t games which allow me to more efficiently try to be awesome.

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  9. July 28, 2014 at 12:42 pm

    These guys used game sales charts as a proxy for time spent on violent video games and found that it had a small, but negative relationship with violent crime. (http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1804959)

    I’ve held the same hunch for years, and there’s probably a better way to get at your question of teenage time use shifting from ‘cruising for trouble outside’ and ‘cruising for trouble in Grand Theft Auto.’

    Also, there could be something more general regarding trends in TV/Computer time as a % of total leisure time for young adults in the American Time Use Survey (http://www.bls.gov/tus/).

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  10. July 28, 2014 at 2:13 pm

    Does this mean I should feel bad about all the time I spend watching chess videos on Youtube? Dammit!

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  11. davidflint
    July 28, 2014 at 2:49 pm

    In the UK we have crime numbers based on a large sample of ordinary people as well as the police reports. They show the decline too.

    Tests:
    – Did the fall in crime start when games became available? Are they correlated?
    – Did the fall, which applies in many countries, happen places without games? (Are there any?

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    • July 28, 2014 at 2:59 pm

      I think that’s the biggest problem. Games are everywhere.

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      • July 28, 2014 at 3:01 pm

        Yes, including the cops “gaming” the crime stats.

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  12. Rob
    July 29, 2014 at 12:17 pm

    The Matrix is an important prophetic movie in more ways than one.

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  13. ScentOfViolets
    July 29, 2014 at 1:47 pm

    When I was growing up fifty years ago, people spent their evenings on the front porch playing cards, talking with the neighbors, maybe drinking some beer or firing up the portable black and white while packs of kids swarmed the streets well past sunset. IOW, no air conditioning and primitive entertainment made for sociability. These days? Go back to the same neighborhoods and you’ll find the streets all but dead by six p.m. Everyone has full ac and very advanced electronic entertainment, and no one talks to nobody.

    Yeah, maybe crime has gone down. But if you want to find a root cause for lack of political activism, well thank the suburbs, air conditioning, and TV for that.

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  14. July 29, 2014 at 11:29 pm

    I might actually get back through some of the print books on the shelf. Or more knitting. One of the two. 😀

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  15. July 31, 2014 at 9:52 am

    what would happen? there would be riots.

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  1. August 1, 2014 at 4:45 pm
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