there’s an app for that

Illustration of a few ingredients

When I was a kid, I enjoyed looking at a monthly catalogue called Useful and Hard-To-Find Ideas. It was full of gadgets that looked useful, but you’d almost never need. Things like a solar powered hat with a fan, a cushion with a parasol for the beach, or scissors with a pointing laser to help you cut in a straight line.

I don’t think I ever bought anything from there, but don’t quote me on that! We made a game out of finding the craziest things.

Around the same time, my mom had several single-use kitchen tools. I remember one gadget that could remove the seeds of multiple cherries at once. In just a few minutes, you could process enough cherries to make a pie, but you’d be lucky to find anything else the gadget was good for. You could maybe pit olives with it, but that’s about it. It saved time when used for the specific problem the inventor had envisioned, but didn’t have much else to offer.

It’s not so different with computing today. A lot of programmers, startups, and companies these days focus on single-use gadgets — an app for a specific niche. In fact, you’ve probably heard the line that for any problem you might have, there’s an app for that.

We fill our devices with single-use apps, and I can’t really blame the developers. It’s much easier to stumble upon a problem and find a specific solution with a nice user interface. This approach works for fixing simple problems.

But imagine how that would work in a kitchen. In this metaphorical kitchen, you can only use that particular knife for potatoes, and that one for mushrooms. This pot is only for pasta, but if you add salt, you need to use a different pot. To eat one dish, you must use this fork, but the fork just won’t work for another dish.

How crazy would that be? And how unusable! And if you look at the multitude of apps on your phone, you’ll see it’s not really any different.

We have been conditioned to think this is how computers work — to get a new app for every new thing we want to do. We think this is normal and we don’t question it. We accept only a single reality, one where everything has been packaged up and been sold to us.

The problem with this approach is twofold. First, most apps and platforms are walled gardens, with no easy way to transfer information between them. This prevents you from combining apps to solve bigger problems, as the apps simply have no way to work together. Back in the metaphorical kitchen, this means not being able to move dough from one bowl to another, or not being able to combine two ingredients for the meal you want to make.

The second reason is more significant: we focus on solving each individual problem one by one. But that’s not what we need! We need a broader approach. We need to step back from the immediate problems and develop an understanding of how we can leverage the whole system.

When you’re cooking something, you don’t think about the individual parts of the process as separate things, but rather about the meal you’ll have in the end, achieved by using your tools and skills appropriately, and combining them into a whole.

If you have a look at Doug Engelbart’s NLS, Ivan Sutherland’s Sketchpad, Alan Kay’s Dynabook, or maybe even Excel, you can see approaches rooted in systems thinking. Sharing content, working collaboratively, linking to specific aspects of your work, creating and re-using objects, and basing your work on the work of others were all integral parts of these systems. They weren’t apps that you had to install to use.

I don’t see any of that at a systems level today. What do we have? Files and copy & paste? For everything else we need an app. But yeah, there’s an app for that.

Dynabook, Sketchpad, and NLS, among others, are proof the status quo can be broken.

We need to use our computer as a system, and combine multiple tools rather than collecting single-use apps, so we become better at thinking and problem solving. We need to get better at collaborating, so we solve our problems collectively, by sharing our ideas and creations with each other. We need to think in terms of systems, so we stop re-inventing the wheel with each new app, and begin to raise our collective intelligence.

Apps — and single-use gadgets — might be slick, and look cool, but they aren’t the way to a brighter future.

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