Columns 2014

Reality app diminishes our world

I realize that the younger generation has never known a world without the Internet. They’ve never known a world in which they were not connected at all times to all people. To them, this is as natural as breathing. Yet every once in a while, I read something that causes me to think all these advances might in someway actually be causing future generations to miss out on some of life’s greatest adventures. The very thing that was supposed to open the world up to us is, in fact, closing it down around us.

These thoughts occurred when I read an article about new apps being developed that would allow you to see the entire floor plan of any store you entered. You’d be relieved of the tedious process of pushing a cart up and down an aisle looking for that specific peppered vinegar because the floor plan on your phone would tell you exactly where it was. These new apps carry the somewhat sinister sounding title of augmented reality apps.

I’ve always found reality quite real enough for me. Never actually felt a need to augment it.  But I’m pretty sure this app would not be developed unless developers had a plan for making people want it by convincing them it was what had been missing from their lives all along.

I understand the appeal of this product to a busy parent who needs to run into the store and grab something for dinner on their way home from work. But I also know that my palate has been greatly enhanced because I’ve discovered some new product while looking for something familiar.  How will anyone ever discover anything anymore if they confine themselves to only the things they know? How small of a world will they eventually inhabit?

The Internet, that mega-elephant in every room, was supposed to give us instant access to the world. And it has. The problem seems to be that we don’t use it to explore the unknown world. We use it to find places that are comfortable and easy because they are merely more of what we already know. Conservatives trend towards conservative websites, liberals to liberal sites. These sites re-enforce what people who go to them already believe. No other viewpoint is fairly presented or adequately explored, thereby making the case all the stronger for beliefs already held.

I recently used the Internet to book a “girls’ weekday weekend” in Las Vegas. Two friends and I go every year to relax and feed the penny slots all our hard earned PFD monies. We have a regular hotel we like but I decided to explore other options to see if there was somewhere else we might want to stay. My wandering through those other sites apparently triggered some engine somewhere in the ether to view me as a potential client for every other venue in Vegas. I am now haunted by ads for the city and its amenities. And I do mean haunted.

On every webpage I go to, from Words with Friends to my e-mail to Facebook, I find ads for Vegas splattered up and down the sides of the page and sometimes across the top. I don’t know how long this will continue. On the plus side, at least it prevents erectile dysfunction ads from popping up (pun fully intended).

As marketers find more and more refined ways to hone in on our every secret pleasure, our every favorite food, our every esteemed vacation spot, they market to us in narrower and narrower ways. Instead of expanding our world, they constrict it to only those things they’ve figured out we already like. Breaking out of that comfort zone and traveling into areas unknown apparently takes time and effort and many of us simply don’t seem willing to put that effort out. So we become more and more insular. We become less and less adventurous. We fall back on the known and recoil at the challenge of the unknown.

I discovered Asian spices walking up and down grocery aisles looking for wild rice. I discovered Mexican salsas while looking for Parmesan cheese. I discovered a whole world of grains while idly cruising the health food section of the store. I don’t want an app that will take that from me. And neither should you.