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?