Piers Dillon-Scott


For apps, there's a fine line between enhancing & distracting from real-world experiences

Too often smartphone apps try distract from the experience – the truly innovative ones try to enhance the experience.

At 3:31 pm on January 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 crash-landed into New York’s Hudson River. The flight had taken off six minutes earlier from LaGuardia Airport.

Just moments after becoming airborne the plane struck a large flock of geese – the impact of which cut the plane’s two engines and obscured the pilots' view.

With no visibility, no power, the engines on fire, and the cabin filling with smoke the Captain took the only decision he could, and glided the aircraft over the river, where he ditched the plane.

He made a textbook ditch, but the force of the impact (the plan was travelling at 240km/h) tore the craft’s undercarriage apart. With water flooding into the fuselage, and the plane sinking fast, the 155 passengers and crew began emergency evacuations.

But they had nowhere to go. The water temperature was a flat 0°C, and even then few passengers could swim. All they could do was stand on the plane’s sinking wings, hoping for rescue boats to arrive – a task made more difficult as the river's strong current began dragging the craft away from the harbour.

With the passengers stranded, a flotilla of boats responded to the emergency. On board one of those was 23-year-old Jānis Krūms, who, just five minutes after Flight 1549 ditched, posted this photo of the scene on Twitter.

This was defining moment for Twitter, and the media, and for everyone.

For the first time in Twitter’s two and half year history it had broken a major news story (and did so in a way that the media never could). For the media, Krūms’ tweet broke the news media’s fourth wall – in the days after the crash media outlets reported as much on his tweet as they did on the crash itself (they’re still talking about it now).

And for everyone else, Krūms tweet became a sign that, increasingly, our world is mediated through small rectangular panes of Gorilla Glass.

In September this year Scott Welch had a similar moment. After a small explosion, the cabin of his JetBlue flight to Austin, Texas began filling with acrid smoke. As the oxygen masks fell from the ceiling, and as some of his fellow passengers began to panic, Scott - along with some other passengers - pulled out his phone and began filming. He then posted the video to YouTube.

“I was considering the fact that my family might not see me again,” Scott told the New York Times when asked why, in such an emergency, he decided to video the experience.

This behaviour isn’t new, it used to be called Kodak Courage; the process of taking unnecessary risks or going beyond what one would normally do to record the moment. While in the 80s it was confined to SLR junkies, now that we all have HD video cameras attached to our smartphones it’s gone mainstream. Some psychologists are even arguing that smartphones, specifically the act of taking photographs, are removing us from the physical world and altering how we experience and remember the events we’re trying to record.

Speaking to NPR psychologist Linda Henkel says, “As soon as you hit 'click' on that camera, it's as if you've outsourced your memory. Any time we ... count on these external memory devices, we're taking away from the kind of mental cognitive processing that might help us actually remember that stuff on our own.”

This argument that digital media removes us from the moment seems like, and is often framed as, a severe cultural change brought about by technology, but it’s anything of the sort. Writing over 1500 years ago, Plato (yes, I’m about to quote Plato here) made similar arguments against increased literacy,

“[writing] will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.

“What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.”

If writing provides a conceit of wisdom, then do smartphones (and their apps and cameras) provide a conceit of experience?

Perhaps. Since it’s subjective it’s often hard to predict if technology is enhancing, becoming, or degrading the experience.

Arguably fitness trackers such as Fitbit and Jawbone Up encourage their users to exercise more often (an interesting take on Kodak Courage). While Google’s Now app, which attempts to predict and then display information users need, can improve mundane or laborious activities.

And for the past two years Twitter has been positioning itself as “the social soundtrack” of TV – the company believes that its constant stream of users’ tweets provides a sense of community to event TV. Twitter’s proposition does as much to enhance TV as it does to distract from the viewing experience.

For many users smartphones have a place in many of their day-to-day experiences, but all too often they become a distraction from those experiences – the question brands and developers need to ask is, how can their apps enhance users’ experience, and when (if at all) should their apps become the experience?

Also this week, the quantum mechanics and traffic jams, the secret within Facebook’s Messenger app, the man who invented the mouse.


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Illustration: Patrick Cusack

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