App-athy and the Value of Information


digitalarcheologyIn the early to mid-nineties, I became enamored with the idea of lean information systems.  This was back when software applications were getting bloated and trying to be all things to all people but were unsatisfying to just about everyone. At the same time, enterprise applications were being set up to try to control all kinds of business processes in the name of cost control and efficiency. Multimillion dollar installations of enterprise systems employed countless consultants setting up, implementing and maintaining these applications that cast a generic set of industry specific best practices in the silicon equivalent of wet cement.

Lean manufacturing pundits mocked the wave of MRP/ERP implementations as a poor substitute for actually improving the flow and productivity of the manufacturing facility, while technology enthusiasts envisioned seamless integration across all business functions.

Amidst all of that divergent noise, I tried to use my tiny brain to envision what a lean information system would look like.  At the time, the “lean” system that I imagined would be easy to use, quick to launch and optimized for the task at hand. The idea was for a simple tool to do one thing and do it very well. Of course, I had no idea how any of this would happen, since that didn’t really fit any IT company’s business model or any user’s scenario of use. Today, this sounds a lot like an “app” to me.

Of course, a funny thing happened on the way to the App Store. At first, I didn’t really get it. I thought apps were just a cutesy name for improving the web experience on a mobile device. I thought that this was a nice capability, but it wasn’t going to really change my life (kind of like gadgets and widgets). For some crazy reason, all I cared about was being to get my email (not that my email is all that interesting) from just about anywhere. However, apps caught on like crazy. Admittedly, some apps are amazingly clever. I am particularly fond of the ones that use the sensing capabilities of mobile phones to present information in a slick time saving manner, but I find that most apps are a distraction to getting real things done. Maybe some cranky old bastard said the same thing about the PC and PC programs when they became all the rage back in the 1980s. “You’re going to store recipes, balance your checkbook, write letters and play games on that ugly expensive box sitting on a desk in a spare room. Sounds like a good use of time to me…and you’re going to spend close to $2000 for a machine that would be obsolete in 2 to 3 years.” (Actually, I think my Dad did say that… He is also famous for saying that there’s no future in computers – even though he worked on the Whirlwind project at MIT in the late 1940s. That’s a story for another time – perhaps titled “Sh*t my dad said”.)

In contrast to the PC, today’s mobile phones are small, unobtrusive and comparatively inexpensive (even including the monthly fees) in contrast. I know that they are remarkable devices for staying organized, staying in touch, staying informed, staying entertained, but paradoxically they are devaluing information and human interaction (not that I care that much about human interaction). The idea that “there is an App for that” is empowering, but it may have exactly the opposite effect. In the same way that printing money can devalue a currency, more information doesn’t equate to more valuable information. Some information is so timely and critical that its value can’t really be questioned, but all information has an expiration date at which point its value diminishes. The immediacy and availability of apps definitely increases the perceived value of the information, but I am not so sure that the ability to rapidly post a photo (embarrassing or not) to Facebook via an app has really improved the long-term value of information.

While digital storage keeps getting cheaper, and the process of turning an analog reality into a digital virtual reality gets easier all of the time, it is important to note that all data is created equal in the eyes of the storage device. Data stored on a digital device (whether it is local or in the cloud) has no intrinsic value unless someone ascribes some value to it – either by acting on that data directly or creating a routine to seek out value from that particular set of digitally stored information (data mining).

Undoubtedly, the PhD digital archeologists of the future will have a field day meticulously diving through the bytes and bits of our everyday lives, and the archives of Google, Facebook and Twitter and will likely yield some rich perspective about life in our times.  I am still skeptical about the current day value of apps and the obsession with informational minutiae.

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