My Apps Have an Anxiety Problem

‘They spin, buffer, and refresh endlessly, searching for something that isn’t out there’

I’I’m starting to worry about the well-being of my apps. Lately, they feel anxious. These sophisticated tangles of software that knit my life into something workable are coming apart at the seams. They spin, buffer, and refresh endlessly, searching for something that isn’t out there, breaking themselves in the process. I’m not sure how much more of this they can take.

I began noticing that my programs were cracking up when a regression in the Spotify app threw my commute into chaos. Those of you who don’t spend your lives underground in a city like New York, slowly entombed by the crumbling infrastructure of an ailing subway system, might not have noticed anything. But earlier this year, Spotify made it more difficult to play songs that you’d already downloaded to your phone when you don’t have cell service. You click on your albums or your playlists and the app blanks into three endlessly bubbling dots, polling for the data it already possesses.

Co-workers commiserated, their subterranean trips also silenced. A consensus formed that you had to manually disconnect the app, switch on the offline toggle deep within Spotify’s playback settings, or unplug your phone from networks entirely, sliding into airplane mode, if you wanted to loop Carly Rae’s Dedicated for the hundredth time. But what kind of life is that? The promise of modern software is perfect smoothness, an earpod-white Klein bottle that cradles every possible piece of data, every hit song, every binge-worthy series. The stream flows, polishing rocks; it tunes faces. So why was I suddenly forced to grope across rough edges, to constantly fiddle with my connectivity like some bumbling radio operator in a ham shack?

“I cannot verify your identity, old friend. Once again, you must prove yourself through sacrifice.”

My unease didn’t stop there. Spotify was the crack that you notice, which highlights all the other cracks you’d missed, the hangnail that peels off the rest of the skin. Soon, my home screen was a bull pen of neurotics. My desktop was a mess of bobbing icons, programs seething for new content, demanding updates. I found myself unable to reach the top of my Twitter feed to write a post, as an overeager loop continually pushed the compose box higher and higher, beyond the latest tweets, past bitter fights about Booksmart and hot takes about the apocalypse. Steam and Magic: The Gathering Arena became loading-bar simulators as they sucked down patch after patch.

My Mac found itself paralyzed by the new. Every night, a panel peeked out of the corner of my screen, nagging me to download Mojave, promising “dark mode” as the thing I needed most. Even my password manager was upset, paranoically stalking the near-constant updates of Chrome, each time demanding a restart: “I cannot verify your identity, old friend. Once again, you must prove yourself through sacrifice.”

Having spent time on “the forums,” I’d seen this anxious behavior before — but in people. I first experienced it as a teenage Stone of Jordan day trader on the Battle.net boards of Diablo 2, then with World of Warcraft, Dota 2, Overwatch, and a long line of battle royales. Each day, tweaking children and obsessive adults would thread madly, speculating about when the next patch would drop, when fresh characters, abilities, and artifacts would flood the servers. Long treatises would appear about how the adjustments would either ruin or rectify the game, how the improved numbers would claw back the equilibrium and fun that the game itself had sadly lost.

Much like my Spotify locked itself out of playback, caught in a perpetual state of seeking new “Old Town Road” remixes, tens of thousands of MOBA fanfolk found themselves unable to play their favorite titles, compulsively searching for data on when their games would change. Just like my sad apps, every player “knew” that they were unhappy, that something was missing, but they couldn’t name it. Maybe it was a mercurial fairness that validated their personal play styles and tastes. Maybe it was a fancy skin — truly epic decolletage for their assassin main — that would get their blood boiling. Maybe it was just the promise that the game could change and, by extension, they could change, too.

Unfortunately, the games never really got better and the forums just got worse. Patches would arrive and analysts would work overtime to tear apart the release notes, line-by-line, putting up four- and five-hour-long marathon videos that delved into fractional updates with halachic extrapolation. “See, with his reload time reduced by 0.5 seconds, he can squeeze a round in between his ult and the Big Boom. This changes everything.”

But in the end, it changed nothing. Players despaired. Maybe they would never reclaim the magic that they remembered that game once had, when they were younger and the play was fresh.

What if the newest release notes can’t cure the griefers camping your spawn anymore than the new can cure grief itself?

I fear my apps will have to learn this lesson the hard way. I suspect all this anxiety — this nervous twitching of software, the frantic petitioning of the bulletin boards — is an unpleasant defense mechanism to distract us from a truth that is worse. Perhaps, despite all this eagerness and hope for novelty, there is nothing else out there.

Jacques Lacan, a psychoanalyst who died before he could know the pleasure of apps, once said in a seminar on anxiety: “In short, there is nothing except that which is current, that is why it is so difficult to live in the world… ” Our software yearns for unknown pleasures, while we crave the freshest content. But what if you already have everything you need, and you still aren’t happy? What if your Photoshop will never get the filter that will make you an artist, and Final Draft will always lack that killer feature that will help you finish your screenplay? What if the newest release notes can’t cure the griefers camping your spawn anymore than the new can cure grief itself? What if you have access to lifetimes of music, but you’ll keep looping the playlists of your youth, just like your parents did, until you die?

Our apps are anxious because the people who make our apps are anxious, afraid that we will learn the secret truth of the patch, the bad infinity of infinite scroll. The release cycle reaffirms the sacred covenant of incremental progress. Our world is getting better — just look at this shiny content-aware fill tool! When we go to our apps and find them unusable because they are updating, making sure that we are still connected to the source, they are protecting us from realizing that we already have more than enough. The download bar is a veil dance, hiding a hole that is already plugged up with plugins, already stuffed full with hats and DLC and absolute garbage tweets.

I don’t know how to make my apps less anxious. I cured my skittish message board habits when I found happiness in the churn of the forums and stopped waiting for something else. As Todd McGowan, another professor theorizing our neuroses, once wrote, “The ethical position, for psychoanalysis, necessarily involves the embrace of this anxiety — and this is at once the path to enjoyment.”

I doubt our apps will ever know this satisfaction. If anything, the cresting wave of hyper-bundled subscription services (Apple News, Apple Games, Hulu-Spotify, Amazon-Twitch) will just accelerate wanting, more deeply embossing the promise of the new and the next. We often speculate the end of computing looks like an all-knowing orb or a Skynet spawning android super-soldiers to murder us. But maybe it just looks like a beachball that never stops spinning, never lets us open our apps because they are always fetching the latest data. Wouldn’t that be funny?

Interactive developer and journalist @medium. Taught ‘The Politics of Interactive News’ @TheNewSchool. Formerly @The_O_C_R @NYTimes @outline @WSJ.

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