Today’s Apps Are Turning Us Into Sociopaths


Illustration: McMillan Digital Art/Getty

For Evan Selinger writes:  While I am far from a Luddite who fetishizes a life without tech, we need to consider the consequences of this latest batch of apps and tools that remind us to contact significant others, boost our willpower, provide us with moral guidance, and encourage us to be civil. Taken together, we’re observing the emergence of tech that doesn’t just augment our intellect and lives — but is now beginning to automate and outsource our humanity.

But let’s take a concrete example. Instead of doing the professorial pontification thing we tech philosophers are sometimes wont to do, I talked to the makers of BroApp, a “clever relationship wingman” (their words) that sends “automated daily text messages” to your significant other. It offers the promise of “maximizing” romantic connection through “seamless relationship outsourcing.”

Now, it’s perfectly possible that this app is a parody (the promo video includes bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto and feminist voice Germaine Greer among the demo contacts), and its creators “James” and “Tom” didn’t share their last names with me. But my 29-year-old interlocutors — one who apparently has a degree in Engineering and Mathematics, the other in Design and Applied Finance — had clearly thought deeply about why relationship management tools are socially desirable and will be increasingly integrated into our everyday lives.

Drawn here and shared with permission is their rationale, which I believe goes beyond just this one app. So even if it’s a parody (indeed, sadly “we can’t tell”), it captures a real automation-app trend and widely held convictions in the tech community we need to pay attention to.

First, some quick background on how BroApp works: It not only sends scheduled texts, but comes preloaded with 12 messages to help users get started. The developers also took steps to conceal the automation going on behind the scenes; in places designated “no bro zones,” the app is automatically disabled. (After all, the jig is up if your girlfriend received an automatic text from you while you’re at her place.) The app even has a rating system that lowers the risk of the same message being sent too frequently.

Despite the fact that the app currently advertises the core benefit of spending “more time with the bros”, it included other scenarios in the initially testing according to the developers: “A girl who used it to message her boyfriend.” Someone who “used it to message her Mum a few times a week.” But let’s put aside the many gender implications for a moment. There’s certainly much to discuss there, and by no means do I want to dismiss the fact that this type of thing exacerbates power differentials and perpetuates the problem of sexism in the tech industry.

Yet the app also suggests something else more subtly problematic that provoked me to focus more on how it functions than the obvious concerns around how it is depicted…(read more)


Evan Selinger is a Fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology who focuses on the collisions between technology, ethics, and law. At Rochester Institute of Technology, Selinger is Associate Professor of Philosophy and is affiliated with the Center for Media, Arts, Games, Interaction & Creativity (MAGIC).

One Comment on “Today’s Apps Are Turning Us Into Sociopaths”

  1. […] Pundit from another Planet Illustration: McMillan Digital Art/Getty For Evan Selinger writes: While I am far from a Luddite […]

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