Last night my wife asked me if I’d heard about an iPhone app called Yo. When she explained the concept and told me the company had raised money, I thought she might be joking. (I really should have learned my Silicon Valley lessons by now. I shouldn’t be surprised.)
I’m not a huge fan of the shocking tech news du jour (this is the first time I’ve posted about it), but I think there’s an important observation about philosophy of technology to be seen.
First, here’s what Yo does1:
Yo is a very simple app. It allows you to send a push notification to anyone else with the app. All of those notifications say the same thing: “Yo.”
The company has received $1 million in investment. The best part, though, is the philosophical rationale from the founder (from the same ThinkProgress article):
Arbel says that “you usually understand what the Yo means based on who you get it from and when you get it.” According to Arbel, once you start using Yo “the way it affects your life is profound.” He noted that many of the reviews of Yo in the app store say things like “Yo changed my life.”
The article goes on to mention that many of those reviews smack of sarcasm.
The existence of these trivial experiences isn’t good or bad in and of itself, it’s how we view them as creators and users that matters. Said another way, it’s how we steward our time and skills as well as the time of people who use what we create that produces positive and negative consequences.
In the case of Yo, the founder’s justification of how ‘profound’ such a trivial tool is troubling to me. There’s a strong likelihood that the Silicon Valley mindset of ‘build it to sell it’ is the driving force behind the hype (for the founder and investors), but the bigger question to me is the mindset behind the value of the application—if your goal is to significantly improve someone’s life with a communication tool, it’s hard to see how Yo accomplishes that unless you hold the view that any technology is good technology.
One form of that philosophy is called Technological Determinism, “a reductionist theory that presumes that a society’s technology drives the development of its social structure and cultural values.2”
Author Michael L. Smith put’s it another way:
[Technological Determinism] …is the belief that social progress is driven by technological innovation, which in turn follows an “inevitable” course.
If technology is inevitable and the stuff of social progress, creating something just because you can—trivial or not—has a much easier time being justified. That’s not necessarily a good thing. In fact, doing things just because you can can be dangerous. I’ll write more on that subject in future posts, but for now a good starting point is a post called “Why A Life Made Easier By Technology May Not Necessarily Be Happier” by Michael Sacasas3. Here’s an excerpt:
Wu worries that technologies of convenience may rob our action “of the satisfaction we hoped it might contain.” Toward the end of his post, he urges readers to “take seriously our biological need to be challenged, or face the danger of evolving into creatures whose lives are more productive but also less satisfying.”
Talking about the dangers of technology in response to seemingly trivial things like Yo might seem extreme. Maybe it is, but our decisions aren’t neutral and there’s a view of the world behind each of them4 that influences each decision we make. We would do well to think hard about the philosophy of those who create the technologies we use.
1. Read a full article about Yo on ThinkProgress.2. Read more about Technological Determinism on Wikipedia.3. Read the full post about technology and happiness.4. Read my post about values, beliefs and the actions that flow from them.