Goodbye Junk Mail, Hello Junk Apps

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Are apps that hail cabs and grow food that's incapable of being ingested really changing the world? Or are they simply making the world weirder and more disconnected?

Goodbye Junk Mail, Hello  Junk Apps
Junk food goes digital.

When I drove a cab in New York City in the early 1980s, Forbes never did stories about hacks. (That's another term for cabbies. I'm not talking about my writing here.) We were happy if someone didn't shoot us and take our cash and boom boxes. But now, in the age of Digital Realization, cab rides are business news. Last week I got a release from a PR firm announcing that Uber had introduced an app that allows people to share rides. How many data divas spent how many weeks cranking out code to deliver society that piece of progress? Because, you see, in my experience, ride-sharing would take place unassisted by digital tools when two individuals would simultaneously lunge for my cab at 4 a.m. outside of Crisco's Disco (a hotspot in the Meatpacking District when meat was still packed there) and learn they were both heading to the Upper East Side. No matter how thoroughly plastered and digitally deprived they were, the deal was instantly consummated. (So, occasionally, was other stuff in that back seat, but we need not get into that.)

It's amazing how the addition of digital technology can make Mashable editors and venture capitalists froth at the mouth. If all of a sudden you started getting Polaroids in the mail of meals and vacations from your mom and the guy in the cube next to you at work, would you mail them back an approving reply or place calls to psychiatrists and police officials? Direct mail has been derided as junk mail, but direct mail has a tangible reality to it and offers discounts. It may be time to transfer that appellation and start talking about junk apps.

What happened to the time when inventions like the locomotive, the automobile, and the telephone generated all the press and investment dollars? When leading tech industries produced essential innovations that reduced our work days, made us more productive, and enriched our humanity? Thomas Edison would have a hard row to hoe these days—unless, of course, he could discover ingenious ways to re-create farm life.

Two of the 10 most used apps in the mobile sphere let people become digital farmers, ironic in that the majority of the world's population lives in a city, according to the latest figures from the World Health Organization. Back in 1990 when the Internet was still largely the plaything of college professors, only 40% were urbanites. Now, sitting in the smelly A train on my ride to work down Manhattan's West Side, I watch building superintendents and rising young executives seated nearby on smartphones tending their blackcurrants and pak choi as we lumber into Columbus Circle. If they're successful in growing their “Cropsies” on Farm Heroes Saga, they get digital pictures of flourishing plants. Something tells me that if Edison were alive today, he would employ the prevailing technology to produce an actual salad.

And that would be a good thing. We could use the food. Following WWII, the population of the world was about 3.5 billion. It's now double that and, according to an ongoing series on food in National Geographic, there'll be 2 billion more mouths to feed by the middle of this century, while farmland will be maxed out. Steve Jobs had a famous quote that said that the people who were crazy enough to think they could change the world are the ones who do. He was talking about himself and his Silicon Valley brethren. Apparently, they are crazy enough to claim billions of potential human work-hours for the mission of cultivating virtual acres of digital broccoli for a soon-to-be starving world.

Even Silicon Valley denizens are beginning to voice their disdain for such digital decadence. One is Sam Altman, who runs a startup accelerator called Y Combinator. In a story titled “Silicon Valley State of Mind” in the current issue of Bloomberg Businessweek, Altman says that “When you have people doing things that seem inconsequential, that aren't changing the world as they claim…people really hate that. That's a special kind of arrogance.”

I like to end on a positive note, so for you millionaire code-writers looking to polish your images, as well as your Maseratis, here are some ideas for apps that just might do you and society some good.

RemoRobot: For remote workers, this app would simulate diligent digital at-home work habits. Sets off a phone alarm to alert users to work emergencies when at the nail salon or golf course.

Alive: Big for Baby Boomers, this would create a digital identity for their dead pensioner spouses so they could continue to collect his/her Social Security checks. C'mon, you one-percenters can afford it.

Fly: Makes people weightless for 8 seconds so they don't have to pay Virgin Galactic $250,000 for the experience.

DeInker: Removes unwanted tattoos. Guaranteed, this would be No. 1 in the App Store in 2025.

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