It was in 2011 that the Silicon Valley pioneer Marc Andreessen wrote “software is eating the world” in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal. At the time, software was quickly becoming the central axis of many business, transforming entire industries. Since I read it, that sentence has stayed with me; this idea of “software eating the world”. It simmered quietly in my mind until recently, when it popped up during a recent visit to Dublin. Sitting outside with a friend on a windy and grey afternoon, I commented on his new crisp white I-Phone 5C as he fingered it idly, waiting for a call. Like all Apple products, it is a beautiful device. He nodded satisfactorily at my compliment. “But,” he added, “I’m not gonna download tonnes of apps for it, I don’t want to be one of those people who spends their lives on their phones.”
He was pointing to a fascinating reality: That it is perfectly possible to spend your life on your phone. Social media, movies, music, bus times, takeaway orders, ordering a cab, Google maps, the vague cyber edifice that is “the cloud”. Need lodging: Airbnb. Need a ride: Uber. A date? Try Tinder. When Andreesen said that software was eating the world, it seems he didn’t just mean the business world—but the real one, too. Unlike the business world, though, so much of software’s dominance of the quotidian happened surreptitiously. One by one, we ceded different facets of our life to realm of software for the convenience it provided. Music and films were probably the first to fall — like most people in their early 20’s, I cannot honestly tell you the last time I bought a physical CD or rented a DVD. And it only progressed from there: Everything has become coded and, for lack of a better word, app-ified; a click of a button.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the conveniences of modern life. I couldn’t imagine living without a cell phone or Skype or Google maps (the new North Star). Nostalgia will only carry me so far before it is superseded by delicious comfort. But all this progress fills me with a slight sense of loss. Things did use to be way more of a communal experience. For those of us who grew up in the 90’s with siblings, I’m sure you can remember the delicate negotiations in the video store as everyone tried to reach a satisfactory compromise over which movies to get. An interaction like that is a quaint memory—we live in a world where babies use Ipads now. The technological convenience afforded by software has been bittersweet for me because my generation straddles the digital divide. There’s this before, almost a past life, that I can remember really well. And it’s all either gone or going; consigned to the annals of memory by accelerating change.
As I skim through Facebook, I see how the convenience of modern life has infected our social interactions. How easy social media makes it for us to trim away our flaws and present a gleaming portrait of ourselves. If you had to look at my Facebook, you would think I lead a debonair life. You wouldn’t see my countless failings or my love handles or my all too frequent bouts of loneliness. My profile is just me, my smile preserved for digital posterity. We are way plugged into the lives of others, but it is a superficial familiarity. We have become more uncomfortable with one another. The Silicon Valley executive and blogger Bernard Golden uses a clever turn of phrase: “Asset light and information rich”. He refers to business goliaths with software at their core, bereft of store fronts and all the other trappings of the 20th century. But Golden’s phrase has another, unintended meaning to me: My life has become asset light and information rich, too. I know where you went for your summer vacation, but I don’t know you, really.
There’s no need to pull away from software or technology or modern convenience — I love all those things. But don’t become consumed by them, either. In my time at university, I learned (the hard way) that if I used my debit card, I overspent ridiculously. Psychologically, it was as if the money I gave out with that convenient piece of plastic wasn’t real; currency lost its weight, texture, and smell. So I got into the habit of drawing my money, one chunk at a time, carefully rationing it. When I punctured the bubble of convenience, heavy coins making my wallet fat, I was able to remember what I was giving away. This new awareness was not only financially beneficial, but also freeing. It was just a small way for me keep sane and unplug from this elaborate matrix we have constructed. In the same way, maybe it’s time to escape from the pervasive mood of techno-utopianism and to remember that nothing comes without a cost — not even convenience.