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Notes Toward Apps To Reconnect Me (And/Or Other People) With (My) Childhood

Did you hear that the Paris Review now has its own iOS app? Here at the Indiana Review, we would also like to have our own iOS app, but, as winter approaches, we are still working on learning to make fire. Earlier this week, EIC Jen Luebbers got us really close to our goal of a warm workspace by leading group prayers to a horned god she learned about on Wikipedia and tearing up for kindling a set of felt-covered chapbooks her students had carefully bound last semester (poetry burns so well), but then a breeze came through the window and blew away the embers and now there is goat blood oxidizing across the walls of the office and nobody wants to clean it up. Recently I decided I don’t want to be an important literary figure anymore because I feel like continuing to do that “job” for the rest of my life will just involve me getting increasingly sadder and poorer and more self-involved until I die, so I’m auditioning new careers for myself now, and one thing I am maybe thinking about doing, especially in light of this new development from the Paris Review, is app designer, which seems like an important and potentially lucrative contemporary career and also still kind of “creative,” which is maybe important to my sense of self or what is left of it since my poetry collection “i noticed but it was too late and you were gone and i felt like i couldn’t do anything besides send an impotent text” was rejected by Muumuu House. Another thing I am considering being is a professional nostalgia facilitator, which is not actually a specific career yet but is only bound to become more and more important (and more importantly, lucrative) as Americans confronting the grim facts of contemporary reality retreat into nostalgia for their youth cultures (or earlier youth cultures) at younger and younger ages (I hear that Rookie is launching a new vertical for children who are preverbal but still can’t get over the fact that Freaks and Geeks was canceled after one season and Liz Phair did that album with the Matrix). Anyway, this week I “worked” on essaying both app design and nostalgia facilitation.

App that uses Google Maps API to require user, at a certain point in the middle of the afternoon, regardless of what “important” thing user is doing, to go outside for an hour. GPS functionality enables app to verify that user has gone outside; if user has not gone outside within five minutes of being asked or if user comes back inside more than five minutes before the hour time limit is up, app “takes away your toys” (randomly deletes entertainment apps from the user’s mobile device) and/or blocks access to user’s email and messaging apps (“time out” mode).

App for tablets that populates a high resolution three dimensional rendering of a beige shag carpet with a pile of Legos distributed through the weave of the carpet in randomly generated patterns of construction and deconstruction. User is not given functionality to build anything with the bricks because, given user’s age and general state of high anxiety and general state of low imagination, the pressure to build things with the digital bricks, so wonderful and infinite as a child, might seem frustrating or too much pressure or just pointless (designer does not want to inspire in user questions like “how can I monetize my lego creation?”). Instead of building, user, through multi-touch gestures and swipes, picks up the scattered bricks from the fake carpet and drags them into a large blue plastic receptacle for storage. User receives occasional achievement bonuses for particularly large drops. On having put away all the blocks, user is told by my mother’s voice, “Good job. Thanks!” and app is “put away” (locked by OS) until next day.

App linked to bank account that tracks the amount user spends daily and then translates that amount of money into concrete comparisons user’s younger self would understand, which are then sent to the user via push notifications. Comparisons are built with user-curated Amazon Wishlists (prices adjusted for inflation); rent payment becomes “ninety-seven GI Joes”; cable bill becomes “ten thousand Pixie Sticks.” Through translation, user is made newly grateful for what user usually complains is not enough money to “have a life.”

App linked to Fresh Direct account (where available) that selects and purchases user’s groceries based on a menu set up by OCRing of phone pictures taken of my mother’s old recipe cards along with a random sampling of digital archive of recipes from Cooking Light circa 1993-1996. App, like childhood, has positive and negative aspects: intense Proustian reconnection with younger self is inspired by daily sampling of tastes and smells of childhood, but app also involves user eating a lot of dry chicken breasts coated in McCormick’s “Greek” seasoning and choking down booger yellow green lima beans and mushy canned peas and other foods user has likely never once tried and would never try to eat as an adult, not even if someone “deconstructed” or “reframed” them.

App that uses accelerometer linked to mobile video player noise effects to simulate the sense of physical connection I felt with the antenna of the wood-paneled analog television in my elementary school bedroom. User walks slowly around his/her location in sock feet, moving the mobile device along the x and y axes and at varying angles of tilt to attempt to get a clear reproduction of the image and sound of the source, an attempt that will never succeed. To catch up with latest episodes of favorite TV shows, user is forced to stand on toes, squat in corner, hold phone above head with arm painfully outstretched. App renders experience of video consumption “active” without requiring that activity to be “social,” since I was usually alone when I touched the TV this way. (related: app that gamifies a simulation of the experience of adjusting the tracking on a VHS tape (compare clarity scores with friends on XBLA style leaderboard))

App that uses front-facing camera to reproduce live view of user’s face on screen. If facial recognition algorithm does not recognize user as wearing glasses, app overlays onto his or her face a realistic three dimensional model of the owlish round brown glasses I wore when I was in kindergarten. App then plays, at semi-random intervals, loops the voices of various children, male and female, saying, “Your glasses are stupid. Kids with glasses are stupid. You are ugly. You are so stupid and ugly. I hate you,” and etc. These messages also occasionally cover the image viewer’s face on the screen in simulated crayon or marker and hover as slowly fading palimpsests over the user’s screen even after app is closed and voices have stopped. App occasionally vibrates to simulate being kicked or shoved.

App that replaces system clock in order to simulate childhood experience of the fabric of time. Instead of each minute containing sixty seconds and each hour containing sixty minutes, app makes time wildly variable — “five minutes” may take fifteen minutes to pass or may be gone in thirty seconds.

App that embargoes local copies of and blocks streaming links to or search engine queries for a certain television show until user has, in a paired Nook or Kindle API app, read the longest available recap (app spiders Television Without Pity, Grantland, Vulture, and selected other blogs) of the television show at least fourteen times. App simulates childhood experience of reading bad mass market paperback novelizations of movies I loved as a way of trying to connect with those movies, which I was unable to access on a regular basis because of scarcity. App forces user to find value in what content is available or find another way to entertain self without access to content.

Related: meta-app that integrates with mobile OS and is linked with a copy of itself on the mobile device of a friend, family member, or romantic partner. App enacts “sharing”: when an app is in use on one mobile device, it disappears from the other mobile device and vice versa. (Designer wants user to consider; in a world of infinite digital copies of the things that children want, is it possible or important to teach sharing?) Through integrated messaging/barter system, user can trade access to certain apps for access to other apps for user selectable periods of time. Parent mode, when enabled, allows a third user on a third mobile device to dictate the terms of in ways that user 1 and user 2 may find arbitrary and unfair but will have no control over; third user is able to remove access to apps altogether if user 1 and user 2 can’t find a way to cooperate.

App that misdirects or blocks access to bandwidth from hi-speed WiFi or 4G Internet connection to simulate experience of using a 28.8k modem (33.6k mode available through in-app purchase). User is able to engage with literal rather than metaphorical “slow web” and consider whether this “slow web” is actually a thing user wants to happen.

App that integrates with mobile browser and uses HTML5 to add occasional age-verification checks to websites the user tries to access through mobile or tablet browser. Instead of 18 or 21, age to be verified is set to be several years older than my age, which is 26. User (if user is under 26), when confronted by these checks, instead of remembering a time when he or she had to lie about his or her age to get into websites and being reminded of how he or she is too old to need to do that now and feeling depressed about this fact, gets some small reminder of the illicit pleasure once involved in sneaking in to darker corners of the Web.

App that cuts together fragments of Youtube clips of elementary school girls in mesh shorts playing basketball in a fluorescent gymnasium and fragments of YouPorn clips of contemporary lesbian pornography and fragments of YouTube clips of people breaking their arms and legs in an attempt to reconnect user to the complex experience of the first erection I can remember getting, sitting on the sidelines in gym in third grade and watching the girls play basketball and worrying that my boner actually was a bone and that a stray basketball was going to hit it and break it (designer note: check into legal/moral implications of app after assessment of potential profit margins).

App, InstaChild, takes bulk upload of photos of your childhood and, regardless of whether they were taken with analog or digital cameras, applies a number of complex filters to them to pull them into user’s contemporary aesthetic universe’s retro simulation of an aesthetic universe that existed before the aesthetic universe of my childhood. When user takes a picture of a moment in his or her daily life with the app, the picture is then analyzed for compositional, chromatic, thematic, or subject-based (using a tag system, perhaps) features and the picture from the user’s childhood most similar to this picture is blended into a double-exposure with the new photograph and uploaded to the user’s social feed. The picture from the user’s contemporary daily life which generated this double image is not uploaded onto the Internet, because the user does not need more pictures like that uploaded onto the Internet, but is instead placed into a cloud-based time capsule which cannot be opened for twenty years.

App that uses Markov chain generator linked to machine transcription of clip reels of 1990s children television commercials and movie trailers to try to simulate for the user the seemingly unstoppable recombinant imagination I had as a child, which was uncrippled by the self-conscious borne of having read and seen so many things, by having learned so many rules for creativity, but also to remind the user of the general stupidity of most of those ideas, even if they are by some metrics “awesome,” and to avoid the user, who is probably not a child (who would not need such an app), fetishizing, in some McSweeney’s type way, the Markov-style combinations of pirates and zombies and glee.

App in which user can practice multiplication, division, and other basic math skills. App is visually and conceptually indistinct from similar apps designed for real children trying to learn these skills for the first time in an increasingly technologized world and similar apps for older adults who, suffering cognitive deficits which may be aggravated by living in an increasingly technologized world, are attempting to shore up their mental abilities against the ruin of age. App, thus, allows user to connect with extremes of youth and old age at the same time and reminds user that no matter what age user is, user will not be able to remember all of his or her 12 times tables.

App that fills user’s phone or tablet screen with a realistic three dimensional rendering of a backyard surrounded by a gray chain link fence under a blue sky, bordered by a forest on one side. App locks device, not allowing user to switch to another app; because of firmware integration, even if user opens case and removes battery, app will load immediately on startup. App does not respond to shaking, stylus scratching, or other violent movements; reorienting device just shows user a different angle of the yard and sky, which even when, seems to yield nothing at all of interest. After a certain amount of time passes or if microphone registers user saying “I’m so bored” enough times (randomly generated integer between 100 and 300) or if user finds secret easter egg hidden in three dimensional environment (randomly generated location, size, and modeling — could be the crumpled foil from a pack of cigarettes, an ant carrying a leaf twice its size, a freshly-opened honeysuckle), app deactivates. App activates itself at random times, constantly, without user’s control.

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