Monday, July 4, 2011

A Phalanx of Mobile Apps: Just What the Doctor Ordered

                                                                                                                     "The Cavalry Charge" -Frederick Remington 

"Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle — they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments." - Alfred North Whitehead An Introduction to Mathematics

There's a simple reason the phrase "there's an app for that" has become so trite so quickly: it's a useful expression. But I think the utility of the expression, beyond Apple's branding brilliance, comes from a deeper place: it's primal. 

Using an app in place of a thoughtful operation is, to borrow Whitehead's phrase, like mounting a cavalry charge, but without having to refresh the neural horses. 

Since our brains are finite, capable of only so many cavalry charges a day, progress is two-pronged. It both increases the number of cavalry charges, and continuously promotes the brain to the vanguard. The more apps come along, the more operations are completed, and the more the brain is liberated from mundane operations and promoted to the forefront of what really counts in our day. Crucially, I don't see apps as dumbing us down, but rather, as smartening us up to perform previously unreachable operations of thought.

Today, when I'm faced with the need to operate thought, a little voice asks if "there's an app for that"? It's really not a modern question, but a primitive reflex rustling about in the wisdom of Whitehead's statement. Humans have always sought tools to solve problems that buy us more time to solve more problems (that buy us more time to solve more problems, á la Ray Kurzweil). We corralled herds of mammoth off cliffs to save the time and effort of hunting them one-by-one. There's no real difference when we use the Chipotle app to save the time and effort of waiting in line. 

Much has been made of the impact of apps on healthcare (See Kent Bottles's post for a trove of examples). But I believe the biggest impact has yet to be richly explored, and that is the  the quantified self movement. 

Briefly: consider that monitoring the effects of our behavior clearly benefits our health (See Thomas Goetz's The Decision Tree blog for examples). The trouble is, we behave all day long, and continuously monitoring our the effects of our behavior would use up a lot of cavalry charges. Given that chronic disease is the costliest aspect of healthcare, and that lifestyle choices such as diet, exercise, and smoking are key contributors to such chronic conditions as congestive heart failure, diabetes, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, then a phalanx of mobile apps might be just what the doctor ordered.

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