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Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze:
Entertaining the Messenger in the Outer Hall (1856)

"We are the apps we invoke …"

I live surrounded by apps I do not know how to operate, whose instruction manual might just as well not exist. I've never cracked an instruction manual for even the most complicated. I have consented to try to sit through a tutorial or two, but certainly not more than a couple, and even those, I'm sure I never made it to the bottom of any of them. Apps are supposed to be intuitively designed, meaning they're supposed to work the way any odd user might expect them to work. Certain conventions seem universal across whole classes of apps. Map apps work similarly, and so do search apps. The differences between them might only come into play if one aspires to become a PowerUser, the sole class of app user who understands how an app works. These are such a tiny minority as not to be worth counting or counting on. They're the ones who supply the incomprehensible answers to the questions you post on an app's User Forum.

I presume I know how to operate the more prominent apps on my devices.
Email seems fundamental, though, with each upgrade, more mystery creeps into day-to-day operation. Apps tend to become more clever over time, which means that they lose functionality because the typical user, and even the exceptional user like me, are anything but clever. We are rather stupid and stuck on whatever misguided notion we originally intuited as our app's operation. Move the cheese, and we're baffled but quickly learn to do without whatever that last update made invisible. There was a time when I could search for and actually find individual emails in my queue, but no longer. That feature was featured out a few releases ago because, presumably, nobody ever really needed that function. My 3,116 emails get challenging to parse, but entropy seems to be the future of all computing. I am not complaining.

Yesterday, The Muse and I had an often repeated conversation over breakfast. She insisted she'd sent me a message on Friday, and I contended that it never arrived. She showed me the message she'd sent on her device. I showed her my message queue to prove to her that her message had never arrived. I've almost eliminated Messaging as a means of communicating because so many of the messages I was supposed to have received have gotten lost. I presumed I'd somehow improperly installed the app, though I was certain I'd never actually installed any Messaging app; mine had just come with the system. Still, the frequency of missing messages meant that something must have been missing. I often found messages on my laptop that I could not locate on my phone, suggesting that I hadn't correctly synched the app between the two platforms, though I had no intuition about how to do that intuitively.

The Muse showed me that InstantMessaging didn't work like email, that each fresh message concatenates itself to some pre-existing thread if the receiver had ever received a message from that person. She showed me the message of which she'd spoken. It was lurking within a thread I'd previously opened and so had ignored as not a likely suspect to hold her latest message. It turned out that every message she'd ever sent me was still present in that thread. I had never suspected this, for I'd always intuited that InstantMessaging worked like email, sending new messages under fresh and distinct cover, even though I often experienced "lost" messages.

I'm not surprised this happened, and I presume that millions of InstantMessaging users have been in a similar circumstance as I have been, for what intuition would have ever imagined such a curious design, such an odd convention? I suspect without confirmation that the instruction manual for InstantMessaging, should one have ever existed, probably doesn't mention this convention, either, and that perhaps even a majority of the users of this unreliable application remain baffled at its intermittent operation.

They say one lives and learns, though this insight seems trivial. More profoundly, we live in astonishing ignorance, steeped in presumption. At any given moment, any of us might learn that we'd presumed our world backward and that all those experiences we parsed as failures were actually great successes without a means for properly classifying them. Even before apps, humans resisted reading those manuals anyone cared enough to produce. We always drove our cars via intuition, and automobile designers understood and conspired to make their interfaces identical from model to model, with occasional unfortunate exceptions like Buicks and early sixties Plymouths. We operate our houses by intuition, too, and our marriages. Our lives. I will not be the least bit surprised if, at the end of my life, I discover as I'm taking my last breath that I'd innocently misinterpreted some feature controlling some key element in my life, like that I could have willed myself into a fabulous fortune but had never stumbled upon the Easter Egg that invoked that inherent function. We are the apps we invoke, of course, and each works instantly, precisely the same way we do. Always have.

©2023 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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