Dangerous Apps: Mental Sound Bites

Our iOS apps span the spectrum from games to utilities to productivity tools. However, some apps fall into the category of a mental sound bite. That is, they try to encapsulate information, but often without context or rigorous research. They can be dangerous.

In the late 1990s, after having been on the private Internet at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, I told people new to the public Internet this: the tools that teach you how to use the Internet are not found on the Internet. By that, I mean that people with a very good education would be able to distinguish nonsense from sound research, distinguish demagoguery from seasoned opinion, distinguish half-baked goods from sound technical work. It goes to the quality of one’s education, not how well read one is on the Internet.

I’ll give you one example. I reviewed an app here at TMO that said Albert Einstein was “deeply involved” in the Manhattan Project — the U.S. secret program to build the first nuclear bomb in the 1940s. Einstein did no such thing. While he wrote an important letter[1] to president Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939 and did some minor consulting, shortly thereafter, his security clearance was revoked and he never played the key role[2] that the Los Alamos pioneers did: Bethe, Feynman, Oppenheimer, Szilard and many other nuclear hall of famers. Every physics student knows that, but perhaps it was a misplaced reverence of Einstein that led to this error making its way into the app as purported fact[3]. Or just poor research. Use of this app, at the time, for a research paper on Einstein would have been disastrous for the student.

A. Einstein

Albert Einstein in 1921

Another example is a recent calculator app I reviewed that has a function to calculate the factorial for non-integer values. The first version gave the wrong answer because, I suspect, the author didn’t do his homework on the Gamma function. I caught it, warned the readers, and after a few weeks, the author published an update. While fixing the problem was good, one has to feel sorry for any student who trusted the app and used it for homework during that initial period. Or imagine an aerospace engineer who used it as part of the design of an aircraft jet engine and never caught the error. Some of the tools we use are just too important not to get it right the first time.

There’s another class of apps where the developer encapsulates the data he finds at another source, say, “Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft,” or some other similar source. One example is “FighterPedia.”  The developer is selling you his third-hand summary, but very little insight into the nuances of certain military systems. That leads to errors borne of lack of experience in the subject matter. For example, the 50 year old unclassified service ceiling listed for the F-104 jet fighter (from the 1960s) is always given as 57,000 ft. (FighterPedia even has a transcription error on that.]  Military pilots know that it was much, much higher and that F-104s routinely made U-2 intercepts in training.  But then they don’t need three dollar apps to tell them that. 

F-104s

Two F-104s converted by NASA for research in 1970

All of these apps were approved by Apple. They passed Apple’s test, but the standards there are more limited. Apple’s imprimatur shouldn’t lead to overconfidence, and there can be a price to be paid for inattention by the developer and the user. After all, that’s just a few examples where I happen to have some personal knowledge.  What about all the other apps out there that I don’t know about? Some inexpensive apps, cheap to grab quantity sales, can have traps and pitfalls for the unwary.

Frameworks

I believe in mental frameworks. They’re like a meat grinder. In goes a gooey mass and out comes hamburger fit for a BBQ. Mental frameworks do the same thing: they provide a processor for everything you hear and read. In goes raw data, and out comes something you and others can depend on[4]. In the app community, we’re confronted with 300,000 pieces of goo. Some are excellent: researched and peer reviewed. However, some are not, and knowing how to use some of these apps requires that the user be educated on some fundamentals before jumping into the convenience and glamor of what I call a sound bite app.

In many cases, you already have to know as much as the author did who developed that app. Then you can use it with confidence. Being well read on Internet fundamentals helps too. A good example is all the apps that are free, but have a hidden business model: the developer receives back end payments for reporting your location, habits and preferences.

I think that apps that provide a service that’s quantifiable or apps that are a gateway to a larger, respected product, such as The Wall Street Journal, and games are terrific. However, some apps are like miniature books. They carry hubris and second hand knowledge. Just because you paid for the app doesn’t mean that knowledge is accurate, seasoned and tested.

The framework you build to use and evaluate that app comes from your formal education, caring parents, teachers and professors, human discourse, guided tours through the good works of mankind, the fire and annealing of exams, teacher evaluation and feedback on your state of excellence. It’s painful to build robust neural pathways, but it’s necessary in order for people to estimate their own capability and that of others.

Some apps can be a lot of fun, and some are very informative. But when you let them do your thinking for you, when they become your only internal voice, a mental sound bite, you’re asking for trouble.

_____________

[1] I have a framed copy of that letter.

[2] The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richard Rhodes, Simon and Schuster, 1986. p 635.

[3] The error has since been corrected in the app.

[4] I’m making, of course, no claims for the health of hamburger. It’s a metaphor.