I've always found the idea of falling out of touch with people to be a bit stressful. I'm that annoying guy who emails you two years after we last spoke to casually ask how you are, when it might make more sense to accept that friendships naturally ebb and flow according to our own conflicting priorities.
Social media, however, provides us with small reminders that various people exist, gently nudging fading contacts back to life. You might consider the way that it maintains a broad latticework of connections to be a positive thing, but the depth of those connections can be pretty shallow. Maybe it's just better to devote more time to fewer people.
And lo, into the App Store drops the absurdly-named pplkpr, an app designed to optimise relationships by monitoring our attitudes towards each other and prioritising certain people over others. Supposed to work in conjunction with a heart rate monitor, the app asks us how we feel before and after meeting certain people, and constructs a kind of league table of friendship, with joy-bringers at the top and life-sappers at the bottom. A glossy promo video extols the virtues of the app, explaining how it "automatically manages your relationships so you don't have to".
Predictably, the app has been met with incredulity. How dare anyone suggest that outsourcing relationships to a computer might be a good idea? Surely part of being human is to register our feelings towards each other, and adapt our behaviour accordingly? When the app was initially tested on students, it detected high stress levels in two friends working together on a project and "blocked" them as a result – but maybe that's because the project was stressful, rather than the two people hating each other? How could a heart-rate monitor and some multiple-choice questions possibly capture the complexity of human emotion?
That dissonance between the way that computers organise our online interaction and the way humans behave is, of course, already endemic.
Algorithms across all manner of sites, from match.com to Facebook, already dictate our behaviour based on a number of crude assumptions, e.g. we're always interested in dating people with brown hair, or that we're keen to see pictures of newborn babies. We're already in that world. Pplkpr just extends it to an absurd conclusion, deliberately, to make a point. When you read that it's actually the work of two artists in residence at Carnegie Mellon University, the whole thing makes perfect sense, from the vowel-less name parodying digital startups, to the almost sinister tone of that promo video.
The satire has been wasted on many media outlets who have uncritically given publicity to the app and allowed people to thrash themselves senseless in the comments section as they grimly forecast the death of humanity. But that's what the artists wanted. "We were trying to take it one step far enough to make it seem outrageous," said one of the creators, Lauren McCarthy, to The Huffington Post earlier this week, as she outlined her distaste of the "quantified self", i.e. using "big data" to optimise the way we live. Admittedly, when social media's benefits feel submerged by a wealth of information from people you're only marginally interested in, the idea of getting a computer to instil a bit of order into that chaos is briefly alluring. Pplkpr reminds us that the best person to assess the quality of your friendships is, unsurprisingly, you.