“No, I don’t want to always use this app when opening files of this type,” by David S. Mitchell

Jan 13th, 2021 | By | Category: Nonfiction, Prose

With all the uncertainty in the world today, I am no longer comfortable making any permanent decisions about which applications my smartphone will automatically use to open certain files or links.

I realize my phone is just trying to offer a streamlined user experience when it insistently asks if I want the Microsoft Word app to open all .doc files going forward. But how can I possibly know, given the fragility of human understanding and Microsoft’s underwhelming track-record with the Bing search engine, if Microsoft will remain the leader in word processing for much longer? Same with Adobe for .pdfs or WhatsApp for text messaging.

Combine those doubts about the future with what behavioral economists call the “stickiness” of defaults (which in my case simply means the inability to change my phone’s default settings) and we should all have reason to be wary of these smartphone prompts.

Do I today enjoy the usability and design of the aforementioned applications for my smartphone computing? You bet. Would it be convenient to not have to repeatedly select the app I want to use in every instance? Sure. But not at the cost of having to swear allegiance in perpetuity.

I might relish the functionality of the Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram apps for my social networking needs, but how, given timeless, unanswerable questions about the nature of the universe (or universes), can I be sure that these platforms won’t improve their browser-based interfaces to such an extent that only fools are stuck using the apps in the future?

My girlfriend and therapist—two different people, thankfully—tell me this resistance to app defaults is illustrative of my commitment problem. I disagree. I’m fully committed alright—committed to living a life of technological flexibility. I refuse to let the past dictate my future. I tackle each intellectual challenge as it comes, rejecting the temptation to rest on my laurels.

Take, for example, Google Maps. That app long ago surpassed its competitors in navigating city streets but still lags behind Waze for longer road trips that require high-stakes freeway decisions. As a result, when my phone asks me, for the umpteenth time, which of the two I’d like to set as my default application for opening address links, I must conscientiously abstain. AND YES I KNOW GOOGLE OWNS WAZE AND IS IN THE PROCESS OF INTEGRATING THE LATTER’S TECHNOLOGY INTO GOOGLE MAPS BUT I’M ALSO STILL WAITING, 20 YEARS LATER, FOR THE SYNERGIES TO MATERIALIZE BETWEEN AOL AND TIME WARNER SO FORGIVE MY SKEPTICISM! If my enemies had their way, I’d be stuck using MapQuest, trapped for all time in a costly and embarrassing default setting.

My antitrust attorney friends tell me I have little reason to worry about upstart technology firms dethroning the Googles and Facebooks of the world. We’re living in an unprecedented period of corporate consolidation, they say (almost with a hint of pride, since presumably it’s their clever lawyering that has kept the antitrust regulators at bay). But history is full of examples of seemingly stable economic or political equilibria that suddenly collapse. Ever heard of Sears, Roebuck and Co.? Or the Weimar Republic? Creative destruction and all that. I refuse to be caught flat footed. While others opt for expediency and tie themselves to the status quo, I remain technologically nimble and independent. Brave, almost.

Always is a long time. It should be approached with a Burkean modesty. We can’t begin to understand how technology, our preferences, and civilization’s circumstances might change in the future. So no, I won’t be making any final decisions about what app I’d like to use. And I’d appreciate it if you’d stop asking.


David S. Mitchell is a Washington, DC-based professional who writes on the side. He is not the prolific British novelist, but he did once publish an op-ed on the Senate filibuster in The Hill, the most prestigious periodical in the national capital region. Follow him at @dsmitch28.

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