14 July 2020

App Store approves scientists' app that can do absolutely nothing


As part of a research project, researchers from the Department of Computer Science, the University of Copenhagen, and the IT University have designed an app that they themselves call ridiculous. It is more or less useless. It can now be downloaded from Apple's App Store. The hope is that it will make us more critical of the apps we use.

The ATTN app only shows a white screen.
The ATTN app only shows a white screen.

Would you like an app that can catch your attention and give you the pleasure of staring at your smartphone? It has absolutely no content that you need to be burdened with. Just let yourself be swallowed up by the highly enlightened screen and watch passively as the screen slowly fades out. You can now download such an app from Apple's App Store.

The app, which is called ATTN, was developed by two researchers from the University of Copenhagen and IT University.

- We're not surprised that the app was approved by Apple, even though it's quite silly, says Irina Shklovski, who conducts research into data ethics at the Department of Computer Science, the University of Copenhagen and one of the two researchers behind the app. 

Irina Shklovski and her research colleague from IT University Miguel Sicart say that they had a lot of fun making the app, which has no function. Ironically, the app is the researchers’ comment to that we are constantly looking at our mobile phones to get information. 

Shines light at useless apps 

The two researchers believe that apps steal far too much of our attention. And at the same time, we don't necessarily get something out of it. 

- Most apps are really solutions to imaginary problems in that they are not really solving anything, but they do provide a reason to stare at the phone screen. Our app simply highlights the absurdity of this and perhaps can help people reflect on it, says Irina Shklovski.  

The purpose of the app, and the entire research project it is part of, is to make us question the usefulness of all the software we surround ourselves with. 

- We're creating a lot of unnecessary software to solve what we imagine are actual problems and claim that it saves the world, says Irina Shklovski.

Nevertheless, you can download apps for everything from climate change to pandemic control and boredom. And even many of these are real problems, the two computer science researchers point out that the apps are not the solution to them either. 

- Problems such as climate change and the corona-pandemic are large and complex, and so we must also avoid talking about apps as simple solutions to these problems. Software is not magic. No problems can in themselves be solved by software. On the contrary, a lot of new problems may arise when we expect technology to act as THE solution, says Irina Shklovski. 

However, this does not change the fact that computer science and software are crucial for our society, according to Irina Shklovski. She points out that a vital thing like air traffic will be grounded was it not for it. But she warns that we should not continue to expect software to solve all our problems. 

We must use software wisely 

The two researchers have no plans to do advertising for their useless app, which, however, has obtained 61 downloads in the App Store. 

For Irina Shklovski, the hope is that our relationship to software can change for the better: 

- We need to design software wisely and use it wisely. And then we undoubtedly have the potential to use technology in a way that benefits us. 

The two researchers' article was included in the conference for Designing Interactive Systems (DIS2020), where it has also received a DIS Best Paper Award for this "very strange article".