Jonathan Swift’s smartphone

Evolution has engineered us for social interaction. Our bodies are instruments exquisitely tuned for tracking and measuring the auras of others. In quantifying ourselves, therefore, we also quantify those around us. This is the insight that underpins the brilliant new iPhone app pplkpr.

Connected to a sensor-equipped smart wristband, pplkpr takes biometric readings of how interactions with your Facebook friends, in person or screen-mediated, affect your physical and emotional state. pplkpr tells you, in hard, objective numbers, whether a friend makes you happy or sad, anxious or calm, aroused or enervated. It’s a flux capacitor for the soul.


What’s really cool about the app is how it makes the biometric data socially actionable. pplkpr doesn’t just give you “a breakdown of who’s affecting you most,” its developers say; it also “acts for you — inviting people to hang out, sending messages, or blocking or unfriending negative friends.” Bottom line: “It will automatically manage your relationships, so you don’t have to.” The next step, clearly, will be to aggregate the data, so you’ll be able to tell at a glance whether a would-be friend will add something meaningful to your life or just bum you out.

From its vowel-challenged name to its clinically infantile interface, pplkpr is of course a work of satire. It was developed by a pair of artists, with backing not from Kickstarter but from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. The wonderful thing about the app is that it’s being taken seriously. The early reviews at the App Store are encouraging:


Among tech sites, the buzz is building. Techcrunch gives the app a straightfaced review, seeing a lot of upside:

Don’t know how you feel about someone in your life? By pairing a heart rate monitor with the pplkpr iOS app, you could soon find out. The app pairs up with any Bluetooth-enabled heart rate monitor to track your physical response around certain people in your life. Biofeedback from those devices log reactions such as joy, anger, sadness, and then uploads what it determines to be those emotional reactions to the app. …

The overall promise is to help you spend more time with those who contribute to your well-being and avoid those who stress you out. It does this in a way that aims to excuse you from having to make that sometimes difficult decision yourself. pplkpr doesn’t tell you if someone you meet has been blocked by others or if you are actually  the one stressing everyone else out, but it does provide a nice excuse to get away from someone.

And check out this glowing report from Fox News.

Even journalists who know it’s a joke can’t help but see genuine potential in its workings. Wired‘s Liz Stinson didn’t even crack a smile in covering the app today:

pplkpr lets you quantify the value of your relationships based on a few data streams. A heart rate wrist band measures the subtle changes in your heart rate, alerting you to spikes in stress or excitement. This biometric data is correlated with information you manually input about the people you’re hanging out with. Based on patterns, algorithms will determine whether you should be spending more time with a certain person or if you should cut him out altogether. …

Framed as art, pplkpr is granted the buffer of being a provocation or even satire, but it’s not outlandish to consider a reality where people will earnestly look to algorithms to make sense of how they feel. Implemented responsibly, that could be a positive thing — an objective set of eyes can help us see that a relationship is unhealthy.

I wouldn’t be surprised at this point to see Mark Zuckerberg buy pplkpr — for, say, $1.3 billion. It would hardly be the first time that satire proved prophetic.

This post is an installment in Rough Type’s ongoing series “The Realtime Chronicles,” which began here. A full listing of posts can be found here.

5 thoughts on “Jonathan Swift’s smartphone

  1. Äppärät Äddict

    I know you’ve read Shteyngart, and guess these app developers have too … Sad thing if in a coupla years all of the irony is lost. With people becoming too lazy to live, even the silliest algorithms will at last seem artificially intelligent? Some of us use the cell phone as a universal remote control pointed at our selves.

  2. Aristotle Pagaltzis

    We should soon be able to generate electricity from Heidegger’s spinning in his grave.

    FWIW I didn’t know about this and wouldn’t have suspected it was a joke (all I knew, reading it, was that you were weirdly face-value in your description, given the stances you typically take, so something was going on). (And now I wonder; would pplkpr would have picked up on something going on there?)

    I wasn’t averse to the idea before you got to the part where it manages your relationships for you, as long as it was about quantifying only. I did wonder how well it can distinguish positive and negative reactions, and my general feeling was, “oughtn’t you be aware enough, without aid, of who in your life stresses you out and who doesn’t?” – but, maybe it could still provide useful data. Which, as the saying goes, isn’t yet information which in turn isn’t yet knowledge which again isn’t insight to say nothing of wisdom. But rigorous quantification has potential for the unexpected and the surprise – the contra-intuitive – which can be quite illuminating. So on that level, I wasn’t entirely skeptical.

    But when you got to the part where it automatically acts on its information on your behalf, oh no, no, no, what the…

    Now, I’m just baffled at the completely face-value and uncritical (or at best, perfunctorily skeptical) reception. I’m glad it was supposed to be a joke but how come these people aren’t? It feels like going-through-the-motions reporting. Maybe we need a strykpr app to tell journalists how they feel about a story? They don’t seem to authentically know any more. Just kidding. (Or am I?) Then again, they seem to target an equally going-through-the-motions audience… which I hope doesn’t quite exist. (Actually, I hope those are cherry-picked examples and not the general tone of the reporting. Though I’m vaguely afraid to ask…)

    As I said, sepulchral Heideggerian rotation etc…

    (Well, I did stop short of suggesting that strykpr ought to go writing their stories for them automatically… though maybe that was just meekness of imagination.)

  3. Daniel C.

    I don’t think the irony is lost; it’s just that no one cares anymore. I really doubt anyone naively attracted to this app in the first place would feel inclined to change their behavior or ideas upon finding out it’s a trick. When people who do know still get excited about the idea, does the parody have any social function beyond entertainment? I don’t see how. Culture in the U.S. is overloaded with smug, clever, scornful satire, but the more entertaining and clever it gets, the more doubtful I somehow feel about its contribution to social change.

  4. Noah Dunn

    I thought it was real and was going to post something along the lines of “is this an early April fool’s joke?” thinking full well that it wasn’t; but then, thankfully, I read it was satire. But still, it seems like something that people would actually make, unfortunately. Anything to outsource mental energy…

  5. Cindy Wolff

    Obviously pplpkr would never quantify strangers who meet and have a sizzling argument and come to the conclusion “Get a room you two,” – not when your wingman is an app.

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