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Consumers Beware!

Apps: Inanities and Dependencies

by RALPH NADER

Redundant, trivial, overcomplicated and dependency-inducing apps (computer applications) are flooding the internet. Some apps associated with deceptive and harmful claims are even drawing the attention of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Consumers beware!

The prevalence of apps in consumer markets both reaches new levels of absurdity and invites more complexity by the vendors as they strive to compete more and more about less and less.

So far there are about 775,000 apps appearing in Apple’s App Store and more than 500,000 apps and games are available at Google’s Play Store. Not to mention the apps from various independent developers.

Here is a roundup of them for airline passengers recently touted by The Wall Street Journal reporter Scott McCartney. Out of 50 that he tried, McCartney leads with Kayak’s app which “sails through an ocean of choices with a lot of power and grace.” These choices include airfares, hotels, flight trackers and, get this, “ a packing list feature – basic lists categorized as general, business, romantic and family.”

In the 1950s, which economists tell us was a decade of similar inflation-adjusted household incomes and taxes, you’d call up your airline, your travel agent or drop by the airline ticketing store to evaluate your flying options. To be sure, fares were regulated by the Civil Aeronautics Board and generally uniform, but the airlines prided themselves on their service, meals and other comforts like pillows and blankets.

Now airlines can inundate you with a myriad of fees and penalties and change fares throughout the day. Additional leg room and aisle seats are priced higher while there are sudden reductions in quotas for such categories as elderly discounts. If you are confused, they can say “get an app.” That is, if you can ever get a human voice to respond.

Apps designed to help you navigate the confusions associated with the complexities of air travel are encouraging some airlines to concoct new, more daunting complexities.

Some apps are free, while others, that really get down to the details, cost a few dollars. For instance, Packing Pro ($2.99) breaks down lists for “men, women, couples, and families, as well as business trips, light-packing and super-light packing. There are pre-trip to-do lists, which include taking out the garbage and setting up an automatic email response,” with adjustments for “whether you’ll be washing clothes while traveling.”  It is a wonder that Packing Pro doesn’t remind travelers to pee.

Where are you Voltaire, Swift and Emerson (“On Self Reliance”)? I’ve had cab drivers tell me that the more younger drivers rely on GPS, the less they know about how to get around their city on their own.

Will Rogers once said, “Advertising is the art of convincing people to spend money they don’t have for something they don’t need.”  Advertisers don’t have anything on the marketers of apps. Dependency may soon run riot! And who will help you to choose between the blizzard of choices? Or will confused and overloaded consumers throw up their hands and say to the vendor – “just take me; I’m yours.”

Blogger Scott Sterling concedes that there are valuable apps such as the insurance apps “that let you photograph damage from an accident.” But he is turned off by the gluttony apps, the “realistic Tazer gun simulator” app (Real Tazer, 99 cents) and “mind-numbing” apps attracting teenagers like Logo Game.

Tasteless apps abound. There is, for 99 cents, the iFart Mobile reported on The Daily Beast. This app “plays a wide variety of flatulence sound effects labeled with names like “Burrito Maximo” and “Forrest Dump.” “Available for iPhone and iPad,” too, yes indeed!

The Daily Beast commentator asserts that “useless apps far outnumber useful apps,” and picks out 10 that are “utterly useless.” Here are some: Toilet Sound Machine Extreme (iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad, 99 cents). And Zips (iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad, 99 cents) an app that lets you unzip it using the touchscreen to reveal a photo of underwear. “That’s all it does.”

And I am Rich (iPhone, $999.99) called “the still-reigning champ of useless apps”. Introduced in Apple’s App Store in 2008, “I am Rich did absolutely nothing. You paid a thousand bucks for an image of a glowing ruby. After a few curious saps purchased the app by accident, Apple pulled it from the store. Six people, however, bought it on purpose before its removal.”

Things are getting so “wild and crazy,” that, according to blogger Adam Rosenberg, the Vatican had to issue a statement declaring that the recently released Confession iPhone App is not a substitute for the actual Rite of Penance.

The FTC notices when hucksters start selling apps that involve quackery and has already prosecuted and shut down two purveyors of acne apps. The FDA is trying to figure out how to deal with so-called health apps that could cheat and endanger people with claims to address conditions from flabby abs to alcoholism. These can give worthy health apps a bad image.

A Boston University based study reported by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting found that “of 331 therapeutic apps, nearly 43 percent relied on cell phone sound for treatments,” and “another dozen used the light of the cell phone” as a remedy.

Both Apple and Google point to their lengthy guidelines for rejecting apps that are deceptive, that crash or damage users’ devices or offer gratuitous violence and explicit sex. Clearly they need to do more. “Happtique, a subsidiary of the Greater New York Hospital Association,” is launching “the nation’s first app certification service, which will evaluate apps for safety and effectiveness,” according to the New England Center.

In the meantime, tell us about apps that advance social justice reforms in our nation or communities. You know, apps that facilitate greater civic participation or that promote peace and justice; apps that strengthen our democracy.  They may be around, but you’d never guess from the deteriorating reality that is our political economy.

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition.