Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Peer pressure? There's an app for that!

Occasionally, when I receive text messages from my son asking me to pick him up at the bus stop a quarter-mile from home because it’s cold and snowy, I’m tempted to tell him that when I was his age I had no cell phone and had to just hope my mother would happen to drive by as I reached the bus stop. It’s the circa 2010 version of “When I was your age, I walked five miles to school in a raging blizzard every day.”

But in general, most of the technological innovations that my kids take for granted seem like nothing but progress to me. I like the fact that we receive emails when there’s a snow cancellation rather than sitting by the radio for a half-hour listening to the alphabetical listing of towns. I like that my kids can stream pre-approved movies via Netflix rather than just flipping on the TV and watching whatever’s airing. I also appreciate the fact that since my 12-year-old has a cell phone, he and I don’t squander time searching each other out at dusk after an extracurricular activity on the school campus. If he exits the building after a sports practice or club meeting and doesn’t see me, he calls or texts and I tell him where I am. It’s that easy.

But yesterday I finally came face-to-face with an innovation that made me feel like the crotchety old grandfather saying “In my day, we used to...”

In this case, it’s this, assuming “my day” was any segment of my adulthood up to and including the present: In my day, when a group of friends wanted to go out to eat, we would discuss who wanted to go where and make the decision based on majority rule, proximity of the location, lobbying efforts, or any of a number of other factors. In my day, when the family had the opportunity to go on vacation, we asked other people for suggestions, read travel articles, and thought about the places we’d heard of that tempted us. In my day, we used our analytical skills and judgment to decide whether or not we felt like seeing a movie.

Not anymore, thanks to a brand new iPhone app called Cloudy. As Cloudy’s ad copy puts it, “Need help making a decision? Let your friends decide for you! Cloudy lets you quickly and easily ask groups of friends for their opinions....Pick friends from your contacts...and Cloudy will text them your question. Cloudy displays the responses to your yes/no and multiple-choice questions, and allows you to easily send your decision back to your friends. So go ahead - let your friends decide!”

So much for the heretofore all-purpose “If all your friends decided to jump off a bridge, would you?” approach to negating peer pressure. Now there’s an app that actually promotes letting your friends decide what you should do!

I understand that Cloudy isn’t presumably intended for pre-teens. It’s an iPhone app, and iPhones are still primarily the domain of adults. But our kids generally end up using the technology we rely on, and I worry about the inferences they will draw. Imagine growing up never having to negotiate with friends over whose turn it was to decide what game to play or try to persuade your parents that a ski vacation was a way better idea than a tropical getaway. Worse, imagine not knowing that decisions like that could be worked out by persuasion, debate, passion, manipulation, emotional blackmail – any number of tactics both positive and negative that most of us develop over the course of many decades of group decision-making.

I don’t mean to suggest that I’m immune to the value of online tools that help groups make decisions. When I was hosting the annual holiday cookie exchange party last December, my friend Mollie introduced me to a terrifically helpful tool called that enabled each guest to cast a vote for which date we should hold it.

As I sat back and watched the choices tally themselves, I was delighted to be required only to send out the final consensus – “Wednesday the 14th it is!” – rather than have to take responsibility for decisions like whether a fourth grade band concert was more or less critical than a volunteer firefighter training session, or whether it was more important to me to have the close friend who makes mediocre holiday cookies attend versus the new acquaintance who has a degree in pastry science.

Yes, there are definitely times when it’s wonderful to turn the process of making a judgment call over to an algorithm. But I do hope the new Cloudy app doesn’t take over the world too quickly. My kids still need to learn that sometimes you still have to weigh the pros and cons – no matter whether the decision in question is sushi versus barbeque or sleepaway drama camp versus accelerated pre-calculus summer school – and call it as you see it. In your heart, not on your screen.

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