Can We Have Your Attention, Please?

Godville is a “zero-player” iPhone game. It’s called that because, supposedly, play doesn’t require a player but only the game. According to its creators, Godville “is a parody on everything from ‘typical’ MMO games with their tedious level ups, to internet memes and ordinary day to day things appealing to a wide audience.”

A zero-player game (ZPG, the creators acronymize) is a big promise to keep. When I played Godville, I discovered that it offered a great deal of computer-generated detail about its goings on, all in the guise of the conventions of the traditional role-playing game. For example: “11:46 a.m.: The dying Radioactive Cockroach gave me 18 coins and brought me one step closer to world supremacy.”

No matter though. Soon enough I discovered that it was necessary for me, the player, to intervene in the game after all by means of “god power.” Small actions allowed me to influence my character’s fate. It even sells gameplay “energy” in earnest via microtransactions! Aesthetically, it’s a little disappointing. A true ZPG wouldn’t require any play at all, wouldn’t it? But there’s the rub, of course: a ZPG without gameplay is really just a novella or a short story. It’s harder than it looks to game the very idea of an app.

iCapitalism offers another attempt at such a feat. It’s an iOS game that critiques both capitalism and iOS games through a simple design. Like Godville, it attempts no gameplay; iCapitalism is driven entirely by microtransactions. When you make purchases in the game, your rank rises on the leaderboard. Players are allowed to post a message on the leaderboard, so the most free of wallet also get their messages heard, at least within the context of iCapitalism.

As casual mobile and online games move away from challenge and strategy toward the (equally valid) purpose of idle time wasting, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the logical (if absurd) end point of such efforts: playing a game that isn’t a game but just a stand-in for the results of playing one.

Or, it would have been, had anyone been allowed to not-play iCapitalism: as it had done with Molleindustria’s Phone Story, Apple rejected the app during App Store review, the secretive and unpredictable process by which software gets “approved” for download and consumption on Apple’s carefully controlled marketplace.

App rejections aren’t uncommon, but iCapitalism’s developers seemed confused by theirs. They noted in a blog post that they didn’t use any undocumented APIs, a common reason for rejection. But Apple didn’t reject the game because it did something dangerous; Apple rejected it because doing nothing is considered dangerous. Apple exercised its then-new policy to limit programs that don’t offer much value (in its estimation). From the “App Store Review Guidelines” at the time of iCapitalism’s failed release:

  • We have over 250,000 apps in the App Store. We don’t need any more Fart apps.
  • If your app doesn’t do something useful or provide some form of lasting entertainment, it may not be accepted.
  • If your App looks like it was cobbled together in a few days, or you’re trying to get your first practice App into the store to impress your friends, please brace yourself for rejection. We have lots of serious developers who don’t want their quality Apps to be surrounded by amateur hour.

Beyond mere languor, Apple has also implied that the more an app charges (whether through initial purchase or in-app purchases), the more strenuous their review will become.

The problem is this: iCapitalism does do something useful and provides some form of lasting entertainment—precisely by not doing anything useful in a smart way. Apple’s ironic blindness for irony on the App Store is legendary, but in this case I doubt the faceless review bureaucrats even realize that the joke’s on them. Yet, for their part, the iCapitalism developers also degrade from sharp (if simplistic) commentary into all-too-familiar whining about Apple review policies. As if an app like iCapitalism isn’t about app review as much as it is about capitalism.

These days, satire always risks becoming mere conceptual art. Mockery is increasingly indistinguishable from the subject it mocks. “Not the Onion,” we type on Facebook when linking a story that inevitably incites the question. Today, all “content” is barely more than a parody of content, a clickbait trick to get you to look or to sign up, such that your hypothetical future value might be leveraged into speculative financial instrument.

The only difference between conceptual art and speculative finance is that people consider one a noble pursuit and the other a joke. The art world can thank itself for having brought about this attitude. In the heyday of conceptual art, it was sufficient artistic work simply to question that the work itself was the important part of the art. Conceptual artists were always dealing in derivatives of art, not in art itself. Marcel Duchamp’s readymades (including his most famous work, Fountain, a urinal relocated to a gallery) were less critiques of art than they were art world derivatives, art trading in the very idea of the value of art. Soon enough, derivatives became a primary mode of art. What better way to draw attention to the process and context of art than simply to post instructions for making art as the art itself—such was conceptualist Sol LeWitt’s strategy, one further developed by Robert Rauschenberg, Yoko Ono, Piero Manzoni, and others.

When Manzoni claimed to have encased his own feces in a box that he then exhibited, the effect was clear: it provoked certain questions in the viewer. Can shit be art? Does it matter if there’s really shit in the box? Is art meant to represent anyway, or just to provoke? But there’s a problem: conceptual art is precious and gimmicky. Like derivatives trading, it is inherently fragile and risky. And it has proliferated, overtaking almost all other forms of contemporary creativity. It’s become the norm. So much art is conceptual nowadays, even work that doesn’t deserve the name “art.”

Today, conceptual art is everywhere, and nowhere more than in our computational media. What’s that most famous of non-apps, iFart, but conceptual art? It poses questions like, what if your fancy new five hundred dollar iPhone were just a whoopee cushion? What is the minimum functionality possible in an app? Why is farting any less absurd and embarrassing than tweeting or receiving phone calls in public? Taken to its extreme, even the iPhone itself might qualify as conceptual art: one big attention derivative swap betting on your and my unwillingness or inability to put the thing down.

In its own backward, totally unaware way, when Apple refuses to publish software like iCapitalism, the company is struggling to accept its role in the ascendance of conceptual art, a form the company also clearly wants to despise. It’s no longer sufficient to pose a question like “what if an app did nothing but ask you to spend money?” Instead, it ought to get people to do nothing more than to spend money, offering tiny, subtle peepholes through which to understand the difference between enjoyment and absurdity. Admittedly, this is much harder work than the conceptual artists of the twentieth century faced. Apple hopes not to facilitate the further rise of conceptual art as art but to endorse a derivatives bundle of speculation in creativity, finance, and attention.

If products like iCapitalism don’t effectively characterize the logical conclusion of such thinking, what might fit the bill? Enter Yo, an app created by Israeli entrepreneur Or Arbel, reportedly in a mere eight hours’ time. All it does is send the message “Yo” to an interlocutor. Arbel has raised one million dollars in angel investment, a fact that the Internet has responded to with reasonable astonishment (“Not the Onion,” your friends may have written when linking to news of Yo’s yodelers).

In essence, Yo is just a very simplified digital pager—like the kind doctors used to use, the sort BlackBerry adapted into the precursor to the smartphone. Re-creating the pager for the twenty-first century certainly exudes the musk of conceptual art, but it also surprisingly uncovers the attentional hook that start-ups like Yo and companies like Apple rely on to create speculative future value.

A pager—Yo included—poses one question and facilitates its answer: “Are you here?” That’s all we want to know, anymore. Are you here, reading me? Reviewing my book? Liking or faving or retweeting me? It’s what you want to know when you text your significant other or your child. Are you there? Is everything okay? Yes, yes, I’m here. All good. Okay.

Sometimes in stupidity we find a frankness, an honesty. This truth of contemporary communication practice is undeniable, yet we persist in using tools that exceed it. Natural language, even when condensed into textspeak. The meteoric rise of emoji. We often want to communicate, but even more often we simply want to meta-communicate, to possess the knowledge that an individual or group will acknowledge us.

Like most conceptual art, Yo is stupid. There’s no other word for it. But fifty thousand people sent four million Yos between the app’s launch on, uhm, April Fool’s Day 2014 and the summer solstice of that year. But sometimes in stupidity we find a kind of frankness, an honesty. For his part, Arbel has rather overstated the matter. “We like to call it context-based messaging,” he told the New York Times. “You understand by the context what is being said.”

This kind of fancy talk, combined with an influx of investment capital and the attendant expectations of billion-dollar valuations, rankles the everyman. It sounds like nonsense and duplicity: another tech buffoon trying to dupe the world into enough attention to yield a quick, profitable exit. And it is that, make no mistake. But there’s something undeniably true about the underlying premise of Yo.

Not its story as a tech start-up, which is more of the usual. By spring, Arbel had taken his million dollars in venture capital and moved to San Francisco to work on Yo full-time. By early autumn its users had sent more than one hundred million Yos.

Rather, about the way constant, always-on, always-available communication devices and networks have amplified the function of meta-communication. We talk a lot about “content” today, our accidental nickname for anything that gets digitized and sent over electronic networks. But the truest, most fundamental type of content is simply attention. And what better summary of attention than “hello”—or “yo,” if you must. When we talk online, mostly we say variants of that one thing: Here I am. Are you here? Yes, yes, I’m here. And these statements have just as much meaning when withheld: no, I’m not here, not for you at least, or not right now.

The problem with Yo isn’t what makes it stupid—its attempt to formalize the meta-communication common to online life—but what makes it gross: the need to contain all human activity within the logics of tech start-ups. For the record, such grossness is isomorphic to that found in conceptual art (everything is art!) and financial speculation writ large (everything is financial instrument!).

But an inconvenient truth shows its face when we bundle conceptual art, finance, and technology: such a derivative social contract amplifies the belligerence of all three. Like Facebook Poke before it, Yo might send the wrong signal about the way we send signals. Despite its creator’s insistence that Yo eliminates meaning in favor of context, it actually adopts a very particular and specific meaning. Yo is a dudebro’s term. It’s stocky and aggressive. It doesn’t just say, “Here I am,” it does so by thrusting its chest out at you. Just as Poke felt creepy—a bad, unwelcome touch—so Yo installs a similarly invasive subtext.

And speaking of that, one can’t ignore the context of Yo’s creation. Arbel is a young, white, male engineer financed by a group led by other white, male entrepreneurs—a club of Israeli business compatriots that one might not be wrong to call a fraternity. Meta-communicative though it may be, “yo” doesn’t say “are you here” so much as it says “I expect something from you.”

The need to expect something from every idea, even the stupid ones, to feel that they deserve attention, users, data, and, inevitably, payout—perhaps this is the greatest meta-communicative message of today’s technology scene. And it might not be inaccurate to summarize that message with a singular, guttural “yo.”