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99% of products will make 0% difference to your life
and the particular seduction of software
Last week, I stumbled upon a landing page for an app that will change everything about how you organise your life. This is not an unusual phenomenon, but this time I felt a sharp pang of pain for the hundreds of thousands of hours people would readily pour into this new way of capturing, cleaning and connecting their data—notes, todos, emails etc.—only to abandon ship or have the application sunset due to less than astronomical growth trajectories.
This might sound overly cynical—SuperApp could be the next big thing. But here's the truth: 99% of products will make 0% difference to your life in the long run. Just as Michael Graeber highlighted the explosion in bullshit jobs, we are in an age of bullshit software.
I've seen lots of products come and go and built some myself. I love good software and I wish more people could experience a long working relationship with well-made software. I write to you not from a position of superiority, but of susceptibility: of having sunken into the hype several times and come up short, back where I started, wondering what I would have achieved if I'd just engaged what I cared about outside of SuperApp.
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You can spot these apps as they often lean into the tired grammar of productivity, promising unstoppable focus and the unleashing of your latent creative potential which has—until now—been held hostage, awaiting the heroic emancipation of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur.
Despite the Earth-shattering visions of these products, most are nearly indistinguishable, blending ever more in design and functionality over time. Investors don't mind. They'll happily invest in several clones. If one succeeds, they'll make back all the money with interest.
The audiences of these SuperApps are often the same people who have used SuperApps 6 predecessors. In fact, SuperApp is often sold to clean up the mess you made with those predecessors. For example, I am a note-taking obsessive, which means I have notes in Evernote, Ulysses, Notion, some plain text files, and Obsidian. I am the target idiot for the next note-taking app.
Big leaps are rare
Big leaps forward in software do happen, but they are increasingly rare. We're now living in a largely commodified market.
Most of what we depend upon each day runs on protocols set down in the early 90s, parts of the World Wide Web. It's a testament to their design that they still work. We're still using email, and that is not going anyway. Chat systems all inherit from the original IRC—Slack is nearly indistinguishable from the chat rooms I used to hang out in. I write code in a 30-year-old text editor and program in a language released in the 90s.
I do take notes in a much newer app, but it is essentially a plain text editor with a thin layer of clever UX and file processing to enhance the experience. Interestingly, unlike the marketing hype of SuperApp, these protocols and products were built by nerds hacking away for free. Most of the software that runs the internet was also built in this way.
New ways of organising
SuperApp often taps into a genuine concern: we are overwhelmed with information. But instead of confronting the real problem—what should I ignore?—it strains ever further into the fantasy of organising it all.
When you find the next SuperApp, it's worth asking whether you even need a new way of categorising your data. Is that really what’s holding you back? Have you ever maintained a way of organising digital things (whether via categories, tags or folders), in the same application, for more than a year? These things are hard because they require careful review to not stagnate and become an obstacle. And because we're lazy. Hence #important, #mostimportant, #todo, #urgent, #temp, #today... Simple organisation can work, but it requires human attention, and that reminds us we have to make hard decisions and sometimes purge ourselves of our caffeine-induced organisational innovations.
Even the best apps affect us less than we realise
Even the apps that function well rarely have the impact we want in our lives. We are tricked into pursuing convenience and speed at all costs, but what speed gives with one hand, it takes away with the other.
Maybe you're a writer. You find a new app that monitors your thoughts through a brain headset and automatically saves your best insights. When you're reading a book, the app bookmarks the paragraphs that show the biggest jump in arousal, measured via skin conductivity. The app then groups your notes with an AI super-tagging engine. Let's assume this actually works. (Spoiler: it doesn’t.)
The resulting data still has no benefit in itself, unless you do something with it. And very quickly, the volume of frictionless data itself becomes a hindrance. Each time you want to create something, you're confronted by a tangle of content that blots out new avenues of thought or just adds more things to “process.”
Friction is not always a bad thing. Friction engages our sense of salience and drives us to focus on what's most important. Friction makes us particular in what we do. The result is that our workflows are held to higher standards.
Finally, in control
SuperApp also creates a sense of scarcity: you lack control and SuperApp can give it to you.
As Oliver Burkeman makes painfully clear in Four Thousand Weeks, you will never clear the decks. You will never achieve the dream operational setup that prevents you from having to make difficult decisions and tradeoffs.
For creatives and entrepreneurs, we are constantly lulled into a sense of being able to negate the weight of building something new with SuperApp. Believing we can escape the burden only creates further disappointment when we realise we can procrastinate, deliberate and delay with any tool in our hands.
I can tell you from experience that when your company hits rough seas, the only answer is a long difficult conversation, a cold plunge into gasping uncertainty.
Software preys on our intolerance for uncertainty. The product says: solid ground is afoot. We feel reprieved that the crippling uncertainty is put into abeyance. Any chance to put that to one side is welcome. It promises that we can capture and record it all. In the end, we'll be able to clearly see the right option. But our problems are not always rational or technical. There are too many options. There is not enough time to map them all.
Software is uniquely seductive
These problems are not unique to software of course. We could make the same charges against self-help books or consumer capitalism as a whole.
But software is seductive in new ways:
It says a better life is only two clicks and one blindly accepted Terms and Conditions away.
Software evolves. It updates itself. The release that solves your problem might be just around the corner. So instead of facing the problem (e.g. you're incapable of deciding what's most important), you can just wait for a new version to fix it for you.
Software is visually beautiful and sleek apps seduce us into thinking we're doing great things when we're really rearranging the furniture.
Software is often built to ask absolutely nothing of us. Everything is designed to be easy up front, with the application readily devouring whatever confused heap of shit you can cram into it. Can't figure out what to write? ask the AI. Can't organise your own thinking? Let us try and help you function.
Finally, the business model of software prioritises engagement, which is not the same thing as value. In good software, the two overlap. In most software, the need to keep you clicking around and adding data is disconnected from the value you get from it.
Each time this process fails, we lose some confidence. But confidence in what? Usually the tool: we need a better tool. Ideally, we lose confidence that the perennial problems of focus, creativity and sharing will be fixed by a simple product that offers a one-click solution with no work on your behalf.
A saner way forward
Good products are a joy. I have several I use daily. But we need to be more critical about their promises. Apps of yonder offered to automate one or two functions. Apps today promise the world: a remade you, creatively frothing over your competitors each day.
Don't believe the hype. 0% of the world’s great philosophers used note-taking apps or personal Kanban boards. Jimi Hendrix didn't wait for the right guitar or recording software. People built cathedrals. A thousand years ago.
This is not a call to be cynical, but an invitation to release yourself from the impossible burden of finding The One Software that will take away the pain. From that place of relief, the next steps forward will likely become very clear.
Find a workflow that helps you stay afloat, but never "on top of it all" because this is an impossible goal. Be realistic about what you can do. If you can become semi-competent at using reliable software, you already have an advantage over the vast majority of people. You will also overtake the prolific yet novelty-seeking individual who flushes hundreds of hours into the false hope of new applications every 6 months.