Belfast Telegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

Why new phone app doesn't ring true to me

Now you get an app for bad news. I don't mean the stuff that newspapers ram down your throat every day. You know, the way an announcement about a non-conditional free thousand quid for every citizen would inevitably have a third paragraph starting "However".

However, some experts think the app for bad news may be, er, bad news. Let's begin at the wotsname.

An app, for those of you out of the swim, is a wee programme on your phone that generally turns out be a waste of time.

I'd a clearout of the apps on my phone recently, leaving just 80 on it now. Some of these came with the phone and there doesn't seem any way to delete them. Why the hell do I want an app for the stock market? All my spare cash is sent immediately to Amazon in return for books that I never read.

There's an Amazon app too, but it's rubbish and you're better just going on the website.

Other apps were downloaded on a whim or when I was gripped by a fad. There's stuff about astronomy: a fat load of good in Greysky Country. Meditation: far too busy for that sort of thing. Languages: these days, I can't even remember what I had for lunch, never mind peculiar words with too few vowels between the consonants.

There's stuff that might be useful but has never been used: nearest ATM; nearest public lavatory; free classic literature. But some apps have their uses: one on the weather; one that takes good pictures; and one that reminds me to breathe from time to time.

You pays a couple of quid, or sometimes nothing at all, and you takes your choice. However, I doubt I'll be choosing the aforementioned one that warns you of bad news.

This app, currently under development at the University of Portsmouth, distinguishes good messages - presumably in texts, emails and whatnot - from bad and neutral ones, colour-coding them accordingly. That way, if you're already having a bad day, you can give bad messages the rubber ear until you feel strong enough to read them. But how do they recognise such messages? I wish you hadn't asked that.

The gist seems to be that the app learns from your reaction to past messages whether you see such content as positive, negative or neutral. I'm still not clear how it does this, though I suspect it involves erecting a large aerial on your head.

Maybe it identifies the sender as a known pain in the butt. Texts generally come from friends, but I gather that what the boffins are getting at here involves the type of communication encouraged by sociable website Facebook: insults, threats, fabrications, and so forth.

Sounds useful on the Facebook of it, but psychologists have been going mental about the device. One told a packed public square: "[The] bigger question is whether or not such an app will genuinely let us manage stress more effectively."

Speak on, Macduff. "What if we decide to delete the 'bad' message, then spend several days worrying about it?"

So, now we're worried about worrying. Where will it all end? Only when, collectively, we waddle down to the sea and bung our portable devices therein with a satisfying splash.

But we're chained to them now, I'm afraid. Colour-code that which way you will.

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