A New iPhone App Wants To Make You a Better Lover

Spreadsheets is a new app that intends to improve your sex life in the bedroom by tracking performance. But will it really work?

 

An early Kinsey study found that 75 percent of American men are capable of reaching an orgasm in two minutes during sex. This unjust truth lurks behind a lot of masculine pride. Men both fixate on sexual quanitifiers to overcompensate for not being able to control masturbation habits, and equally obsess over their partner’s orgasm status. A recently released iOS app, Spreadsheets, offers a toolset for these sexual neuroses, allowing users to measure a variety of statistics about their sexual encounters.

The app uses the iPhone’s accelerometer to count “thrusts” and the microphone to record decibel levels, allowing users to track baselines and personal bests. It’s driven by “cognitive seeding,” wherein a need or desire is suddenly made conscious and a person experiences a great increase in awareness of that object’s absence in his or her present. It’s all a bit presumptuous, as the app assumes there is a dissatisfied sexual self within all of us, which can best be served with data to prove how far from one’s natural inadequacies a person has traveled. “That’s it?” the app asks, when you end a session within a certain time.

The idea of evaluating one’s sexual encounters through a few narrowly defined categories seems parodic. I am not King Sex on Thrusts-Per-Minute Mountain, but I have had intensely wondrous sex at both ends of the speed and decibel indexes. Sex is weird, and weirdly supple. We can all come alone in our beds, unconscious and without any physical stimulation. 

Apps like Spreadsheets encourage users to reorient their behavior around machine limits. The mechanism works not by objectively improving sex lives but by persuading people to accept the legitimacy of artificial categories that are determined by the limits of our devices more than the limits of our sexualities.

The best sex, in my own humble experience, is the most humbly adaptable, willing to meander in the vast middleground between the dreamer’s orgasm and the sexual Olympian’s frenzy. The joy in sex is in not knowing, in having one’s assumptions about the four cardinal directions of pleasure dissolve beneath the unexpected touch from an previously unimaginable person.

If a data-cataloging app must be used, it seems a more fruitful approach would be to forgo the fantasy of linear improvements to focus on randomness and experimentalism, something that encouraged users to break from static performance paths.

But it’s the habit of data-driven apps to discourage subjective experimentation or deviate too far from norms. Instead, apps like Spreadsheets encourage users to reorient their behavior around machine limits. The mechanism works not by objectively improving sex lives but by persuading people to accept the legitimacy of artificial categories that are determined by the limits of our devices more than the limits of our sexualities.

Cognitive seeding is ultimately redirection, not objective improvement. Data gathering apps promote a version of it that enriches their creators while using the jargon of self-improvement and healthy change to defuse questions about their omissions. By encouraging people to view their lives in terms of rising and falling data lines, apps become coping mechanisms for denaturalized encounters with one another.

This week another kind of measurement app was detailed in a story for Wired; Automatic, a data aggregation tool meant to give car drivers a way to improve gas mileage by avoiding inefficient driving habits like fast starts or moving above 70 MPH. Automatic is unnervingly similar to Spreadsheets in its limited number of categories and attempt to encourage individual improvement within those carefully selected limits. It makes invisible all of the forces that have made cars mass market goods over the last 100 years, and, likewise, the bad faith laws that gave cars priority over pedestrians in public spaces around the country. The app suggests that whatever negative effects the car has had in the US can be bettered by getting more efficient gas mileage and less wear on one’s break pads.

Automatic doesn’t include other comparatively efficient modes of travel between points, factoring in insurance costs, oil changes, parking fees, and tolls against the value of a little extra free time to read on public transport or think while taking a walk or riding a bicycle. Because those subjective standards are not easily calculable by microprocessors, nor measurable by a phone mic and accelerometer, they cannot be accounted for within the app.

For this reason, when we depend on apps for advice about self-improvement, we are always dooming ourselves to remain in the present, marginally changed on a personal level, paid for by deferring consideration of just how many different options there are communally. And in that way we come to serve, not our little devices, but the powers that brought them into being, blaming our feet for the potholes in the road.

Michael Thomsen is Complex's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, NewYorker.com, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.

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