Watching a movie ranked as one of grade school’s great pleasures. On special occasions the teacher would pop in a VHS, turn off the lights, and allow you to just chill out for 30 minutes. For my generation, no video title stoked a more immediate reaction than Bill Nye the Science Guy. The television personality was Beyoncé in terms of universal likability. His explorations of matter, electricity, and digestion were flavorful delicacies during the malaise of a watered-down school day.
More so than any single concept from Bill’s informative episodes, the theme song sticks with those who watched the show. During the 30-second warm up, and amidst the sick electric guitar riffs, there is moment where an almost-robotic woman’s voice says the phrase “inertia is a property of matter.” I guarantee anyone who remembers Bill Nye the Science Guy remembers the theme song, and anyone who remembers the theme song remembers this snippet. It wasn’t until middle school science class however, that I actually understood the concept of inertia.
Used to explain work, friction, and energy, inertia is the resistance of an object to a change in its state of motion. This isn’t about to become a physics lesson. Rather, for all the noble applications of this scientific vocabulary word, I most often see it at work in the technology world. I’m referring specifically to phone apathy.
This is not an actual term from the Journal of Mental Health, just something I’ve noticed about myself. In a way, your phone is like your pet: you have to feed it (charge it), take it to the vet (run updates), and keep it from running away/into traffic (dropping it in a pool). In return you get to look at Facebook and play Candy Crush from any bathroom in the country.
However, sometimes something weird happens. Recently, my phone disconnected from the app store and my password to log back in wasn’t working. Instead of panicking or looking into the problem, I did nothing. The pending updates began to mount. Ultimately though, I could still use my phone, so the problem didn’t require immediate attention.
It’s ironic that inertia could be such a strong force when it comes to using technology, given that innovations, updates, and progress are central to developing the stuff. It wasn’t until my apps started crashing that I finally figured out how to reset my password. This anecdote runs parallel to dozens of others: adding a secondary email to your Google account, installing new software, running a backup.
For me, this problem extends beyond the realm of phones and computers too. It was a ¼-inch nail in my front, passenger-side tire that spurred me to get a long-overdue oil change on Wednesday. I still don’t have a Texas driver’s license, and all of my tax information gets sent to my parents.
With shortening attention spans, it’s difficult to generate true immediacy. You need the threat of death, financial ruin, or social ostracization to get through to people. If you can’t make updating a mailing address extraordinarily easy for the user, it probably won’t get done. This is why the DMV and post office stand as modern-day fortresses, with kettles of liquid-hot bureaucracy ready to pour on the heads of those who dare lay siege.
Is my mentality a personal flaw, a product of my environment, or a totally natural response to the non-renewable resource that is my time? Quite possibly a combination of all three.
In any case, it has made marketing, branding, and engagement all the more challenging for businesses. In order to get to your wallet, they have to fight through thick layers of but-I-could-just-watch-TV-instead and outscream the voices of their counterparts. Does that make the space more competitive, or just more noisy?
We’re becoming increasingly difficult to reach, which means companies must become increasingly savvy. Native advertising already feels like it’s hijacking my social networks. But if that’s what it takes to get my attention, I guess I can’t blame them.
Inertia is a property of matter. Apathy is a property of humans.