Technology has found its wings with unprecedented advances in devices for use anywhere, by anyone, for virtually any purpose. But as we await that next round of wow technology, there appears on the horizon a specter that may blunt our enthusiasm and impede technology’s climb.

That old law of diminishing returns is set to make the next big product release slightly less dramatic and worth dumping our current devices for. With an iPad less than half an inch thick, connectivity virtually instant and compute power rivaling mainframes, how do improvements continue to become must-haves? For a hardware industry based on ever increasing volume and a market hungry to upgrade, that could spell trouble.

The solution may be right under our noses, or already in our mobile devices so to speak: the mobile application or “App.”

Mobile “APP”lications: Technology without the Limits of Hardware Engineering

We are entering the world of the “App,” or mobile application. Apps, programs that perform tasks using the power of “smart” mobile devices, are unique because unlike the linear and capital intensive path of hardware engineering and product development that underlies smart mobile devices, they require only  intent and a moderate expenditure of developer time to become part of the mobile information world.

Once developed, Apps may be circulated widely at virtually no unit cost, dropping a remarkable amount of margin to the bottom line and making them even more attractive to the development community.

A Growing “App”etite

With thousands of developers worldwide and more than 40 percent of mobile users carrying smart devices, the world of the App is increasing exponentially in both penetration of our lives and breadth of functionality. Apps are invading virtually everything we do capable of support through computation, communication, content and logic. There are apps to tell you where you are and how to get where you want to go, apps to measure your bodily functions and health, apps to teach kids to read or do math or spell and even apps to provide centralized management of “grass roots” political movements.

The list grows as governments and organizations convene symposia for users to ruminate on what they would like next. Apps built on the basic “smart” mobile device require only the presence of or links to peripheral attachments -- like card readers, high resolution cameras and blood pressure sensors, and the like -- to further increase their functional range.

Apps and the Intersection of Profit and Altruism

While much of the App world is driven by profit, a growing portion is altruistic, designed to address the social concerns of their users and those around them. Many countries are experiencing rapid growth of apps suggested by people, towns and villages to address needs not met by other means.

Yes, we are entering a new age in which there soon may literally be an App for just about everything we want and need, limited only by the available mobile device and peripheral capabilities.

That brings us to the Shmoo.

A Lesson From the Past: Rise -- and Fall -- of the Shmoo

For those who missed Al Capp’s Li’l Abner comic strips in the late 1940s, our hero returns the Shmoo from a visit to the forbidden “Valley of the Shmoon," ignoring their keeper’s warning that the Shmoo "is the greatest menace to hoomanity th' world has evah known!" "Thass becuz they is so bad, huh?" asks Li'l Abner. "No, stupid," answers the old man, "It's because they's so good!!"

Back in Dogpatch, the Shmoos take over virtually everything, making it unnecessary for people to work, cultivate, produce or engage in anything they don’t want to do. In the end, people lose their motivation -- and then their ability -- to take care of themselves, causing Dogpatch society to break down and the government to embark on a campaign to exterminate the creatures.

So what, in 2012, are we to take from this admittedly exaggerated tale?

Are we facing a somewhat condensed version of the “Shmoo Effect” with ubiquitous mobile devices doing virtually anything we wish? If so, how do we avoid ending up like the Dogpatchians? Capp claimed no message agenda in his Shmoo comic strips, but most commentators, including both right and left sides of the political spectrum, have suspected otherwise. Unlike Dogpatch, we won’t be able to exterminate the creatures or regulate what or for whom they perform.

Instead, the answer may lie in what could be called “cultural self discipline.” Just as Ulysses didn’t respond to the Sirens’ call by outlawing Sirens, but instead made his men immune and himself unable to respond, we may have to identify those functions critical in society, especially in the development of our young and take steps to preserve them as mobile technology makes them less functionally necessary.

An App will correct our spelling and grammar on the fly, so we must insist that the young learn to spell and write clearly lest society lose the ability to communicate. An App may answer our questions instantly through access to the combined databases of the civilized world, so we must insist that people learn how to research, evaluate and organize their thinking to make a coherent point. A world of consumers with no producers won’t long survive.

There are already disturbing signs, not all due to Apps but all confirming our susceptibility to their effects: many of today’s youth feel “above” taking summer jobs, and many elementary and high schools have virtually stopped holding students to good grammar and spelling in their work, assessing no penalty for butchery of the language. With this as background, the rise of the mobile App can only accelerate trends that are already making themselves ominously felt in the culture.

So what to do? If I’m right about cultural self discipline being part of the answer, we will have to substitute direct incentives -- social and structural, positive and negative -- to ensure that each new generation acquires the basic skills and motivations it will need to be productive. Left to its own desires and the assumptions of the past, the culture gives little indication that it will follow that path.

This won’t likely be an easy road, but if we are to survive as a working civilization, we’d best start now and hope it’s not already too late.

Image courtesy of David P. Smith (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: To read more by Barry Schaeffer:

-- The Connected World: This Decade's Dot Com Bubble?