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Are Virtual Hand-Sanitizer Apps as Dumb as They Seem?

It’s not funny enough to be gallows humor, but it’s not supposed to trick people, either. Regardless, it’s proof that technology has gone too far.

I tend to think that there’s a logic behind most people’s behaviors, even if I disagree with the behavior itself. Coronavirus conspiracists, anti-maskers and the blatant nihilists who truly don’t care either way — I can at least begin to understand their thinking, as delusional as it might be. But I’ve come across a subset of corona-culture that has left me genuinely dumbfounded: The creators and downloaders of “virtual hand-sanitizer” apps. This may finally be what it takes to push me off the grid. 

These apps on Google Play (further proof that Apple is actually better than Android, if only because these apps don’t exist for iOS) function on the simple premise of showing a digital bottle of hand sanitizer, which can provide a digital squirt. Nobody is supposed to think it really works. They aren’t, I believe, trying to trick anyone. The description of the most popular version of the app, which has nearly 4,000 reviews averaging three and a half stars, is clear in stating that the app can’t actually kill germs. The reviews mostly seem like desperate attempts to be in on the joke. 

But what I can’t decipher is what the joke even is. The option to press a button to pretend to receive a pump is supposed to be… fun? Funny? A comment on our current desperation? 

In the description of the main app, users are encouraged to “download this app and show your friends that you have unlimited access to the best disinfection liquid in the world!” Personally, if someone pulled out their phone to show me this app, I would go full Ted Kaczynski. The very existence of a virtual hand-sanitizer app, however ironic, indicates that ol’ Ted was right on at least one point: Technology has failed us, and rural life would best save us from the consequences of industrial society that have allowed such an app to be created. 

“Amazingly lovely app,” reads one review on July 25th. “It not only sanitizes your hands, body, phone, room, neighbours, phone contacts, WhatsApp (and more), it also sanitizes my thoughts, feelings, depression, loneliness, negativity, boredom and what not. Please get an app to cleanse my stomach, it’s too full of gas (f*rt).”

Sir, people are dying. I like a bit of gallows humor myself, but it’s hard to see this as an example. It seems we’ve become so bereft of cultural fulfillment that we’ve turned to writing satirical reviews of satirical hand sanitizer apps.

Oddly enough, Kaczynski’s manifesto speaks to this problem of fulfillment and the “surrogate activities” that provide us with a sense of personal power. Like the hand-sanitizer app, surrogate activities are directed toward an artificial goal in an attempt to satisfy our own need for control. To an extent, I have to believe that is what’s happening here. It’s clear both in the reviews and in the app’s own description that everyone understands the artificiality. Perhaps, though, the sense of security provided isn’t all that fake. In an act of mental gymnastics, users of the app receive some comfort from pretending to receive a dollop of hand sanitizer. 

As absolutely mystified as I am about the existence of multiple versions of virtual hand-sanitizer apps, maybe the explanation is as simple as that. The hand sanitizer isn’t real, but the tiny feeling of protection and self-reliance is.