This is from 2012 | 6 minute read

Rejecting The Relentless Spread of Technology

At the Web International Festival (WIF), Nicolas Leduc's presentation included an image of the Doubtful Guest. The Doubtful Guest is a character by Edward Gorey; he invites himself into your house and causes all sorts of mischief, because he is stubborn and unexpected. The Doubtful Guest is a metaphor for technology. Technology has crept into our homes, and it is causing increasing mischief in the way we consider ourselves, our families, and our relationships with the world around us. Consider the expanse of technological infrastructure in the average American home; we have a massive digital presence at the center of the home—the living room—in the form of digital entertainment (the average home in the US spends $1000 per year on AV equipment). We have digital tools for our music and books. We have cellphones, lots and lots of cellphones (Eli Blevis, in a talk at the same conference, described a 2006 study he conducted that showed 65% of 19 year olds have had 6 or more cellphones in their short lives). And we have digital microwaves, and digital alarm clocks, and digital thermostats, and digital washers and dryers and fridges. We're introducing digital technology into schools in the forms of iPads, laptops, and distributed and remote and online learning tools.

The implications of our digital choices are increasingly obvious. We know and consistently talk of the problems presented by dependency on Facebook, Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon. We're concerned, loudly and publicly, about the potential for overly biased legislation on digital rights ownership. We bemoan our children's inability to focus and learn, and we debate the obvious solutions of peer learning and individualized teaching. We're worried for our digital privacy. We lament the demise of analog print media, and the businesses that have historically supported them. And we collectively and relentlessly critique this culture, this digital world we've created. Steven Johnson offered a critique of just his form of overload in Interface Culture, Malcolm McCulloughextended these ideas in Digital Ground, and Neil Postman dedicated his entire literary career to a warning of a digital overthrow. Eli Pariser has offered an indictment of the overly personalized Filter Bubble in which we find ourselves. Nicholas Carr described how our large-scale and unquestioning embrace of technology is having neurological and likely generationally lasting effects on our way of thinking. Jaron Lanier described the problem of lock-in in You Are Not a Gadget.

We are at a unique point of cultural clarity, and what's more, we are in the midst of a design and creative renaissance. The ironic clarity is in our ability to have a "meta-moment", reflecting on the culture we are building, and sharing these reflections with each other through digital technology. The same digitization of which we show concern for above has allowed us to share cultural introspection in a nearly real-time manner, which means that we are live-blogging our digital addiction. We don't like our digital culture, and we're letting everyone know, 140 characters at a time.

And it's worth repeating that we are building this culture. It doesn't simply happen. It hasn't emerged by accident. It's designed, purposefully and with a great deal of care and thought. The digital renaissance of design implies an almost unprecedented level of power for designers. I'm traveling around the world urging designers to quit their jobs and start their own companies, because I truly believe that a designer can go it alone and drive large-scale and influential impact. I have no doubt in my mind that we can manipulate people on a large scale, get them to buy things, do things, act a certain way, think a certain way. Design is manipulative, and when combined with digital technology, it's pervasive, and when entrenched in a culture laser focused on the pursuit of scale, gratuitous profit, and technology for technology sake, it's downright dangerous. Design has consequences. It sounds overly grandiose or dramatic to claim that an icon designer is shaping culture by changing the color of a few pixels, but it's true, and what's more, this power is becoming increasingly apparent. Facebook's acquisition of design firm after design firm helps elevate design to a position of respect. But their commitment to design simultaneously signals what we can expect in the future: a more pervasive digital culture, and more consequences.

It's conflicting and confusing because the potential and opportunity is so rich while the precedent so shallow. A digital future is offered as a future of opportunity. Digital is clean, precise. There are no moving parts to break off, no gears to catch. The promise of a connected future is a rich promise of convenience and community and seamlessness. The sense of progress is unmistakable, mostly due to miniaturization, and made even more obvious when small-scale digital interactions appear in magical ways. Gillian Crampton-Smith displayed some of her student work at the aforementioned conference; one piece, Liaison, offered a particularly poetic view of connection through a mix of analog and digital. A digital future is rich with new artistic opportunity; it's a new medium to exploit and explore and manipulate.

Design is a new liberal art of technological culture. It's about the humanization of technology. A humanist is, historically, one who rejects the dogma of religion, and who celebrates and advocates for people. Design is a discipline that advocates for humans: traditionally, by arguing for usability, simplicity, aesthetics, and functionality. These are tangible qualities and so they are the easiest to teach, and the easiest to pursue, and the easiest to judge. But there is a new religion in digital, and this must be the new target of our design renaissance. As large, complex, and confusing as it may be in practice, the broad role of design is becoming increasingly clear: to become the advocate for people on a cultural level, in the face of digital progress, and to argue within our organizations against the relentless drive for the spread of all things digital. This is a contentious position, as was usability in the 70s or aesthetics in the 30s. It is a multi-faceted position, one that is highly contextual (and therefore not objective or easy to boil down to rules or guidelines), and one that is dependent on values (and therefore requires an understanding and articulation of ethics). It may mean arguing a minority and difficult perspective, over and over again. You may already be pursuing this agenda; it may mean pursuing it with more passion, effort, and vehemence.

It seems like, historically, the humanists always lose. We're certainly losing right now. The platform that was to empower, connect, educate and delight is largely about advertising, tracking, and quarterly profits. It can be reclaimed, and it probably must be, lest we turn the world into the dystopic caricatures presented in science fiction.

Originally posted on Sat, 02 Jun 2012

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