Expect the Unintended: Consequences of the New Tech Age

The unintended consequences of our technology

We are now solidly living within an industrial revolution. Industrial revolutions are driven by technology and business, and create massive changes to our culture and behavior. Along the way, they create a host of unintended consequences. Machines and technology are supposed to better humanity’s lot, but do they really do that? In earlier industrial revolutions, we saw the rise of the manufacturing economy and urbanization. Machines changed our economies, but for many people, their working and living conditions suffered. We’re now in the Attention Economy, where everything is fighting for people’s focus, and people are still suffering.

Unintended experiences matter

It’s undeniable that social media has greatly changed the ways in which we communicate, build relationships, and receive news and information. In a world of “fake news”, populations of people are divided philosophically and economically. Despite the increased development and democratization of communication technology, we are becoming less and less aware of facts and reliable information, and more reliant on technology to make decisions for us. We are more distracted and anxious as notifications and algorithms hook us to our mobile devices.

Addicted to social media

There’s a discrepancy between Facebook’s original mission statement — “Making the world more open and connected” — and how and why its platform is being used. On the surface, Facebook brings us closer to like-minded people. These are our friends, but it also includes the groups that we join. Through these groups and the magic of algorithms, we are able to receive support and a sense of belonging through shared values. This also creates a condition called “groupthink, the tendency for groups to both discourage individual thinking and to make poor decisions en masse. According to Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie’s work, shared within their Harvard Business Review article titled “Making Dumb Groups Smarter, groupthink failure comes about through four reasons.

  • Groups amplify errors
  • They create cascade effects; members follow the statements and actions of those who spoke or acted first
  • They become polarized, taking up more extreme positions than those they previously held
  • They focus on what everybody knows already — and ignore the information or ideas that only one or a few people have

Whether we admit it or not, we’re addicted to social media. It’s so addicting because it elevates our sense of self-worth when we interact with our groups. Social media fulfills two main human emotional needs: (1) the need to belong; and (2) the need for self-presentation.

With 69% of US adults using at least one social media site, social media creates a self-perpetuating and emotionally addictive platform for massive groupthink failure and polarization between groups.

Twitter, by constrast, is less about creating relationships between people, and more about promoting and sharing instant thoughts. Its mission statement “To give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers,” is different than Facebook’s as well..” However, the very nature of sharing instant thoughts creates issues. Tweets can be poorly thought out, uninformed, and divisive. This further promotes our path towards groupthink failure. Most worrisome is the fact that Twitter is currently being used as a communication tool to shape domestic and international relationships and policy. This is one of the platform’s most far-reaching and impactful unintended effects.

Combine these points with the advertising-based business models that are designed to grab our attention with personalized content, and it’s no wonder that we live in the “fake news” era now. Sure, we might feel better about ourselves when we post, but what are the long-term consequences? We have lost the ability to promote and understand ideas that are outside of our groupthink bubble. Multiply this behavior across the multiple channels within our media ecosystem, and you can see how we have arrived where we are now. This a far cry from Mark Zuckerberg’s original mission to connect the world.

Personalized experiences

The Attention Economy focuses on what is really being transacted: WE are the PRODUCT in this social media world. We have been trained to demand a personalized experience within all the corners of our daily lives. Digital platforms and products are created to promote an emotional reaction and dependency response. This further draws us closer to groups in which we connect to our self-worth and emotional comfort zones. Because of these emotional connections, social media has created a generation of technology junkies. Tony Fadell, a former senior VP at Apple who helped invent both the iPod and the iPhone, said in a recent interview, “I know when I take [technology] away from my kids what happens…They literally feel like you’re tearing a piece of their person away from them. They get emotional about it, very emotional. They go through withdrawal for two to three days.”

Further unintended consequences

Apple, Amazon, and Alphabet (Google) are the largest technology organizations in the world and they too create unintended social consequences. Their business models create deep-seated privacy issues. Additionally, as predictive artificial intelligence continues to expand further into our personal technology through Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant, the unintended negative consequences will continue to proliferate. Our only hope for preventing them lies in building in a more human-centered approach to their algorithms and interface.

The iPhone was developed as the “one device”, combining music, games, internet access, and a camera. However, through Apple’s manufacturing partner, Foxcomm, the iPhone has created cities focused solely on manufacturing the iPhone. These cities have working conditions that rival those seen during the turn of the century; exhausting workloads, underage laborers, humiliating discipline, poor living conditions, and worker suicides. There are environmental consequences too. Within the sleek exterior of the iPhone are components that contain Rare Earth minerals. Mining for these minerals has an enormous impact on the environment and the miners that retrieve it.

The consequences of the iPhone and other smart phones are not limited to the manufacturing process working conditions. The operating system and the apps influence and control us in ways that most people don’t understand. Tristan Harris, former Design Ethicist at Google and current co-director of the consumer advocacy group Time Well Spent, has shared his thoughts on how technology “hijacks” our minds. “Technology steers what 2 billion people are thinking and believing every day. It’s possibly the largest source of influence over 2 billion people’s thoughts that has ever been created,” he says. “These are the apps that control our time, what we see and how we learn.”

The underlying algorithms play a dangerous role in this ecosystem as well. These algorithms are embedded into our everyday lives; they are on our smart phones, email, and social media apps. They tell us what music to listen to, what movies to watch, and what news to read. These apps have been designed to give us a personalized experience, but they also control us. According to Cathy O’Neill, author of Weapons of Math Destruction, “algorithms can be formulated and tweaked based on powerful interests.” However, because algorithm answers are based on data, we believe and trust that the answers are correct. It’s this blind trust that perpetuates the downward spiral into groupthink failure. We have allowed ourselves, as O’Neill says, “to trust things blindly and when they just apply them blindly, they don’t think about cause and effect.”

Our smart phones are killing people too. Distracted driving is now considered an epidemic. In the US, traffic fatalities rose in 2015 by 7.2%, the largest increase in 50 years. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 3,477 people were killed and 391,000 injured because of distracted drivers. We are so addicted to our technology that we have problems disconnecting from our phones. One recent survey found that people feel compelled to answer text messages within five minutes, and admitted using their phone while behind the wheel.

So, what’s the answer?

The answer is “design” and its ability to create a relevant experience for people. This is Design with a big “D” or the verb form, which implies that our experiences are created by intent or “by design.” The full experience is created by a system that guides the purpose and intent. Design thinking methodology will be used to reframe the needs and the problem statement through Discover and Define phases. It’s this research and analysis that is critical to understanding the user’s needs and how our behaviors are affected by the culture and technology that surrounds us. Connecting these points gives us the formula that will ultimately create relevant experiences for the user.

We need to scrutinize the fundamentals of the Attention Economy. Business models that are based on clicks, viewing, and advertising needs to be revised. Tristan Harris calls advertising “the new coal.” With a nod to earlier industrial revolutions, these business models need to change and evolve.

People need to know that they are all part of this unintended experience. We should not let technology control our emotions. Our current tech giants, like their historical industrial revolution counterparts, are all focused on profit and efficiency, and their empathy towards the human condition is negligible. Where the effects of the previous industrial revolution were easier to spot, our current issues are harder to see. Technology has affected the way we communicate and learn, which in turn has the way changed our culture. This has created a self-perpetuating cycle of misunderstanding, miscommunication, and technology addiction.

There are signs that things are changing. Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook recently updated their mission statement; it is now “To give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” This will potentially help guide the company and its product towards a more relevant purpose. Advertising-based business models are changing as well. Ad blocker technology, media channel fragmentation, and changes to how brands spend advertising dollars are transforming the industry. Content development and delivery are evolving to foster engagement and interaction instead of interruption marketing. Branding through content increases transparency and takes advantage of a broader story-telling strategy that use media channels to share the brand’s narrative. These strategies focus on creating the proper content specifically for each media channel and user. Together they create a messaging ecosystem that better engage people through traditional media to digital platforms.

Twitter is changing as well. It is creating partnerships, such as an affiliation with Bloomberg Television, to live stream certain shows through the Twitter app. This creates a real-time sharing experience that is based on actual news and events.

Tristan Harris and Time Well Spent are trying to build awareness around the control that technology as over humans. They are raising the public’s consciousness of the Attention Economy and promoting the value of design in the solutions. Storyline, ethics, and technology need to be developed together to create a relevant experience for the user and fulfill business needs.

To help combat distracted driving, Apple is adding in the Do Not Disturb feature this Fall in their iOS 11 update. This will allow the iPhone to detect when someone is driving and automatically silence notifications, keeping the screen dark. Designing these features into their iOS is a good step towards using technology to assist with our addictions.

In the Attention Economy, technology and media are designed to maximize our screen time. We need to expose the wizard behind the curtain and to know what’s inside the algorithms. This creates the need for data ethnographers and data ethnography. Data ethnography connects the algorithm data to the people and the culture. It will review and question the appropriateness of the data set in the design research, so the appropriate ethics can be designed into our algorithms and user experiences.

“I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do.” 
— HAL 9000, 2001, A Space Odyssey

We need to remember that technology is a tool to help humanity. It should be used to give people the ability to share with, learn from, and understand one another. This is what makes the current industrial revolution challenging for us. We have created a generation that is affected by the unintended consequences of technology, data, and of course, capitalism. We can talk all we want about human-centered design, but it’s difficult to focus on creating positive change within a world that is becoming increasingly separated, less transparent, and closed-minded. We have become too reliant on technology and algorithms and have learned to blindly trust the machines. If the future is artificial intelligence and data, then it becomes more critical that ethics are integrated into our designed experiences.

It is critical that we design an interaction between our technology and people to facilitate ethics, critical thinking, and creativity. For thousands of years, people have used stories to share ideas and thoughts; to tell tales of morals and ethics. Designers are natural storytellers and design must connect these pieces together. It must be part Hans Christian Anderson (morals and ethics), Leonardo Di Vinci (visualization and innovation), and Mary Shelley (humanity).

People love data these days, but as helpful as it is, it can only look at information from the past. To inform the future, we need human creativity to analyze and interpret the information. Machines can create data models, but they lack a connection to empathy. We need a good story to make relevant connections. Humans can tell stories that machines and algorithms cannot. Good design and storytelling help us build the bridge the gap between people and machines. We need to relearn how to tell relevant stories to each other. This is how trust and awareness are created. Technology and machines serve as the channels to share these stories. To benefit our society now, we need to be designing behavioral systems, products, and experiences with focused intent. This is the role of design in our future.

If you think this is an important conversation, please share the essay. Let me know your thoughts on your unintended experiences with technology and how we can design better human experiences.

For more thoughts and reflections on design thinking, head over to itsdesignthinking.com.