More things, less meanings.
My complicated, possibly career-endangering questions of our tech glut.
As a Designer …
For a short time, only half a decade now, I’ve worked as a digital product designer both in-house and in agency-type households (another graphic designer turned ‘product designer’). In that time, I’ve observed one of the more pronounced themes to digital product design: Ship it. Create more. More features. It should do everything! Design more!
Make more! Build more!
Technology in this decade, or more specifically The Tech Vallies, are seemingly more often excited by serving ego (our ego to leave something behind, an effigy of our mark on history) and a zeal to scale (how can I build something quickly that will catch attention and sell, or raise our esteem?) — rather than by an earnest interest in our collective wellbeing or progress.
This is a pretty simplified (and potentially narrow) view of course — and one not necessarily unique to any industrialized decade, But doesn’t something feel wrong? This is more or less fueled by a common business approach to technology: Do we really care how someone is using it (a product) or the consequence of the use, or do we really just care that people are using it (or clicking, engaging, purchasing) — because it’s volume of those things that are measured. It’s true of almost all traditional businesses. But somethings not right… and we’re all beginning to notice, not least of all digital product designers.
If a tech bubble isn’t looming – than surely a ethical-tech one is.
We know that exploration (read: advancement) leaves in its wake the corpses of mutated offspring that didn’t achieve reproductive success. Darwin and Lynell would discover their findings as true today in the evolution and progress of our tools — both physical and digital — as they did in the natural. Which isn’t surprising: whether we accept it or not, we are very much a part of the natural world — no matter how we manipulate it. Waste, it seems, is a natural order of progress in any realm. All of our advances in technology, from agricultural revolution, industrialization, nuclear era, to the internet, have made us a more productive and efficient species — but are these advances able to escape individual harms or waste? Of course not. As well, is this an inherent byproduct of the golden age of digital product design? In my opinion: yes.
In my world of product design, every week there seems to be a new, in vogue application. And the value of the app is no more important than the simply being ‘new’. ‘New’ in our time adds this (wrongly) assigned characteristic of being cutting edge, hip, and haut monde. We want it, if only to avoid fears like “what will my friends say if I don’t know what they’re talking about?”. Simply visually polishing an app, shipping it, and overwhelming the social media soap boxes may be enough for us to add it to the growing list of tools we’ll only open a few times before forgetting why we downloaded it in the first place. The app’s value isn’t so much how it enhances our lives in a tangible way, it’s valued by how many users have adopted it and constantly engage with it.
From my vantage, many apps (digital products, etc.) aim to get to the surface quickly, make a few bucks, and ride the hype, simply to find a buyer and then get lost in the ether soon thereafter. Think about the energy, thinking, collective calories, money spent. Wasted. Yuck — At least waste in our food systems and rituals can be composted.
Confession time: I hate digital products (read:apps). Well, hate is a strong word. Of course I don’t hate apps… I love the incredible place I’ve found myself in to be able to ‘invent’, to question, to ask how something could be better as a daily routine – which I’m paid to do. Life is good. But as a regular joe, I struggle with the saturation of apps in our world and the expectation that they meaningfully solve our (my) problems. I find all the noise generated in that space quite distracting, confusing. Ideally, most of the needs of my life, as captured by apps (or tools) can be kept into 1–1/2 iPhone screens. I find I get by pretty well with a single social media app, a banking app, a calendar, a news app, 2–3 google apps, maps, a travel app, weather, a to-do app, and Amazon. For work, I also now keep Basecamp and Slack. Granted, this works for me.
As a product designer, I’m often confronted with this slightly uncomfortable moment from someone on my team or from a client: “So you know how _______ app does ______ thing? We should do that! Ross, what do you think?” I hate this moment, because more than a few times out of five it means responding with, “Oh… Actually, I’ve never used that app” — or in reality — “I’ve never even heard of that app.” At least some combination of these reasons are to blame:
- I’m a little bit of a cynic. I’m a slow adopter because I want to know something will be around for a while. How well is this interconnected with other things that are indispensable in my life?
- I’m comfortable with what I know. Truthfully, either lazy or scared — like a neanderthal looking out into the wilderness from his cave).
- I’m concerned about the extra, non-meaningful distraction and clutter it might cause me. Another tool to replace a once-valued cognitive ability. Another ‘muscle’ becomes atrophied. If our machines can do all of the incremental production work of the design process, does that enhance our abilities to solve problems (through design)?
For whatever reason, none of these are reasonable excuses in my line of work. I can’t afford to be so discriminating. I should taste and know about all things contemporary. I can’t be comfortable only knowing what I already know — and I especially can’t be lazy or scared. Designers are, after all, fearless mad scientists. We are tasters and connoisseurs of all wine — from the $5 bottles to the $180 bottles. And I can’t be concerned about the extra, non-meaningful clutter! Right?! Creating has many byproducts, and one of those is waste.– So be it?
As a dad…
It’s difficult to know when it happened, but sometime since becoming a father, I flipped the operating switch from self to them (admittedly the switch is sometimes a little loose and glitchy). For me, this has meant trying to build, manipulate, and navigate the environment we raise our children in, as best we can. I’m not a great dad nor well experienced, learning as I go as most of us do. I make at least one poor decision for every good one, but I try to be a little better everyday. One of more tangible, complicated overlaps of fatherhood and my work has arisen: The complex environments in navigating our decisions about screen time and how to manage the wealth of digital entertainment available today. My parents had it easy – as did most of those who grew up in the 80’s and before. We only had 3 TV channels, and the computer we had ran DOS.
Since our first daughter was only a few months old, my wife and I wondered and experimented with how much digital media we felt was ‘healthy’ for a young, developing mind. To this day we still do. At first, we tightly managed and measured her exposure to media. Slowly, as moments became more desperate for us as learning parents — we allowed more and more media in. One saying I’ve heard (and personally sympathize with) goes like, “your ethics grow more and more malleable with each day of parenting.”
Compared to what we think is common or healthy, we still allow our oldest around four to six hours of screen time in any given week. It’s usually when we’re desperate to distract her, when we needed to do stuff around the house and can’t keep pace her hunger for engagement — any engagement. Only recently (she is three and a half now), the behavior became evident: During TV or LeapFrog use, she would completely zone out, unaware of anyone or anything around her . And when she didn’t get to use either of these outlets, she would dramatically, exhaustively melt down. We’ve since only allow her to watch TV on weekends, our version of Saturday morning cartoons. But more than that, we looked at our own behavior, and how that might be affecting her, what does she observe from us that ‘must be good’?. We noticed our own over dependence (or addiction?):
- I check my phone for some alert or check in on an app probably every 10–15 minutes. For relative comparison, the average american checks their phone 46 times a day. Honestly, that seems low to me!)
- On most weeknights, once our daughter is tucked in, we jump right into devouring the latest and greatest TV series. And there is a barrage of great TV! There seems to be non-stop amazing shows out there today , and we love it! But it’s never ending, always something to catch up on. If our daughter wanders downstairs to groan that she can’t sleep, she usually catches us with that same zoned out stare on our faces.
These observations have steeped inside me for awhile. Something has to change. And as a person involved in generating these digital products, and these experiences, what is my own responsibility? Am I contributing to this?
Louis C.K.’s perfectly apt and scary observation about his children’s use of phones struck a chord in me, and in so many other parents, I’m sure. We’re scared. “They don’t build empathy” — our devices have removed our ability to interact with ourselves. The ability to just sit there and confront what’s underneath everything in our psyche, all of the happiness and sadness. We’re always looking for a digital distraction so we’re not alone, having to confront those emotions. What sort of affect will this constant distraction have on my daughter’s generation? Are we unknowingly providing them with tools that effectively cripple their ability to console themselves without technology, or be sincerely, outwardly empathetic to their fellow women or man?
I haven’t even begun to address my fears of what my experience of raising teenage daughters might resemble in this social app/ever connected landscape, though moving all of us to a deserted tropical island is a frequent daydream. Observing the emotional toll that it seems like these digital tools can have on teenagers, a part of me feels like I’m a product designer at Smith & Wesson. There is great responsibility and consequences at stake.
As an ‘average joe’…
Beyond our children’s cognitive development (especially the ones concerned with creativity and emotion), what about our own? As many others have spoken to around this topic, think of all the tools we have to communicate with each other, to network, to create and empower communities … Have we gotten any closer to one another? Have those individual relationships become stronger or richer than they were before we had such incredible access to one another? As individuals (per capita) have we become more innovative or creative? I think of the friendships I forged during my time in the Peace Corps, a period relatively removed from technology (save a monthly trip to ‘the city’). Those relationships remain the richest in my life.
It’s far from a unique observation, but I’d hypothesize that while our connections have skyrocketed, the quality of each individual relationship has plummeted in many of us. Why has that happened? I suspect that excess is at least partially to blame. Too many friends, too many clicks, too many alerts, too many apps all vying for our eyeballs and fleeting attention. For the Tech Vallies, after all, apps don’t succeed without mass user adoption. After all, most apps want us to stay engaged with their product longer, as long as possible, engagement translates (hopefully) to participation of some form —this is the natural foundation of not just tech business, but most any business.
As well, I believe we ask too much of ourselves. Since the tools around us have plausibly made us more efficient, more productive, shouldn’t we ask more of ourselves as a natural response? Because of the extra productivity with which our new tools endow us, shouldn’t we assign ourselves more professional, social, family, health, and status ambitions? In my opinion, we do. Is that good? The answer is — well — personal.
There are a few other examples that come to mind immediately about what the abundance of technology has offered:
- Abundance means managing your the options, which to many of us (not all of us) means distraction. Our engagements are riddled with alerts that remove us from those wonderfully blissful moments of deep cerebral focus (“Hey, look over here! Now look over here!”). How many times have you started with a web browser open with intent of fulfilling some task, only to forget two minutes later what you were doing in first place?
- I can remember my father’s business phone number from growing up, but I don’t know some of my closest friend’s and family member’s cell phone numbers! There is no excuse. What is the space in my brain that use to remember everyone’s phone number, birthday, street address being used by now? YouTube videos maybe?
- Creativity is dulled by tools that do it all for you (see: McCann Global just hired their first AI Creative Director). At least as a visual designer, it’s easy to become good enough by simply referencing visual trends in places like Dribbble and executing in an instant with Adobe products. When so much creativity can come so easily or even automated, what is left for your brain to wrestle with — to be challenged by? I suspect that without that friction, we get slightly more complaisant.
- In the golden age of the app we also live in the golden age of design tools that aid in the creation of those apps. Not coincidentally, many of the apps out there, both in UX and UI, feel incredibly homogenous. Is the craft and quality of the solution degraded by the lack of victories unearthed in the act of producing that solution?
- We spend more time planning the trip, sharing the photos, sharing our stories, coveting other people’s stories, and generally being too distracted to make time to create, explore, go out on adventures and make our own stories. The act of using the apps that share or facilitate our experience now overwhelms or inhibits the experience itself. Is that app a success? I suspect the answer lies in what measuring stick we’re using.
- Though I play rarely, my mother & stepfather kick my ass at crosswords and scrabble. Why? For the better part of at least the last decade I can consult the dictionary, Wikipedia, or thesaurus on my phone at a moment’s notice. That’s information that I don’t store in my brain anymore, and they still do. My dependence is palatable (that’d be 9 letters for 13 points, thank you!).
For all the wonders that technological advances have made during the ‘golden age of apps’, something has gone wrong. In our haste to create, the truly creative solutions that make us more human, humane, have been neglected. We look to the ‘release’ and in doing so we see past the process. We look past what will earnestly add quality to our lives, that will truly enhance our advancement as a species, and most of all, we looks past our relationships to one another and our ourselves.
Not so final thoughts …
I suppose I’ve arrived at a few take aways:
- Take my time to do the research, thinking, inquisition that makes it clear that what I’m designing has a useful place in the world. Good wine, diamonds — heck — even reclaimed lumber all have this in common: they take time to be valuable, desirable, and ‘good’. Of course there is a parallel in product design.
- At the very least, successful product design is measured by the number of adopters and users. It’s a numbers game. How can I expand what success means, institutionally, to include measuring how the app enriches the life of the the individual user? If the app fully integrates in a way that enrichers a person’s lifestyle, we can expand that success to measure user retention. And sometimes, heck a lot of times, those things can happen in the details. Can a sense of mindfulness be respected – and even showcased, in the ux design decisions we make as product designers?
- Can I make something that won’t be a detriment to our progress? Better yet, can I make something that will be a more useful vehicle of progress? I know wielding the word ‘progress’ is lofty, but I’ll own it. We should create and demand technology that doesn’t strip us of humanity, or of our humanness, neither atrophying our relationships with one another or ourselves, both physically and emotionally.
Lastly, in my own life, I’m fond of learning more about ways to disconnect and embrace the present with mindfulness activities. A litte more Yoga, Read books (not just medium posts ;-) ), and meditation and a little less Netflix, Twitter, Facebook, and MLB.tv would probably be good for me. Better yet, it should be replaced with time with my awesome family. I’d note, leaving the phone at the front door when I come home is any easy solution.
Wonderfully, there is this feeling I have of a sea change — we’ve all begun to respond to this tech glut. Things like ‘Digital Detox’ retreats are popping up in every tech hub. Maybe you’ll bump into me at one sometime.