“The devil’s in the defaults”

“The devil’s in the defaults”. These words appear as a throwaway interjection early on in Laurence Scott’s The Four-Dimensional Human when talking about Skype’s notifications, when in default settings, constantly interrupting Scott throughout the day. It’s clear from the goal of Scott’s book — to ask the kinds of questions that were born out of a technological malaise and are now being approached with rigour — why the default settings of one of the most popular communication apps should be an object of interrogation. Scott’s central contention that the book’s title alludes to is that we are struggling to adapt to life in four dimensions, the fourth being the loosely-defined but intuitively understood online world, approaching something of a Gibsonian cyberspace. And whilst we probably don’t have anything better than notifications to rely on to telegraph changes in cyberspace, default settings seem set up to best serve Skype not me.

Skype’s notification settings are something we have the capacity to change rather trivially. And as Skype invariably resides on iOS, Android, macOS, or Windows, system-level notification settings can also be adapted fluidly to get even more granularity. But notifications might increasingly be an exceptional space in which defaults can and ought to be changed. To stick with software, every major operating system — desktop or mobile — is equipped with a suite of apps that are defaults for standard applications like messaging, email, calendar, web browsing, etc. And for the most part, users need these. Without defaults, there are simply too many decisions any one user will have to make — possibly to the point of rendering a new device unusable for the first day in which a user’s preferred apps are sourced, installed, and set up.

But I increasingly feel we’re getting to the pointy end of truly evaluating the consequences of the decisions tech company’s make for us in their defaults. Because once a wall is built up around a default, it has the potential to hurt everyone. iMessage for Apple’s platforms is the perfect example. It is by no means the most feature-rich, elegant, or network-rich messaging platform and yet it could be the only thing that has you tied to your iPhone, unable to consider options like Google’s Pixel. Just as an example, the only person I message frequently on iMessage is my partner — so really, I’m in a very weak form of lock-in to Apple’s default messaging service. But I’m all but convinced from my memory of the last time I was on Android in 2014 that I would be putting up a barrier — however slight, however translucent — between my partner and I if I were to get a Pixel and try to get her on Allo, Hangouts, or any other messaging service.

So the lock-in cost of defaults like iMessage or even Apple Music should be clear, but there are also more intuitive, less concrete costs to digital standardisation. 99% Invisible ran a story a few months ago about military standardisation based on averages, and the point — that designed for an average is really designing for no one — feels as relevant to tech. Right now, I’m writing on a table with 9 others working at laptops. 6 of us have 13” MacBook Airs, and 1 is using an 11”. This proportion is pretty common a sight at places where people want to get work done with their breakfast and morning coffee. But none of us are identical, and I can all but guarantee what we’re working on is wildly different (I don’t see anyone else looking around seeing what laptop I’m using). And yet, the 13” MacBook Airs are (at least physically) identical.

As the 99% Invisible episode pointed out, the military worked out the error of its ways and started designing with tolerances around averages. Things like seat position, pedal height, all things we can do in any old car today came from the military and an acknowledgement that the machine being used ought to come up to meet the user, not the other way around. And still identical keystrokes on identical keyboards on identical computers shower around me. Doesn’t that seem weird?

What I’m getting at here is what I feel will be the next paradigm in technological design: that which will embrace personalisation and dedication in a fundamental way. Nilay Patel of The Verge has already hinted at a prediction that 2017 will be the year of lock-in backlash: a moment we all realise what we’ve done to our digital lives in going along to get along with our devices and the defaults they prescribe. The next, and much longer, step is the recognition that a 13” 16:10 display is a prescription that often just doesn’t make sense, that the removal of the ‘Escape’ key from the MacBook Pro might be a little too courageous, and that the company’s who make the hardware might actually know next to nothing about how I’m going to use the machine.

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