Tech must embrace design ethics, artists need to help build content platforms — empathy might be the bridge.

Guy Gunaratne
Dec 26, 2016 · Unlisted

Here is a new video-essay about a few things 2016 highlighted to me about the technology industry. This is also a call to those outside tech, mainly in the creative content field who risk (continued) economic disenfranchisement if they don’t get not involved in building the mass content platforms of the future.

A moment for self-reflection

This year has been an inflection point for many. Assumptions about how the world works, how we work within it, have all been called into question. When it comes to the internet the places where we spend most of our time online, places where we thought were solely about mindless distraction have suddenly turned malicious and unkind.

Times like this lead many toward introspection, both personally and collectively. It sort of feels as if we’ve been feeling along the walls of a maze and have only just realised that we’ve doubled back on ourselves or as if the entire thing is one big fallacy.

When I started the video essay series The New Renaissance I thought it would be a good way to talk about what’s like to be a creative person on the internet today. But what this year has shown me most of all is how detached people who produce creative work are from an increasingly important part of the creative process, namely: technology.

It’s also shown me how insulated most people working in technology are from nearly everyone else. So I want to do two things. Talk to the people in tech that make apps and platforms and talk to the creative people who expect to earn a living from the internet.

Take a look at this video below. It features the Japanese director and animator Hayao Miyazaki essentially dressing down a group of artificial intelligence technologists.

Why Tech Needs More Soul

I’ve been working in tech for the last four years. For those years I have felt a dissonance in an industry whose collective values seem antithetical to the values of many of the people working within it. Something Saron Yitbarek spoke about in her most recent post.

It was only after I saw this video and I saw Miyazaki’s reaction, that it really dawned on me what it was that particularly disturbed me. And that is that many of the people working to build the next popular platform or app or tool often have an empathy blindspot.

Let me just say that I’ve met some of the most inspiring, wonderful, warm hearted people working in technology. But then again there’s no dodging the bubbles we seem to have self-imposed make it very easy for us to dismiss the fact that we have a vested interest in the lives of the people we make stuff for.

Now in all intents and purposes, I’m still a newbie at this, four years isn’t nearly enough me to make a blanket claim of a failing of an industry that I’ve only just settled into. But I’ve done the early work. I’ve learned to code, I raised the money for whatever that’s worth and I’ve built something with people I now consider family. So I’m going to be a friend by being a critic.

There is a cynical strain to the apps and tools we build today. These are products that actively try to reward misinformation using shallow metrics, tap into primal human compulsions to drive addictive behaviour and herd attention away from things that do matter and toward things that don’t.

We measure the wrong things. Track behaviour instead of reasoning, attention instead of resonance. Declare the future present while wilfully ignoring the economic costs of those outside of our bubbles. And my tech friends I know you feel this too, you feel it everytime you cross the street from your office to avoid the homelessness in your cities.

You’re kidding yourselves if you think what you’re building isn’t just as much to do with social conditioning, politics, human psychology as it is about design, product and profit. Just saying ‘hey I just build the app, I’m not into politics or economics’ when you’re actively trying to build something you hope will be used by millions upon millions of people, is not only a cop out, it’s an abdication of responsibility. It’s not grown up.

The presence of an empathy deficit in the things we use everyday is no longer a fringe opinion. There are some links below on the attention economy.

If feel the consequences of this among people I know outside of tech, the artists and musicians, video makers. It’s no longer possible to make art for art sake but the promise of the internet providing everyone the opportunity to become self-realised, self-dependent and free, is sounding hollower by the hour.

So what it comes down to is this: we can definitely do better but we need diversity in thinking. We need the proper weirdos, not the ones tech designates as ‘odd-birds’, we need the real, heroic crazies. The soulful, the kind. The artist. Those who might not have thought that their place was necessarily among us in technology when the truth is, they’re already here.

Why The Creative Class Need To Learn To Code

There are enough people in tech that are doing incredible, important work, and that’s rockets and solar panels aside. There’s Techfugees in London, Openvote in San Francisco and the TimeWellSpent movement who are actively trying to alleviate many of the concerns I’ve mentioned.

But if I put my creative person’s hat on, there is really only one way that this is ever going to change and that’s if creative people get actively involved in the platforms that their work is presented and distributed on. What’s at stake is our independence and frankly, our personal economics. That starving artist bullshit should not be a thing in 2017, not with such a supposedly level playing field as the internet.

But once you realise, to misquote an often hackneyed Steve Jobs quote, that all of this was once built by people who were no smarter than you. That should excite the creator, the imaginative thinker, the poet.

When I first learned to code and figured out what it meant to be an interface designer, I gravitated toward those I saw inside the gates that spoke about technology in a way that resonated with me; Brett Victor, Jaron Lanier, Ted Nelson, Aaron Swartz. These people could hold conversations beyond technology.

There are people today that cross that divide too. Jack Conte, a musician who makes great music but finds that the internet isn’t working for him so instead of moaning about it, he built a tech company: Patreon.

Casey Neistat tried to put a creative spin on vlogging with Beme because he was concerned with how obsessed we’d all become with selfie-culture. He turned his creativity into code.

As for me, tech might be where I spend most of my time making stuff but it isn’t what makes my soul burn. If it’s not pushing pixels, designing or developing stuff for Maven, my time is spent reading literature, making videos, writing fiction. I have a literary agent, and am soon to become a bonafide novelist. None of us are archetypes of what a tech founder should be and none of us have any business being in tech if you go by the opinion of people in tech.

For the last 20 odd years the incredibly smart people in Silicon Valley and elsewhere figured out how to make money from creative content before creative people did. It is time creative people had more of a say hand — once again, because I feel like there were more of us in the past — in creating our own future. And there are signs with blockchain technologies with the likes of Mediachain Labs and Blockstack Inc that the future could be better for the online content creator.

The Artists Integrity

Artists may be insufferably idealistic at the best of times, but they do have a modicum of self-awareness and perspective to know that what they make is not being consumed by a datapoint on a chart but is being experienced by a flesh and blood human being.

That empathic sentiment that connects most people in creative fields, that has the potential to build great, lasting and tangibly beneficial products for all of us. Those are the people who will help fill this empathy deficit and at this point it’s looking less like a choice and more like a duty.

Those that understand that, and have the guts and the staying power, the belligerence, the discipline to run companies, advise on human computer interfaces, those are the people who should be helping to build the next creative platforms.

Conclusion

The internet today does feel like the ultimate triumph of the numeric over the literary. The numeric world being one of boolean values, of 1s and 0s, of the clear, definite shape of an answer. The literary world is a world full of only questions, of nuance, where choices are made with patience. Where the smartest people in the room simmer on ideas, they deliberate and never rush. It’s a world tilted toward self-reflection, it’s an artist’s world. It’s messy. And indelibly, powerfully human.

I like that world. It doesn’t make much sense but neither do people.

Alas, there is only one Miyazaki but there is plenty of the rest of us that think that what we pay attention to, reward and hold up as our collective values are unbearably unimaginative.

So at the close of the heartache of this year we need more magic. We need more soul. More art. The future of art depends on the artist online. And as artists we owe it our work to make sure that the people who experience it do so in an open environment, one in which we had a hand in creating. We have no right to expect or wait for it appear from anywhere else.


Further Reading

The technological focus on impressions and attention have huge ramifications in many areas, from how we live our lives to how civil debate is orchestrated online and off:

Choice Control: How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds — from a Magician and Google’s Design Ethicist

Markets: Is Anything Worth Maximizing?

Journalism: Saving Us From Ourselves: The Anti-Clickbait Movement

Politics: The attention economy and the demise of the middle ground

Books that inspired this post:

The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu
Who Gets What And Why by Alvin Roth

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