Constraints #1. Irene Ros

Jumping Jacks, Hunger and Questioning Technology

A call to change the way technologists build the future

This week I had the privilege of attending Foocamp 2013, an unconference put together by O’Reilly Media that brings dozens of brilliant people together to discuss anything from politics to technology to faith. The attendees pitch the sessions and that’s just about the only rule.

As I was preparing to leave for Foo, I thought a lot about the topics that I wanted to discuss with the Foo community. Specifically: Hackathons and how we can make them better, ensuring the open source movement is thinking about sustainability and better supporting those learning how to code. As it turns out, these three topics have one thing in common. They all stem from a deep inner confusion about the role of technology in my life. Thankfully, the first and most memorable session at Foo allowed me to express that inner confusion better than I ever have, and so here I am, trying to put it into writing.

You see, I’ve had the fortune of working as an engineer in so many different environments. From corporate research and development, to grant funded work, to consulting. Each project brought with it different challenges, both technical and personal. I’ve enjoyed this journey and don’t see myself changing careers any time soon, but there’s always been a thread of uncertainty about the ways in which we create technology.

We technologists have an incredible power that many do not. Brashly, I would say we are the closest to a ‘wizard’ you’re going to see outside of a Harry Potter movie. We can create magical creatures in the forms of Apps, Websites etc. We breathe life into them and suddenly they become a reality for everyone. The longer I’ve been doing this the more this felt like a super power that I am very lucky to have. I hope everyone gets to feel that way about their work.

Having said that, I can’t help but hear in the back of my head “with great power comes great responsibility.” What it’s really prodding me about is Am I building the right thing? I would venture to say that this is possibly the hardest question to answer if you really start thinking about where your creation fits in the world: Is it the right tool for the job? Is it the right problem to begin with? Does it actually do what I think it does? Do others react to it the way that I want them to? Will it have the long term impact that I hope it will?

These are all existential questions that are hard to answer. Deadlines, requirements, clients, and shiny new technology have a wonderful way of distracting us from asking these questions. Even if we found the answers, would we really be empowered to make the changes that we would need? Some of these questions can be addressed through improved processes: User-centered design methodologies let us build tools with the user in mind. Usability testing allows us to perform some evaluation of how our system is actually being perceived and used. However, these aren’t some of the hardest questions to answer.

Let me explain with a metaphor that will hopefully shed some light on the issue:

Let’s say I am hungry. This seems like a health and nutrition problem, so I start reading advice from health experts. It seems a lot of them are advocating exercise. Aha! Jumping jacks are a quick exercise I can do at home without special equipment. The perfect solution! As I start my workout, I really get into the jumping jacks — I count them meticulously, I make sure that my form is precise and that I breathe in and out in sync with my movement. Before you know it, I’m way past my 10 jumping jacks and I add on some somersaults just because I’m IN THE GROOVE. Unfortunately, I completely forgot about my original trouble — I am still hungry. Turns out it gets even more complicated: there’s a story behind my hunger — perhaps poverty, or an illness, but instead of addressing the problem I’ve only been reacting to the symptom.

Translating this back to our world of technology, this is one of the core problems I see with how we are approaching building things. We’ve created technology platforms like iOS, Android, The Web etc, that make it incredibly easy for us to put together ideas into actual interactive applications and distribute them to users. So easy that I bet many of us don’t even start with a problem — we just want to build something cool. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with doing that; some amazing applications have been made this way. At the same time are we really thinking through the problems we are solving or are we creating more tools for people just like ourselves? Many of these tools address some immediate needs or satisfy an urge, but do they get at the heart of why we have those symptoms? While user-centered design could help us eliminate choosing the wrong solution to a problem, it might not help us discern whether we are solving the right problem or a problem at all.

Forgetting that you’re hungry is not a real problem— we will surely be reminded after we are done with our bootcamp workout and tackle it with whatever edible items we can find. Certain problems really aren’t that visible — the world around us is profoundly altered by technology and we aren’t asking whether this is a good thing. A Foo participant, who was instrumental in the development of iOS, admitted that he has a hard time sleeping at night knowing that he created a platform that allows making “crack for 3 year olds”; We have exchanged personal communication for binary “like” transactions, allowing us to also forego reactions like empathy; We’ve exchanged getting to know potential life partners for choosing them the way we choose paper towels on Amazon — judging quickly and harshly; we’ve replaced synchronous modes of communication like phone conversations which require immediate reactions that can challenge us as human beings in favor of texting — a form that can be edited until we paint the picture of how we wish to be seen and now who we really are. I can keep going. Technology didn’t create these problems, but it has enabled us to be our worst. You can call me old fashioned, but I just sat in a room of 40-50 people of all walks of life who felt the same so at least I’m not alone.

Part of the challenge is that the applications we build don’t always live on the right side of augmenting versus replacing human abilities. Augmentation, the act of enhancing or improving one’s existing state has a net positive effect — it does not alter our personality nor it does change how we would react to a situation based on our core traits. It does empower us or assist us in acting in accordance with who we are. Replacement technology, however, has the fundamental possibility to change us by substituting a reaction or behavior that would otherwise be more aligned with who we are. The distinction isn’t always that easy — the same technology can be used for both. For example, Facebook lets me see what my close friends are up to, augmenting my relationships with them when I chose to engage them about it. It also allows me to ignore another friend’s posting about a bad day by just “liking” it, replacing actual engagement.Knowing how to judge a technology’s impact as a creator and consumer is half the battle. The first step of that battle is knowing that we should.

Humans are inherently lazy creatures. We want to survive with as little work as possible and that in it of itself is not a bad thing. Some changes however do not improve us as human beings — forgoing empathy because we can doesn’t mean we should, choosing to play Angry Birds instead of doing our homework is probably not a good idea, ordering out Chinese takeout every night instead of learning how to cook and take better care of our bodies is also not going to serve us in the long term… I can go on. We all make daily choices when we make decisions about all aspects of our lives, but the moment we attach ourselves to a technology we stop making those choices every time we interact with it, because the interface made those choices for us. When was the last time you asked yourself how your Facebook account impacts your relationships? Imagine Facebook made a “call” button that called your friends instead of a “like” button. How would that change the way we use it?

All of this is to say that we technologists need to take on some additional responsibility. We need to become better versed in questioning the purpose of our own work, not just our engineering practices. We need to establish some criteria that will allow us to evaluate our own work and create opportunities to help others make those choices within our communities and teams . When we build platforms, we should think about what they enable and perhaps start with a core set of problems to build them upon rather than based on what is technically possible. Think about your problem space and ask yourself and those around you— are you addressing the problem or the symptoms? Do you love your problem or your solution? Most importantly, think about your impact and not your twitter follower count. Ask yourself why you are doing what you are doing, and let that drive your work.

So many of these thoughts came together because of wonderful people who have been inspiring me to continue asking the hard questions. For more food for thought, check out Bret Victor’s writing. Huge thanks to Jesse Kriss, Mike Pennisi and Cole Gillespie for feedback and insight.