Photo Credit: Ariel Leuenberger

A Year of Positive Technology

When we aren’t busy tweeting, checking in, emailing, and ruining tons of pictures with crappy filters, we suspect we might be miserable. We are pretty sure technology is to blame.

Research makes a convincing case. Staring at our smartphones is damaging our spines and disrupting our sleep. Social media is chipping away at our self-worth. Technology is reshaping our attention spans, making them even shorter.

We don’t need research to tell us this though. We feel it. We find ourselves spending too much time on Facebook and not enough time with our families. We have to turn off our phones to engage in deep thinking. We adopt and adapt, but it seems like technology doesn’t always align with our best interests.

We try our best to become more mindful of our technology use. We aim to follow our intention and write for an hour, or check our email only 3 times a day, or limit social media use to evenings. We even download apps like Freedom or Anti-Social to take a break.

Some of us might go further and try a digital detox for a weekend, or go on a retreat where we surrender our devices at check-in. Our hope? To restore balance. The reality is that deprivation may actually make us more eager than ever to get back to our tech.

It’s just not realistic to unplug, at least not for long. We don’t want to stifle the autonomy that technology gives us. We aren’t all that nostalgic about life pre-Internet. Well, I’m not anyway.

Technology can manifest as wisdom or confusion, helpful or harmful, happiness or misery. It seems like the burden is on us to sort it out. What if is isn’t?

What if technology could meet us halfway. Rather than nudging us down the purchase funnel, perhaps there could be space for reflection. Rather going to great lengths to get our attention right now, what if tech companies could take the long view. Rather than persuading us to engage more often, maybe our favorite apps could be designed to help us live balanced lives.

How can our longing for balance inspire a new approach to design? How can we design technology to improve well-being?

In 2016, on the verge of wearable-ingestible-companion-IoT-AI-WTF technology into every aspect of our lives, we have an opportunity to step back and consider where we want to go. I’m taking this year to reflect on what positive technology might look like.

This is for people working in technology, whether designer, product manager, strategist, entrepreneur, or researcher. It’s for anyone who is feeling a little stressed by technology. It’s for people who care about the future.

Each month I’ll consider a new topic, with the help of smart people I’ve been lucky enough to meet. Some of these incredible people are experts. Many of them are wise, funny, complicated people who are trying to fit technology into their everyday lives. In tech, we refer to them as users but they are so much more than that.

I hope to come away with some new ideas for the next wave of technology and some small steps we (and by we, I mean people working in tech and people who are engaging with technology) can take to create positive technology. We are wired to focus on things that go wrong, especially when it comes to technology. It’s hard to find positive models, to imagine a positive future where technology truly amplifies our humanity. But I think we can do it.

A Plan for 2016

January is for Restoring Focus

Our attention is a scarce resource, and yet every app, every website demands its share. Much has been made of using technology mindfully, or even using technology itself to become more mindful. All good. But I’m more interested in how technology can be reimagined to demand less of our attention.

February is about Deepening Relationships

Social media connects us with new people in new ways. And yet, it can also feel unsatisfying. I’m fascinated by how some artists and inventors are reimagining how technology mediates our relationships, so we will look at that. Perhaps facial recognition, biometrics, and linguistic analysis can help technology become more emotionally intelligent.

March is for Creating Calm

Calm is probably not a word you think of when you think of technology. I know I don’t, despite having tried more apps for meditation and mood than I can count. Calm technology may provide some ideas for mindful design. My hunch is that knowing when to move technology to the periphery and when to design for flow is a big part of mindful technology.

April is for Practicing Compassion and Empathy

In the tech world, we do a lot of thinking about empathy. Can we do better? Can technology help us do better? I think so. Empathy VR and values-based design are some things I’ll be trying out.

May will be about Fostering Creativity

There has been a lot of smart thinking around games and well-being. How can technology encourage us to be curious without clickbait? Some of the happiest moments people have online are when they are feeling creative, according to my research, but people think about creativity more broadly than I imagined.

June is for Rethinking Memory (and Presence)

Our obsession with capturing the moment, perhaps to remember it or maybe to frame it in a particular way, sometimes gets in the way of actually enjoying the moment. Regret and hope are bound together in the way technology takes part in our personal stories.

July is about Building Community

Many of us have experienced that helper’s high when participating in a charity or a cause. From citizen science to micro-volunteering to design for good, I want to know which patterns are positive and which are dead ends. I’m sure you do too.

August is about Engendering Trust

So far, I have grudgingly accepted Accept to thousands of terms and conditions. You probably have too. I don’t know who has my data. I do know that I don’t. What if, instead of us trusting every technology (and the company behind it) we use to do the right thing, it was reversed?

September is about Extending Abilities

Bridging human and machine intelligence, digital and physical, seems like the next frontier. Should technology nudge us to be better humans? Probably, but what is better? And who decides?

October is for Embracing Identity

We all want to become better versions of selves, and social media lets us explore what that might look like although not always in an authentic way. We play around with possible selves, but we tend to show only our best sides. How can we get real? I’ll talk to people using social media in just this way.

November is about Being Grateful

Gratitude is intimately connected with happiness, just as appreciating the present is with mindfulness. I’ve been playing around with gratitude exercises as an ideation method. Can we bring gratitude into design in other ways?

December is for Exploring Spirituality

How does technology inspire (or diffuse) feelings of awe, transcendence, and wonder. This is uncharted territory for me, and it seems like a good way to reflect on the year.

Do you have a story that I should hear? Are you working on this too? I’d love to have a conversation.