How Interactive Tech Became Opaque

Photo: Artur Debat/Getty Images

Those of us who witnessed the dawn of the interactive era originally believed that digital technology was going to bring back the human powers and priorities that industrialization had vanquished.

The earliest interactive tools, such as the television remote control, changed our relationship to programming. Where breaking the captive spell of television used to require walking up to the set and physically turning a dial, the remote let us escape with the micro-motion of a single finger. As cable television expanded the offerings, we found ourselves less watching a particular TV program than playing the TV itself: moving from channel to channel and keeping track of multiple shows, or observing the similarities and contrasts between them.

Extending the play, the joystick turned the television into a game console. As thrilling as Pong or Space Invaders may have been, the mere ability to move the pixels on the screen felt revolutionary. Just as the remote control let us deconstruct the content, the joystick demystified the technology. The pixel was no longer the exclusive province of corporate news networks and Hollywood stars, but something that could be manipulated by anyone. Likewise, the video recorder turned viewers into producers, breaking the monopoly on screen space.

Finally, the computer keyboard and mouse turned the TV from a monitor into a portal. The internet gave us all the ability to share, distribute our own media, and promote ideas from the bottom up. At last, a medium had arisen that seemed to connect people rather than alienate us from one another. The content became less important than the contact. The internet would serve as remedial help for a society desocialized by commercial television.

Unfortunately, the people and companies that were still heavily invested in industrial age values sought to undo the liberating impact of the remote control, the joystick, and the mouse. The technology industry wasn’t consciously attacking human autonomy so much as reinforcing its users’ role as passive consumers from whom to extract value.

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Meanwhile, computer interfaces became unnecessarily inaccessible. Early computers could be controlled with simple typed commands. Learning to use a computer was the same thing as learning to program a computer. Yes, it took a couple of hours, but it put the user in a position of authority over the machine. If a program couldn’t do something, a user knew whether this was because the computer was incapable of that function or because the programmer simply didn’t want the user to be able to do it.

In an effort to make computers easier to use, developers came up with elaborate metaphors for desktops and files. Consumers gained a faster onramp to using a computer, but were further distanced from programming. One operating system required users to summon “the wizard” in order to install software; it was surely meant as a friendly help feature, but the choice of a wizard underscored just how mysterious the inner workings of an application directory were supposed to be to a typical user.

Finally, the new culture of contact enabled by digital networks was proving unprofitable and was replaced by an industry-wide ethos of “content is king.” Of course, content was not the message of the net; the social contact was. We were witnessing the first synaptic transmissions of a collective organism attempting to reach new levels of connectedness and wake itself up. But that higher goal was entirely unprofitable, so conversations between actual humans were relegated to the comments sections of articles or, better, the reviews of products. If people were going to use the networks to communicate, it had better be about a brand. Online communities became affinity groups, organized around purchases rather than any sort of mutual aid. Actual “social” media was only allowed to flourish once the contacts people made with one another became more valuable as data than the cost in missed shopping or viewing time.

Content remained king, even if human beings were now that content.

This is section 30 of the new book Team Human by Douglas Rushkoff, which is being serialized weekly on Medium. Read the previous section here and the following section here.

From “Team Human” by Douglas Rushkoff. Copyright © 2019 by Douglas Rushkoff. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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