A thought experiment exploring the power of intent and community
Gill Wildman and I were lucky enough to facilitate a workshop at the Department of Dreams festival today, curated by the wonderful Immy Kaur. Our research into the new role technology creates for civil society is leading in two different directions: we’re working on some formal recommendations for the charity sector — but also on some dreams and ideas about the potential for the ways communities, activists and others can influence how technology is shaped.
This post sets out the provocation we offered at the beginning of the workshop. I’ll write about the findings of the research, including what we spoke about in the break-out sessions, separately.
You don’t need me to tell you that we’ve all been using a lot more technology in lockdown — it’s just a fact of life, and one we might need to get used to.
So it’s worth thinking about how to use that technology well. We’re not going to talk today about which webcam or ring light to buy — instead I’m going to ask us to think together about how we can grow communities safely, develop intimacy, and grow solidarity.
And I’m going to prepare you for that by telling you two things about technology, and then offering five random interesting thoughts that have inspired me in the past few weeks as I’ve considered new ways to gather.
Two things about technology
The first thing is that Zoom gives everyone headaches.
It’s not just you.
And the second is that we all, over time, co-create the digital products we use.
If you’ve ever done anything on the Web, you’ll have noticed the 300,000,000 cookie notices you get every day. These notices tell you about what data is being captured about you and this usually includes some kind of analytic data. Every scroll, every click, every time you leave a page — it’s all aggregated into someone’s analytics. And quite often these analytics are studied to work out how to improve products and services. (If you’re new to analytics, you might find this hypothetical example from Amazon useful, or you perhaps this dashboard from the Government Digital Service.)
For instance, if you’ve used Zoom a lot lately, you’ll have noticed that some time in April the leave button went from being a teeny tiny spot in the corner to being a Great Big Red Button. This is almost certainly because the product team had noticed people were mousing around the page for a bit too long at the end of calls, so they made it easier to leave.
It might feel a bit weird to know this if you’ve never thought about how and why apps and web pages change, but it’s not as invasive as it sounds — using analytics to improve usability tends to focus on group behaviour and overall trends rather than on specific individuals or outliers. You download an app and the interface changes a little over time, in ways you do and don’t notice, mostly for the better.
By and large there is no right or wrong way to use most web services: if you’re doing something and getting the outcome you wanted, you’re doing it right, even if it’s not the “right” that the product was designed for. (See, particularly, teenagers, who have— over the years — made an art of adapting technology for their own ends. As I’ll talk about in a future post, there is no greater force for innovation than wanting to chat to your friends when you should be doing your homework.)
But anyway, good product designers tend to let people go where they want to go, do want they want to do, all in pursuit of increasing engagement or time on site or clicks or whatever they’re measuring. Chasing these engagement measures is one of the things that makes social media so sticky and Netflix so watchable.
And I wonder if this also offers an opportunity.
I’ve spent the last few years working with others to try and make improvements to the UK regulatory environment and get businesses to be responsible, but neither of these two things are changing fast enough to make any material difference.
But what if there’s another way?
Most of our digital social infrastructure is provided by businesses. We pay for some of them with our data, others with money, some with a combination of the two. Recent research by Doteveryone shows that 47% of people still signed up to digital services they had concerns about, which is not at all surprising. If every other parent in my son’s class is in a WhatsApp group, I probably need to be in the WhatsApp group too — let’s face it, no one’s going to want the fun chat from me about why we should move to Signal. If my workplace mandates using Zoom, I have to use Zoom. I can make the case for difference, but it might not work.
But what would happen, instead, if we could occupy digital products and services and start to bend them to our will? Take the fact that our actions and reactions inspire their development, and so behave intentionally — hold space, be thoughtful, do unexpected things —and be benevolent hackers and adapters?
What if we could occupy technology with love?
Is it possible to take over digital technology? I don’t know. There are probably moral, and almost certainly political, arguments against it, but if it’s all we’ve got, what else can we do?
Before you tell me it’s impossible, I’m going to leave you with five thoughts that might make you feel differently. (I talked a little about these in the presentation, but I’m just going to leave them here, for you to build your own context.)
Five random thoughts
- Audrey Tang, digital minister for Taiwan, where masks are not compulsory in public spaces, tells us:
Medical masks are a social signal … this is social technology working on a collective basis, a few people wearing masks can inspire this
2. Renni Eddo-Lodge, in Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, currently the best-selling book in the UK (buy it here), explains:
The mess we are living in is a deliberate one. If it was created by people, it can be dismantled by people, and it can be rebuilt in a way that serves all, rather than a selfish, hoarding few.
3. Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, written in 1985, is proving to be infinitely readable right now:
Our best machines are made from sunshine. People are nowhere near so fluid, being material and opaque.
4. Prof. Tithi Bhattacharya said in a recent webinar for TNI:
What if life and life-making become the basis of social organisation?
5. And lastly, it has come to my attention while reading very serious academic papers, that people who use more emoji on dating sites go on more first dates, and are also likely to have more sex. Read about it here.