Am I becoming a “cell”?

Seminar 1/ CMU MDes 2016 Fall

Several years ago, I used to work at a internet company while being in charge of the graphic design of a search engine. During that time, one of the most important projects was rebranding the whole product. Cooperating with marketing team, we tried to reframe the value of the search engine.

Since the company was so huge that it had a great amount of branch companies. Each of these sub-companies was responsible for one particular product, such as instant messaging software, electronic commerce, social network website, online music player, online games, antivirus program, etc.. And more importantly, all these businesses were connected by the same account for every single user. Thus, the company could collect considerably more data through this enormous platform than any other in the industry, which meant that the search engine could provide tailored search results based on these data for individuals.

Moreover, since the main function of a search engine was to help people to find information efficiently and accurately, it seemed like reasonable for us to offer search results based on personal preferences. Consequently, there was no surprise that we defined the new slogan to be “We know you better.” It was a brilliant one for us because it articulated the unique feature distinguishing this search engine from others and implying the benefit of using big data — at the moment, everyone was trilled about this brand new concept and all the possibilities it offered.

Coincidentally, it is the same case discussed in the article How Your Data Are Being Deeply Mined and the TED Talk with Eli Pariser. Development of technology, such like big data, has truly done a great job to improve the conveniency and efficiency in our daily lives, but we obtain it at a real high price — sacrifice of privacy. Are we getting more promise or peril from it, considering technology is such a double-edge sword? If we cannot fight against the trend of technology, should we still evaluate privacy so much? Or should we just surrender and build up a new sense of value?

According to Ray Kurzweil discussed in The Singularity is Near, the evolution of human beings is heading to connect all individuals by technology and objects and thus to generate a higher level of intelligence. In this scenario, the humankind would live as one brain based on big data which combines every single mind into a whole, while a person being valued as a cell in this new “organism”. However, am I really want to live like a cell? Is sacrifice of privacy only the beginning of the humankind evolution to the next stage? If modern civilization means freedom, equality, to value every individual, to let the minority’s voice to be heard, isn’t this “evolution” a kind of retrogression?

Both the decision we made to filter search results and the theory which takes people as cells are proves that technology is shaping society. As some people have been already aware of the violation of blindly applying technologies without restrains, what should we do about it?

Except for implementing new laws and rules to regulate technology, as designers we need to find a way to shape the technology and enable it to serve people, to meet people’s needs and expectations, and to follow certain social patterns. In the scenario of big data, we can start by informing users that they are being tracked, and we can provide more options for them to choose between convenience and privacy. Leave the right for them to balance instead of making decisions for them. Thus, maybe we can finally find a way to ameliorate the problem.