Heartless technology

We are responsible for something more important than profit or success: the well being of our users.


We all have been through problems and crisis in life, relationships, deaths, deceptions, people that left us behind, but all these things have something in common nowadays, they are all on our social networks.

When creating a digital product we struggle to have users so we can learn with them how to improve our product and make more profit out of their personal informations, that's the true in some cases. I see no harm on this, because we are selling a faceless data to advertisers. And the user is aware of that.

Someone once said to me:

If you are not paying for a online service, you are the product.

I think this is quite true.

Sometime ago I was talking to a friend, he's as doctor, and we were discussing about responsibilities and ethics at work and at some point of the conversation he said that a doctor needs to be more concerned about his work and ethics than a designer or a programmer, and I quote:

Well, I guess a doctor has to be more careful, because we are dealing with someone's life.

At first I agreed with him but if you put a little thought on that you'll see that he is not quite right about it. Life is not only about dying, or surviving, so if you affects someone's life in any kind of way you have the same responsibility as a doctor, the difference is that your are dealing with a different aspect of life. When creating a digital product we can also kill someone. Kill its reputation, privacy, relationship or family, and the thing we most care about when we are alive: our memories.

I didn’t go looking for grief this afternoon, but it found me anyway, and I have designers and programmers to thank for it. — Eric Meyer

This quote from Eric's post about the Year In Review tool from Facebook, totally ruined my day. As a designer my work demands a lot of empathy, I need to put myself on the place of my user, and at some point in my career this empathy became inherit on me, I can't stop doing that, and after putting myself on Eric's place and blaming a designer for making me remember something I didn't want to, that made me realize the huge social and psychological responsibility we have as designers, programmers or anyone who deals with digital products.

I spent the entire day going trough all the projects I've done in my life trying to see if any of them could have caused this to someone. And the answer, unfortunately, is yes. I couldn't stop thinking about what I did, that little project could have brought some terrible memories to someone, just because we gathered all of their facebook friends profile photos. There might be a dead relative, a ex-boyfriend, or just a bad memory about someone, and that's because technology is heartless, algorithms have no heart, compassion or empathy, but we have.

The recent "Your year in review" tool by Facebook has a terrible flaw, it's not on the algorithm, its not on the technology itself, it's on psychology, the problem is social. Sometimes in life, like I said at the beginning, we share things with our friends, we share our pain, to fell more comfortable, to feel the warmth of the beautiful words from the ones we love, and this posts very often are the posts with more "Likes" and "interactions", but that doesn't mean they are part of our "great year". Ok cool, you will gather my posts with most interaction and you'll also choose the main photo of it and also, inadvertently, show it to me? That's a cruel irresponsibility, we have no rights on that, these are people's memories and feelings that you are dealing with.

Do you think that Eric's history was the only one? No, it wasn't. We are talking about millions of users, but in the end this article is not about Facebook's flaw, it's about us it's about the way we do things on the internet the way we play with people's data and memories without even asking or giving a second tought.

If you think this is not important, take a look at this:

I guess this is not the christmas gift they were expecting.

My goal with this article is to make you think about the work you do and how important it is. We are dealing with people and if technology is heartless we can't be.

We were humans before we became just users.

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