The Human Resistance

Technology has gotten so good at degrading people, even its creators are starting to have enough.
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Last year I had what you could call an existential crisis. This psychological hangover was induced by the dissolution of an app I’d launched, which had amassed millions of users but not enough money to keep it alive, a divorce from a second startup I co-founded that cost me layer’s fees and the price of a dear friendship, and topped off finally with a roofie of heartbreak.

It felt for a while like I had fallen through the trap door of the universe. I had discovered what everyone up on the floorboards above, walking noisily about, convinced they were going somewhere, was too blind to see: nothing mattered.

While in the void, I saw Apple unveil the Apple Pencil and thought about how vehemently opposed to a product like this Steve Jobs had been during his lifetime. “God gave us 10 styluses,” proclaimed a man not known for a belief in a power higher than himself, “let’s not invent another.” This prophetic aversion had led directly to the invention the iPhone, a touch-screen device that in a few years had wholly remade the world in its self-images.

“As soon as you have a stylus, you’re dead,” Jobs had famously declared. But, of course, at 56, Steve Jobs was dead, and as soon as he was, Apple had a stylus.

“Think about that when you’re fighting for some creative idea at work today,” I’d tell people.

All meaning we ascribed to anything we did with our lives seemed ridiculous; an absurd delusion. I wanted to do nothing. I wanted to pursue nothing. I wanted to create nothing. There was no point to any of it.

All of this felt compounded — and if I stared too long into the glare of the digital sun, perpetuated — by an increasingly paralyzing rupture I was watching run down the fabric of the culture.

“Our technology is turning us into objects,” I’d written in a 2013 post titled Objectionable, tracing the trajectory from selfies to self-objectification to dehumanization. In a ubiquitously mediated environment, I argued, re-conceiving ourselves and one another as media products was inevitable. “We are all selfies. We are all profiles. We are all objects. And we can’t stop. And the trouble is, it doesn’t matter how you treat objects,” I wrote. “It’s not like they’re people.”

Then came Tinder.

“By reducing people to one-time-use bodies and sex to an on-demand exchange, dating apps have made what they yield us disposable and cheap,” I wrote in an An App For Love. “From swipe to sex, the relentless, grinding repetitiveness inherent in every aspect of the ‘swipe app’ experience sabotages the very mechanics that trigger the brain system for romantic love,” I wrote, referencing Helen Fisher’s extensive neuroscience research on the phenomenon. “Love knows what it likes. And we could be building tech engineered for it — creating a match between the research and the product experience, as it were. But we aren’t. Love has been, literally, written out of the code for a generation afraid to catch feelings. Instead we swipe through thousands of instant people. We learn nothing of them and share nothing of ourselves to be known. We strip ourselves down to anatomy and we become invisible.”

We had succeeded, I wrote in the summer of 2015, in disrupting love. That would be the last thing I’d write before nothing became worth writing about.

In the fall of 2016 there is a toxic sense pervading the culture that no one is deserving of dignity anymore. You can feel it too as you sense your own being swiped away. It’s not just in our politics. It’s in our pockets. It’s in the nameless dread we feel of our devices now. Their myriad manipulations invading our attention, degrading our autonomy, making us sick. One third of us would rather give up sex than our smartphone. The rest of us can’t even get out of bed in the morning without first tapping the black, glass syringe. We have accepted our addiction to digital dopamine so thoroughly we take its unrelenting coercion for granted. We all live under the tyranny of technology now. It’s gotten to the point that even some technology creators are recoiling at the results their creations have wrought on our brave new world, and trying to find ways to design different.

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PRISONERS OF OUR OWN DEVICE

In “The Scientists Who Make Apps Addictive,” published in The Economist’s 1843 Magazine’s October issue, Ian Leslie writes about Addiction by Design, a book exploring machine gambling in Las Vegas, by anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll:

The capacity of slot machines to keep people transfixed is now the engine of Las Vegas’s economy. Over the last 20 years, roulette wheels and craps tables have been swept away to make space for a new generation of machines: no longer mechanical contraptions (they have no lever), they contain complex computers produced in collaborations between software engineers, mathematicians, script writers and graphic artists.

The casinos aim to maximise what they call “time-on-device”. The environment in which the machines sit is designed to keep people playing. Gamblers can order drinks and food from the screen. Lighting, decor, noise levels, even the way the machines smell — everything is meticulously calibrated. Not just the brightness, but also the angle of the lighting is deliberate: research has found that light drains gamblers’ energy fastest when it hits their foreheads.

But it is the variation in rewards that is the key to time-on-device. The machines are programmed to create near misses: winning symbols appear just above or below the “payline” far more often than chance alone would dictate. Losses are thus reframed as potential wins, motivating [players] to try again. Mathematicians design payout schedules to ensure that people keep playing while they steadily lose money. Alternative schedules are matched to different types of players, with differing appetites for risk: some gamblers are drawn towards the possibility of big wins and big losses, others prefer a drip-feed of little payouts (as a game designer told Schüll, “Some people want to be bled slowly”). The mathematicians are constantly refining their models and experimenting with new ones, wrapping their formulae around the contours of the cerebral cortex.

Gamblers themselves talk about “the machine zone”: a mental state in which their attention is locked into the screen in front of them, and the rest of the world fades away. “You’re in a trance,” one gambler explains to Schüll. “The zone is like a magnet,” says another. “It just pulls you in and holds you there.”

Of course, these days we’re all captive to a screen explicitly designed to exploit our psychology and maximize time-on-device every waking moment, everywhere we go. The average person checks their phone 150 times a day, and each compulsive tug on our own, private slot machine is not the result of conscious choice or weak willpower. It’s engineered.

“There’s a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job is to break down whatever responsibility I can maintain,” explains Tristan Harris, formerly Google’s Design Ethicist.

Designers, technologists, product managers, data scientists, ad sales executives — the job of all these people, as Harris says, “is to hook people.”

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness starving hysterical,” wrote the beat poet Alan Ginsberg in his 1956 magnum opus, Howl.

Fifty years later, a Harvard math genius named Jeff Hammerbacher would take a job as a research scientist at a startup called Facebook. Hammerbacher would later adapt Ginsberg’s vision for the Millennial era. “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,” he said.

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BUT YOU MADE IT IN A SLEAZY WAY

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There is a huge incentive for technology companies to keep us in thrall to their machine zone. From small startups to the massive, public corporations that are now America’s most valuable companies, the dual motivators of reward from advertisers, and punishment from stockholders or investors compel them to make sure they keep you, me, and everyone we know constantly and increasingly engaged.

From “The Scientists Who Make Apps Addictive”:

The emails that induce you to buy right away, the apps and games that rivet your attention, the online forms that nudge you towards one decision over another: all are designed to hack the human brain and capitalise on its instincts, quirks and flaws.

When you get to the end of an episode of “House of Cards” on Netflix, the next episode plays automatically. It is harder to stop than to carry on. Facebook gives your new profile photo a special prominence in the news feeds of your friends, because it knows that this is a moment when you are vulnerable to social approval, and that “likes” and comments will draw you in repeatedly. LinkedIn sends you an invitation to connect, which gives you a little rush of dopamine — how important I must be! — even though that person probably clicked unthinkingly on a menu of suggested contacts. Unconscious impulses are transformed into social obligations, which compel attention, which is sold for cash.

The same month as the article above came out, Briana Bosker wrote in The Atlantic:

Sites foster a sort of distracted lingering partly by lumping multiple services together. To answer the friend request, we’ll pass by the News Feed, where pictures and auto-play videos seduce us into scrolling through an infinite stream of posts — what Harris calls a “bottomless bowl,” referring to a study that found people eat 73 percent more soup out of self-refilling bowls than out of regular ones, without realizing they’ve consumed extra. Checking that Facebook friend request will take only a few seconds, we reason, though research shows that when interrupted, people take an average of 25 minutes to return to their original task. The “friend request” tab will nudge us to add even more contacts by suggesting “people you may know,” and in a split second, our unconscious impulses cause the cycle to continue on the recipient’s phone.

Food companies engineer flavors to exploit our biological desire for sugary, salty, and fatty foods. Social technology taps into our psychological cravings. We are social creatures, after all.

Bosker writes:

The trend is toward deeper manipulation in ever more sophisticated forms. Harris fears that Snapchat’s tactics for hooking users make Facebook’s look quaint. Facebook automatically tells a message’s sender when the recipient reads the note — a design choice that activates our hardwired sense of social reciprocity and encourages the recipient to respond. Snapchat ups the ante: Unless the default settings are changed, users are informed the instant a friend begins typing a message to them — which effectively makes it a faux pas not to finish a message you start. Harris worries that the app’s Snapstreak feature, which displays how many days in a row two friends have snapped each other and rewards their loyalty with an emoji, seems to have been pulled straight from [Stanford experimental psychologist B.J.] Fogg’s inventory of persuasive tactics. Research shared with Harris by Emily Weinstein, a Harvard doctoral candidate, shows that Snapstreak is driving some teenagers nuts — to the point that before going on vacation, they give friends their log-in information and beg them to snap in their stead. “To be honest, it made me sick to my stomach to hear these anecdotes,” Harris told me.

But aren’t we all feeling a little bit sicker?

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UNCOMFORTABLY NUMB

“Like many addicts, I had sensed a personal crash coming,” Andrew Sullivan wrote in a September New York Magazine essay about how his relationship to technology nearly destroyed him:

For a decade and a half, I’d been a web obsessive, publishing blog posts multiple times a day, seven days a week, and ultimately corralling a team that curated the web every 20 minutes during peak hours. Each morning began with a full immersion in the stream of internet consciousness and news, jumping from site to site, tweet to tweet, breaking news story to hottest take, scanning countless images and videos, catching up with multiple memes. Throughout the day, I’d cough up an insight or an argument or a joke about what had just occurred or what was happening right now. And at times, as events took over, I’d spend weeks manically grabbing every tiny scrap of a developing story in order to fuse them into a narrative in real time.

I was, in other words, a very early adopter of what we might now call living-in-the-web. And as the years went by, I realized I was no longer alone. Facebook soon gave everyone the equivalent of their own blog and their own audience. More and more people got a smartphone — connecting them instantly to a deluge of febrile content, forcing them to cull and absorb and assimilate the online torrent as relentlessly as I had once. It was ubiquitous now, this virtual living, this never-stopping, this always-updating. I remember when I decided to raise the ante on my blog in 2007 and update every half-hour or so, and my editor looked at me as if I were insane. But the insanity was now banality; the once-unimaginable pace of the professional blogger was now the default for everyone.

If the internet killed you, I used to joke, then I would be the first to find out. Years later, the joke was running thin. In the last year of my blogging life, my health began to give out. Four bronchial infections in 12 months had become progressively harder to kick. Vacations, such as they were, had become mere opportunities for sleep. My dreams were filled with the snippets of code I used each day to update the site. My friendships had atrophied as my time away from the web dwindled. My doctor, dispensing one more course of antibiotics, finally laid it on the line: “Did you really survive HIV to die of the web?”

In an essay on contemplation, the Christian writer Alan Jacobs recently commended the comedian Louis C.K. for withholding smartphones from his children. On the Conan O’Brien show, C.K. explained why: “You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away,” he said. “Underneath in your life there’s that thing … that forever empty … that knowledge that it’s all for nothing and you’re alone … That’s why we text and drive … because we don’t want to be alone for a second.”

He recalled a moment driving his car when a Bruce Springsteen song came on the radio. It triggered a sudden, unexpected surge of sadness. He instinctively went to pick up his phone and text as many friends as possible. Then he changed his mind, left his phone where it was, and pulled over to the side of the road to weep. He allowed himself for once to be alone with his feelings, to be overwhelmed by them, to experience them with no instant distraction, no digital assist. And then he was able to discover, in a manner now remote from most of us, the relief of crawling out of the hole of misery by himself. As he said of the distracted modern world we now live in: “You never feel completely sad or completely happy, you just feel … kinda satisfied with your products. And then you die. So that’s why I don’t want to get a phone for my kids.”

“When you’re feeling uncertain,” says Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, “Before you ask why you’re uncertain, you Google. When you’re lonely, before you’re even conscious of feeling it, you go to Facebook. Before you know you’re bored, you’re on YouTube. Nothing tells you to do these things. The users trigger themselves.”

Technology’s relentless intrusion isn’t just hijacking our attention, it’s being deliberately designed to disrupt another kind of human experience:

Endless distraction is being engineered to prevent us from experiencing emotion. A form of, literally, psychological abuse.

What is this doing to our mental health?

The American College Health Association’s Spring 2016 survey of 95,761 students found that 17% of the nation’s college population has been diagnosed with or treated for anxiety problems during the past year. 13.9% were diagnosed with or treated for depression. Up from 11.6% and 10.7% respectively just five years ago.

The Wall Street Journal reports:

Ohio State has seen a 43% jump in the past five years in the number of students being treated at the university’s counseling center. At the University of Central Florida in Orlando, the increase has been about 12% each year over the past decade. At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, demand for counseling-center services has increased by 36% in the last seven years.

There is a mental health crisis of, literally, epidemic proportion going on.

The Wall Street Journal suggests it is “unclear why the rates of mental-health problems seem to be increasing.” Anxiety and depression rising in tandem with cohorts of young people who have spent more and more of their lives enmeshed in addictive technology with each successive year may simply be a coincidence.

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So, you know, who knows?

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THE MAN IN THE MIRROR

“I felt powerless,” Justin McLeod recently told writer Nancy Jo Sales.

Last year, Sales’s Vanity Fair article, Tinder and the Dawn of the ‘Dating Apocalypse,’ provided an ethnography of the dystopian dating app culture, but unlike her other subjects, McLeod wasn’t just another helpless user at the mercy of dating app technology. He is the founder of the dating app Hinge.

“It was crazy,” McLeod said. “I had $10 million in the bank. I had resources. I had a team. But as a C.E.O. I felt more powerless than I did when I had, like, no money in the bank and this thing was just getting started.”

“When your article came out,” McLeod had written to Sales back in August, “it was the first among many realizations that Hinge had morphed into something other than what I originally set out to build. Your honest depiction of the dating app landscape has contributed to a massive change we’re making at Hinge later this fall. I wanted to thank you for helping us realize that we needed to make a change.”

As Sales tells it:

McLeod, 32, had launched Hinge in early 2013, fresh out of Harvard Business School, with the hope of becoming the “Match for my generation” — in other words a dating site that would facilitate committed relationships for younger people who were less inclined to use the leading and yet now antiquated (in Internet years) service. He was a bit of a romantic; last November a “Modern Love” column in the New York Times told the story of how he made a mad rush to Zurich to convince his college sweetheart not to marry the man she was engaged to (she and McLeod plan to marry this coming February). So nothing in his makeup nor his original plans for his company fit in with it becoming a way for Wall Street fuckboys to get laid. (“Hinge is my thing,” said a finance bro in my piece, a line McLeod says made him blanch.)

Sales’s article was a reckoning. Within a few months of its publication the Hinge team began conducting user research that, as McLeod writes, “would reveal how alarmingly accurate its indictment of swiping apps was.”

Among Hinge’s findings:

  • 7 in 10 surveyed women on the leading swiping app have received sexually explicit messages or images.
  • 6 in 10 men on the leading swiping app are looking primarily for flings or entertainment.
  • 30% of surveyed women on swiping apps have been lied to about a match’s relationship status.
  • 22% of men on Hinge have used a swiping app while on a date.
  • 54% of singles on Hinge report feeling lonely after swiping on swiping apps.
  • 21% of surveyed users on the leading swiping app have been ghosted after sleeping with a match.
  • 81% of Hinge users have never found a long-term relationship on any swiping app.

Unsurprisingly, among the main design conventions McLeod and his team identified that have become standard in swipe apps are: a “slot-machine interface” that encourages people to keep swiping, and the dehumanizing representation of “people as playing cards.” These design choices not only “lead to the pathologically objectifying way many choose to engage with the real humans on the other side of the app” but also serve the business purpose of orienting users “towards engagement, not finding relationships.”

On the eve of Hinge’s relaunch as a completely overhauled product, (sans “swiping, matching, timers and games”), McLeod wrote:

The most popular swiping app boasts that users login on average 11 times per day spending up to 90 minutes per day swiping, and have accumulated on average over 200 matches. However, for the vast majority of users this has led to exactly zero relationships.

Like a casino, a swiping app isn’t designed to help you win; it’s designed to keep you playing so the house wins. Swiping is an addictive game designed to keep you single.

Given the current state of our culture, it’s now more critical than ever that there exist a service that helps those bold enough to seek real relationships find meaningful connections. With it, we hope we can pave the way for a new normal in dating culture that treats people with dignity and helps those seeking relationships find what they’re really looking for.

On October 11 the new Hinge launched on iOS in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and India.

“What responsibility comes with the ability to influence the psychology of a billion people,” asks Tristan Harris. “Behavior design can seem lightweight because it’s mostly just clicking on screens. But what happens when you magnify that into an entire global economy? Then it becomes about power.”

Prior to his appointment as Google’s Design Ethicist, Harris worked on the Gmail Inbox app, which is where he began to think about the ways experience design choices can have ramifications on society at a mass scale. In 2016 Harris left Google to found Time Well Spent, a consultancy that works with tech startups proactively seeking to create more conscious user experiences, and to raise awareness for how digital technology is exploiting our psychology in ways we’ve come to take for granted.

As Bosker writes, Harris’s team at Google “dedicated months to fine-tuning the aesthetics of the Gmail app with the aim of building a more ‘delightful’ email experience. But to him that missed the bigger picture: Instead of trying to improve email, why not ask how email could improve our lives — or, for that matter, whether each design decision was making our lives worse?”

Like McLeod and Harris these are questions technology creators seem to be starting to ask themselves.

“We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform,” Dick Costolo, Twitter’s former CEO, wrote in a leaked memo in 2015. “We’ve sucked at it for years. It’s no secret. We lose core user after core user by not addressing simple trolling issues that they face every day. I’m frankly ashamed of how poorly we’ve dealt with this issue during my tenure as CEO…. I take PERSONAL responsibility for our failure to deal with this as a company.”

In February of 2015 Costolo was confident the platform would “start kicking these people off right and left,” but the problem might have proven too big for Costolo to solve. Before the end of year, he was out. Now, Costolo’s newly-announced post-Twitter venture, Chorus, is a fitness product aiming, unambiguously, to make people’s lives better.

Gabe Zichermann literally wrote the book on Gamification By Design. Now he focuses his energy on a new startup called Onward, which aims to “transform how people relate to addictive and compulsive behaviors in their lives, giving them more control and overall satisfaction.” The company is working with UCLA-based clinical advisors to design a software product to help people “achieve tech-life balance by reducing the pull from social media, porn, sex, gambling, games or shopping.” Not surprisingly, “Onward is designed and built by a team of expert technologists whose lives have been personally affected by addiction.”

“A new class of tech elites [is] ‘waking up’ to their industry’s unwelcome side effects,” Bosker writes. “For many entrepreneurs, this epiphany has come with age, children, and the peace of mind of having several million in the bank.” Bosker quotes Soren Gordhamer, the creator of Wisdom 2.0, a conference series about maintaining “presence and purpose” in the digital age: “They feel guilty,” Gordhamer says.

Perhaps. Or perhaps the realization of how much power they wield may, for some, eventually broaden their scope of what it is they can do with it. It is worth noting that this nascent trend has arrived as many of the technologists and entrepreneurs responsible for shaping the digital experiences of our lives have matured from scrappy upstarts with something to prove into established industry players. Has success felt as meaningful as they’d imagined it would? Did all their hard work and late nights actually create something of value? Has their impact on the world turned out to be what they’d hoped?

Confronted by this self-reflection some are discovering they have the power, and time yet, to make a change.

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FLESH AND BONE BY THE TELEPHONE

Y-Combinator, the famous startup incubator that has helped create successes like AirBnB, DropBox, Instacart, Reddit, and more, has a motto —

 

makesomething

 

 

This is an awesome mantra for founders of a commercial enterprise (and for VCs hoping to get a big return on their investment to preach to startups), but the trouble is, just because people want a thing doesn’t always mean that it’s all that awesome. People, for example, want heroin. That doesn’t necessarily mean that your company ought to make it.

What people want can be hacked. Addiction, in fact, changes the structure of the brain. There is a very fine line between making a thing people want and coercing our desires in the first place. By exploiting our psychological susceptibilities, as Harris says, technology companies “are getting better at getting people to make the choices they want them to make.”

Through Time Well Spent Harris is championing the adoption of design standards that treat users’ psychology with respect rather than as an exploitable resource, a concept he refers to as a “Hippocratic oath” for software creators.

Dating back to the physicians of Ancient Greece, the Hippocratic oath states the obligations and proper conduct of doctors. The pledge is taken upon graduation from medical school, oftentimes depicted in the shorthand: “first do no harm.”

But industrialists are not doctors — the psychological motivations that compel someone to go through years and years of grueling, expensive training in order to help heal people are often not the same as those of someone who self-selects to drop out of college to start a company that gives people what they want even if it’s kinda pretty bad for them — it turns out.

As Leslie writes in The Scientists Who Make Apps Addictive:

The biggest obstacle to incorporating ethical design and “agency” is not technical complexity. According to Harris, it’s a “will thing.” And on that front, even his supporters worry that the culture of Silicon Valley may be inherently at odds with anything that undermines engagement or growth. “This is not the place where people tend to want to slow down and be deliberate about their actions and how their actions impact others,” says Jason Fried, who has spent the past 12 years running Basecamp, a project-management tool. “They want to make things more sugary and more tasty, and pull you in, and justify billions of dollars of valuation and hundreds of millions of dollars [in] VC funds.”

In the Atlantic, Josh Elman, “a Silicon Valley veteran with the venture-capital firm Greylock Partners,” offers another analogous example. “Elman compares the tech industry to Big Tobacco.”

New guidelines released by the American Academy of Pediatrics in October exhort app developers to “cease making apps for children younger than 18 months until evidence of benefit is demonstrated.” And “Eliminate advertising and unhealthy messages on apps” for kids five and younger.

But the question is — who’s going to hold them accountable when, inevitably, they don’t? Big Tobacco did not decide to stop advertising to children, and fast food chains didn’t decide to start disclosing the caloric content of their products out of the goodness of their black lungs and arterially-sclerosed hearts. It seems unlikely that relying on the personal conscience of each individual app developer to guide them towards moral integrity is really going to be a scalable solution.

We take it for granted now, that cars have seat-belts to keep the squishy humans inside from flying through a meat-grinder of glass and metal during a collision. But they didn’t always.

How did we ever get so clever?

Regulation. It took legislation to make seat belts standard in cars. And more legislation to require their use. And it has saved lives. Regulation changes not only what’s legal, but what’s normal. Car manufacturers didn’t used to talk about seat belts because it made people think of the reality of car crashes, and cars were sold on the “fantasy” of driving. Now cars are sold on safety.

In the wake of a national mental health crisis and corporations setting out to explicitly exploit our psychology, it’s worth considering the options we have as citizens, not just consumers.

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SOME COURTESY, SOME SYMPATHY, AND SOME TASTE

In the early 2010’s, Wired founder Kevin Kelly’s book, What Technology Wants, became quite fashionable with a certain type of tech person for absolving himself of any moral or ethical responsibility in his creations. According to this mechanistic faith, technology just wants to, like, live its true self; who are its creators to have any say in the inevitable?

In this vision we are all trapped in a mobius loop of technological determinism. Product creators are powerless to do anything but give people what they want and users are helpless to resist coercion into what they’re given and all of us are slaves to whatever technology wants. No one is accountable while everyone loses dignity.

Yet it is the very power to create products used by millions, or billions of people that is the power to shape — or misshape—the world. Technology wants to irradiate us as much as it wants to cure us. Technology wants to bomb our cities as much as it wants to power them. Technology wants to destroy us as much as it wants to save us. Which is to say, technology wants NOTHING. Technology has no innately arising desires of its own independent of the desires of the people who create it.

At some point in the past 70 years we seem to have forgotten what we knew in the aftermath of WW2, which is that what technology wants is in the eyes of its creators. And engineering technology for objectification, addiction, psychological exploitation, mental abuse….is degrading. It’s degrading to the people who use it, and it’s degrading to the people who make it — it takes a certain kind of personality to feel good depriving people of their humanity, and not everyone has it. You might be one of those with a resistance.

From Andrew Carnegie to Bill Gates some of the most successful technology entrepreneurs, and humans, in history have ended up pursuing ways to contribute to the world after they retired from their commercial endeavors. Perhaps for some in the new generation the prospect of segregating the two is no longer quite as appealing.

In the end, after every single tech CEO alive today is dead, their company, should it outlive them, will make the product they never wanted to see in the world. Some, it seems, are starting to ask themselves whether it’s what they want to be doing while they’re still living.

 

Jesus died for your sins

A photo posted by babiejenks (@babiejenks) on

    



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UX Cruelty

Don’t blame it on the algorithm — assuming you’re designing experiences for “happy, upbeat, good-life users” might make you a terrible person.

 

My friend is going through a divorce. Like nearly 5 million other Americans. And recently Facebook greeted her with this careless user experience:

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When this UX intrusion happened to her, it reminded me of a similar, psychological violation I’d read about four months earlier. That post, by Eric Meyer, had begun:

I didn’t go looking for grief this afternoon, but it found me anyway, and I have designers and programmers to thank for it. In this case, the designers and programmers are somewhere at Facebook.

I know they’re probably pretty proud of the work that went into the “Year in Review” app they designed and developed, and deservedly so—a lot of people have used it to share the highlights of their years. Knowing what kind of year I’d had, though, I avoided making one of my own. I kept seeing them pop up in my feed, created by others, almost all of them with the default caption, “It’s been a great year! Thanks for being a part of it.”  Which was, by itself, jarring enough, the idea that any year I was part of could be described as great.

Still, they were easy enough to pass over, and I did.  Until today, when I got this in my feed, exhorting me to create one of my own.  “Eric, here’s what your year looked like!”

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A picture of my daughter, who is dead.  Who died this year.

Yes, my year looked like that.  True enough.  My year looked like the now-absent face of my little girl.  It was still unkind to remind me so forcefully.

I remember first reading this post the day it was published, Christmas eve 2014. When I went to look it up after my friend’s own violation by a Facebook app module I was surprised to (re)discover that it had been titled, generously, “Inadvertent algorithmic cruelty:”

And I know, of course, that this is not a deliberate assault.  This inadvertent algorithmic cruelty is the result of code that works in the overwhelming majority of cases, reminding people of the awesomeness of their years, showing them selfies at a party or whale spouts from sailing boats or the marina outside their vacation house.

But for those of us who lived through the death of loved ones, or spent extended time in the hospital, or were hit by divorce or losing a job or any one of a hundred crises, we might not want another look at this past year.

To show me Rebecca’s face and say “Here’s what your year looked like!” is jarring.  It feels wrong, and coming from an actual person, it would be wrong. Coming from code, it’s just unfortunate.

 

But of course, it did come from an actual person. “[The app] was awesome for a lot of people,” the product manager for Facebook’s Year in Review app, Jonathan Gheller, later told The Washington Post. Like all the digital experiences with, and within, which we all increasingly live our lives, an actual person — in fact a whole team of people — was responsible for concepting, designing, building, testing, and iterating this experience. No doubt, the responsibility for the rollout of this particular app featured prominently in a number of Facebook employees’ job performance reviews. From start to finish, this experience was crafted by people (not code). Calling its end result “inadvertent algorithmic cruelty” is like describing a drunk driving accident as “inadvertent gasoline cruelty.” For sure, it could have been avoided with an empty gas tank, but is that really the most accurate way to ascribe accountability in this situation? (Don’t blame it on the algohol).

“In creating this Year in Review app, there wasn’t enough thought given to cases like mine, or anyone who had a bad year,” Meyer wrote. “If I could fix one thing about our industry, just one thing, it would be that: to increase awareness of and consideration for the failure modes, the edge cases, the worst-case scenarios.”

If I could fix one thing about our industry, it would be to destroy the idea that these scenarios are edge cases.

Last year in the US, 2.6 million people died, leaving behind untold numbers of Facebook users who mourn the absence of their loved ones.

Right now 8.5 million people can’t find a job;

14.5 million people have cancer;

16 million people suffer from depression;

23.5 million people are addicted to alcohol and drugs;

45 million people live below the poverty line (including 16 million children)

These are not “edge cases.” These are not “worst case scenarios.” These are all people who use Facebook. And that’s not even counting your run of the mill disappointments, broken hearts, and inevitable wrongs and slights and meannesses that are, basically, life.

“The design [of the Year in Review app] is for the ideal user, the happy, upbeat, good-life user,” Meyer wrote. But if you are a product manager or UX designer creating experiences that will afflict affect hundreds of millions of people and you are only designing for an “ideal user”… at best that’s just lazy, and at worst — it’s creating LITERAL suffering.

Put another way:

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As Oliver Burkeman writes in The Guardian:

The world, obviously, is a manifestly unjust place: people are always meeting fates they didn’t deserve, or not receiving rewards they did deserve for hard work or virtuous behaviour. Yet several decades of research have established that our need to believe otherwise runs deep.

Confronted with an atrocity they otherwise can’t explain, people become slightly more likely, on average, to believe that the victims must have brought it on themselves. Hence the finding, in a 2009 study, that Holocaust memorials can increase antisemitism. Or that reading about the eye-popping state of economic inequality could make you less likely to support politicians who want to do something about it. These are among numerous unsettling implications of the “just-world hypothesis”, a psychological bias explored in a new essay by Nicholas Hune-Brown at Hazlitt.

If we didn’t all believe that [things happen for a reason] to some degree, life would be an intolerably chaotic and terrifying nightmare in which effort and payback were utterly unrelated, and there was no point planning for the future, saving money for retirement or doing anything else in hope of eventual reward. We’d go mad.

Yet, ironically, this desire to believe that things happen for a reason leads to the kinds of positions that help entrench injustice instead of reducing it.

Much in the same way that the “just world” cognitive bias can actually lead us to make crueler decisions, designing product features with the “happy, upbeat, good-life” ideal user bias can lead us to create crueler user experiences.

“To shield ourselves psychologically from the terrifying thought that the world is full of innocent people suffering,” Burkeman writes, we, as humans, “endorse policies more likely to make that suffering worse.” And by denying the full spectrum of the realities of people’s lives, awesome and tragic, we, as experience designers, do the same. Except we’re the ones with the power to actually do something about it.

“Just to pick two obvious fixes,” Meyer wrote at the end of his post, “First, don’t pre-fill a picture until you’re sure the user actually wants to see pictures from their year.  And second, instead of pushing the app at people, maybe ask them if they’d like to try a preview—just a simple yes or no.  If they say no, ask if they want to be asked again later, or never again. And then, of course, honor their choices. This is… designing for crisis, or maybe a better term is empathetic design.”

Or how about just, you know, design.

In the wake of Meyer’s post, the product manager for Facebook’s Year in Review app told The Washington Post. “We can do better.”

But four months later, Facebook’s photo collage assault on my friend suggests perhaps they don’t really think they can.

“Faced with evidence of injustice, we’ll certainly try to alleviate it if we can,” Burkeman wrote, “But, if we feel powerless to make things right, we’ll do the next best thing, psychologically speaking: we’ll convince ourselves that the world isn’t so unjust after all.”

    



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Hello, SparkMode!

Created by The Glitch Mob’s Justin Boreta, and BRIGHT, Inc., SparkMode is the first artist-owned app that lets you create, edit, & share digital art and design your own custom art products, from prints to decor, and beyond…

 

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Get the free app.
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You may have noticed the crickets here at Social-Creature for most of 2014 (eeesh 160x160x85-see-no-evil-monkey.png.pagespeed.ic.dCoZ8IyrSj). I was a little bit busy. Justin Boreta and I were cooking up a new creative project, called SparkMode.

If you haven’t been to a music festival recently, Boreta is —

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We’ve made some things together before that you’ve watched and clicked and played with. SparkMode is the next step in the evolution of Mirrorgram, an app we launched in the Fall of 2012. More than 2.5 million people created 10 million pieces of digital art with the app, igniting a pop aesthetic that took over music, fashion, and advertising for a bit.

But since those early days when the idea for Mirrorgram was first conceived (on the Glitch Mob tour bus; rock ‘n roll \m/), a lot has changed….

 

The iPhone has completely revolutionized how we make art.


You and I take this for granted now, but it’s become insanely easy to make art. It used to require really complicated image editing software, and the whole learning curve that came with it. And before computers, you needed years of training and practice to get your creative skills to match your artistic intent.

Now, you can get an app that’ll let you create cool stuff with a few taps in seconds. It’s a totally new relationship to the process of making art. It’s simple, it’s effortless, it’s fun. It’s an instant jump from inspiration to execution.

But why stop at the screen?

As Boreta says, “I love the feeling of getting art made into tangible things you can feel with your hands.”

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SparkMode allows you to create art with app simplicity in a new medium — physical space.

In SparkMode you can layer multiple image effects to create kaleidoscopic patterns, trippy, abstract art, and beautifully symmetrical photo edits; and you can design physical art to make your offline world more beautiful, too. Order your creations through the app, and get them shipped to you anywhere in the world. We’re starting with canvas art, stickerbooks, and prints, and plan to expand into new creative mediums in 2015.

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BRIGHT, Inc. makes products, experiences, and brands people love. Find out more: brightincorporated.com

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  • Product Strategy & Roadmapping
  • UX Strategy: Mobile, E-commerce, Web
  • Growth, Community, & CRM Strategy
  • Brand Strategy
  • Content Strategy
  • Multi-Channel Communications Planning

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UX In Advertising

This is where we are now:

 

 

 

 

 

In contrast, here’s what it looks like when technology ads rely on pushing the lingua franca of features instead of the native tongue of  *experience*:

 

 

The technology pervading our lives has brought with it a new colonizing language. Even the term “UX” has become mainstream enough within the cultural lexicon that it can now referenced explicitly, as in the new MySpace ad. But more importantly, we have evolved a shared vocabulary for technology that goes beyond the rudimentary terms of features and specifications. In the years since Apple first pioneered and perfected this approach, we have all become fluent in technology’s emotional language.

This split between the emotional and the rational appeals, between the experience and the specs, comes at an interesting time. As Millennials are notoriously buying fewer cars (“Even the proportion of teenagers with a [driver’s] license fell, by 28 percent, between 1998 and 2008,”) — the new technology that keeps us connected is now being sold like automobiles.

 

(Thanks to @ThomPulliam for pointing out the common theme.)

 

    



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“Web Design” Is Dead

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One of my favorite of Steve Jobs’ quotes — if not THE favorite — is this:

People think it’s this veneer — that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.

It’s a sentiment echoed in the philosophy behind Apple’s completely rethought new design language for the forthcoming iOS7, just announced this week:

Nothing we’ve ever created has been designed just to look beautiful. That’s approaching the opportunity from the wrong end. Instead, as we reconsidered iOS, our purpose was to create an experience that was simpler, more useful, and more enjoyable — while building on the things people love about iOS. Ultimately, redesigning the way it works led us to redesign the way it looks. Because good design is design that’s in service of the experience.

This is not only a standard that Apple holds itself to, it now extends to all those who develop on the iOS platform with comprehensive guidelines on how third party developers should design for iOS 7 to match Apple’s own style. As TechCrunch puts it, “Developers will have to adapt their apps to match the rest of the operating system if they don’t want them to look antiquated.”

Here are Apple’s three main themes for developing for iOS 7:

Deference. The UI helps users understand and interact with the content, but never competes with it.

Clarity. Text is legible at every size, icons are precise and lucid, adornments are subtle and appropriate, and a sharpened focus on functionality motivates the design.

Depth. Visual layers and realistic motion heighten users’ delight and understanding.

On Apple’s list of  things app developers should do to get ready for iOS 7 are instructions like: “Revisit the use of drop shadows, gradients, and bezels. Because the iOS 7 aesthetic is smooth and layered—with much less emphasis on using visual effects to make UI elements look physical — you may want to rethink these effects.”

This kind of “smooth” digital design aesthetic, that rejects the skeuomorphism of making icons on a flat screen look like 3-dimensional, analog objects, has a name — “flat design.” And Apple was not even the first to adopt it. (They were the last holdout, in fact). Microsoft and Google got there first. Back in 2011, when Microsoft unveiled its “Metro” design language, now simply referred to as “Windows 8,”  its design principles were:

Clean, Light, Open and Fast

We took an approach that we call “Fierce Reduction” to remove any elements in the UI that we felt were unnecessary; both visual elements and feature bloat. It allows us to shine a focus on the primary tasks of the UI, and makes the UI feel smart, open, fast, and responsive.

Alive in Motion

The transitions between screens in a UI are as important the design of the screens themselves. Motion gives character to a UI, but also communicates the navigation system, which helps to improve usability.

Celebrate Typography

Our design inspiration is very typographic, and it felt like it was time for User Interfaces to be uncompromising about type as well. Type is information, type is beautiful.

Content, Not Chrome

It’s the content on the phone that people want, not the buttons. Reducing the visuals on the phone that aren’t content will help you create a more open UI, and it also promotes direct interaction with the content.

Authentically Digital

Finally, we believe in honesty in design. A user interface is created of pixels, so in Metro we try to avoid using the skeumorphic shading and glossiness used in some UI’s that try to mimic real world materials and objects.

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With Apple joining the tech trifecta, (“Leading by following“), Flat Design has been transformed from a trend into a manifesto. It is a fundamental philosophical shift from what’s come before in what design’s role is in the natively digital experience.

Living in L.A. it’s very easy for all metaphors and analogies to get reduced to the automotive experience. So here we go — for a long time in the web, we had the same people, approaching in the same way, the design of something like this:

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And something like this:

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I mean, we just didn’t know any better. We didn’t really grasp that we needed completely different types of design philosophies. All we knew was that things on the web had to…. look….. like something….. Maybe … something pretty?…. Or… Cool? Anyway, we had to get designers. To design them. And what visual arts genius was going to want to create a digital masterpiece that looks like they were barely there in the first place?

 

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Orite…. Apple.

For many a designer — sadly, still — whatever the reason a user has come to the destination they are designing, it is second to the privilege of being exposed to the designer’s creative brilliance and superior taste.

Apple is saying, this is where we are as a culture: we’re past that now. Apple wants “designers” to get out the way. Users are not here to marvel at your “design.” They’re here to get to the shit your design is jumping up and down, waving its hands frantically trying to get attention, getting in the way of. Apple wants to make it very clear that the UI — that layer between the human, and the content that this human is trying to access, aka the “design” layer — is not the star. It should, quote, “play a supporting role.”

Commuters don’t care about your “creative vision.” They are just trying to get fucking home.

If you want to be Dali, you should probably not be a freeway designer. But if you want to design freeways — or iOS experiences — then your art is about making something sublimely useful, usable, and effective. This is what the companies defining the way we access the digital world all stand for now. This is what they believe makes for a beautiful experience on their devices and on their operating systems.

“Web design” is dead because everywhere the “design layer” of the web is being sandblasted off, the interface reduced down to its barest essence. This is why the new, natively digital design disciplines are found deep beyond the surface of aesthetics, in user experience design, in information architecture, in interaction design.

More than ever, Jobs’ words are true: design is now a fundamentally inextricable part of how it works.

There’s simply not much room left for anything else.

And if you think you’ll at least get to choose the colors based on your personal design taste…. like Apple says, “you may want to rethink” that as well.

From Fast Company’s “The Science Behind Colors in Marketing“:

“Green connotes ideas like “natural” and “environment,” and given its wide use in traffic lights, suggests the idea of “go” or forward movement. The color red, on the other hand, is often thought to communicate excitement, passion, blood, and warning. It is also used as the color for stopping at traffic lights. Red is also known to be eye-catching.”

So, clearly an A/B test between green and red would result in green, the more friendly color. At least that was their guess. Here is what their experiment looked like:

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The red button outperformed the green button by 21%.

What’s most important to consider is that nothing else was changed at all: 21% more people clicked on the red button than on the green button. Everything else on the pages was the same, so it was only the button color that made this difference.

    



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