I have a theory that we’ve got ourselves into a pickle when it comes to using our devices; a dead-end of interaction. I think we’ve actually talked ourselves into having slow, busy sites that overwhelm us when we load them up. It’s as if we need more complex content and visual bang-whizzery to justify the cost and innovation that goes into a new phone, tablet or laptop. “Technological fulfilment” - like needing to run the latest game on the newest hardware, just because we can. Justification for some retail therapy to pick up something newer, that makes everything “fresh” again.
Fortunately, not all sites have to be like that, and not all use of technology has to descend into a quick fix of quick performance every year or two.
But the big question isn’t so easily solvable: Who takes on the responsibility for moving away from this mindset? Is it the job of customers to look after their devices, carry out maintenance, and install more efficient software? Or should manufacturers build in more modular approaches to encourage repair and upgrades, and extend the lifetime support of what they make? Or is it up to content providers and developers to make sure that their offerings are compatible with older, cheaper technology, and to consider a much broader range of needs?
In reality, of course, trying to pick one of these is doomed to fail. Each of the above is dependent on all of the others: customers like shiny things, companies like profit, and content providers like eyeballs and attention. And so we end up in something of a win-win-win cycle while everyone gets something of interest - at least until “progress” moves us on, and we find ourself in a minority, trying to keep up with everyone else. And the more “progress” there is, the more we find ourselves bombarded with change, and the costs that go with it (financial costs, but also environmental, psychological, and social costs alongside).
This post is not about stopping change though - it’s impossible to be a technologist without it. It is, however, about understanding change within a wider context of the “default social contract” - this definition in itself is for another post entirely.
That context can take many forms too, each with a different set of needs.
For customers, it can turn into an exercise in thinking about whether owning and using any technology is worth it when set against wider life goals. For example, is the stress of being always-on and always-interrupted worth the benefits? If life seems too busy, do we need all the information that arrives at our fingertips, all the time?
For companies, it’s a question of how to balance things - short-term profit, long-term returns, legal requirements, social values, risks, reputation, and so on. At what point can we say that the behaviour of a company is out of balance - and who gets to decide?
And for content providers, understanding the nature of how a sector is changing is one of the most fundamental aspects of survival. Technology - especially when mass produced and ultimately driven by a small handful of CEOs - determines the rules for what is possible. A world in which everyone has a smartphone may mean a whole lot more eyeballs (if, say, a family has four separate devices rather than a single TV), but if adverts and user-tracking code results in overinflated costs, or slow downloads putting people off, then what?
If we’re to move away from our “more more more” culture, we need to recognise that this is a cycle that we’re all helping to sustain and repeat. We can - and should - ask and expect others to do better in order to achieve this transition, but it’s not a solution to simply expect others to do the work for us. The responsibility has to be shared, because the motivations are equally distributed.
More on what that might look like in a future blog post. For now, it’s enough to simply bring some awareness to the everyday activities we take for granted. Here are some simple thought exercises, for example:
Hold your phone without turning it on, sense how its lines have been designed and how the material feels against your skin. Think about where those materials have come from. Think about what the outer shell is hiding - the amount of knowledge, design process and raw metals that have had to come together for your phone to exist as you hold it.
Load a web page, being aware of the magic of the connections that allow it to load and be displayed. Imagine where in the world the information is coming from, the routes it takes to get to you, the work a computer chip has to do in order to turn millions of binary zeroes and ones into what you see on screen.
When you watch an advert for a new device, imagine all the other people seeing that advert, then how many sales the product might make, and the factories that produce that many units. Think of ships and trucks loaded up, trekking around the globe, ending up at your front door.
Do this without conscious or deliberate judgement - we cannot change anything simply by wishing things were different. Any change involves trade-offs: something will be lost if something else is to be gained, and the dilemma of being human is that we have the power to make such decisions, but that we also have to live with the results.
So for now, it is enough to simply be aware of the pickle that we’re eating, and the flavour it has. We don’t need to instantly decide if we like that flavour or not. Some people enjoy pickles, others don’t. Step one, though, is just to know it’s a pickle, and not a banana.
Hello. My name’s Graham Lally and I’m passionate about re-thinking how we use technology, and what it means for the generations not yet born. You can find out more about me and what I’m up to at groundlake.org. I’m always up for a chat too - you can find me on Twitter, LinkedIn, or good old-fashioned e-mail.