Did we do something wrong?

Untitled, 2015 (detail). Wade Guyton. From the series “The New York Times Paintings: November – December 2015”

I haven’t written to this blog, Inventing Interactive, for a while. This is because, in part, my work has shifted away from interactive and interaction design, and towards corporate user experience and innovation projects. But my frustration with the general state of the world, sometimes bordering on dispair, has also given me reason to pause. Pause not just from writing, but also from what I do. Over the past year I’ve returned to teaching in order to be more reflective on what design is and what it might become. And, with designing.ai, I’ve also been exploring what the future of design and artificial intelligence could be. I wrote this blog post as a way to capture some of what I’ve been thinking lately…

. . .

Has the age of “inventing” interactive media come to an end? While our technology has been getting better and better, there seem to be fewer instances of really interesting interfaces. The apps that we use everyday, on our phones, tablets, and computers, have a sameness to them. They’re all optimized to be as easy and frictionless as possible, but there’s not a lot of joy to them. Each new design innovation seems intended to be as unobtrusive as possible, so as not to confuse or disrupt the user’s experience. Design is focused on increasing engagement, to make the app or website stickier, or to increase sales or revenue.

When I began my design career over twenty years ago, technology-based interactive media was called “new media.” It was an optimistic era of exploration, invention, and discovery. New technologies, and the mediums that emerged, enabled unprecedented new ways to access to information, communicate, and be creative. And as new media designers, we were helping shape this future. Over the years, we progressed through three major technological eras — driven by the introductions of the personal computer, the internet, and mobile devices. Each powered incredible new ways of creating, communicating, and experiencing content.

Along the way the “new” disappeared. All media today are what would’ve been called “new media.” Content, platforms, apps, and other digital experiences are so woven into our lives that we take for granted that we have access to anything and anyone at any time. Our lives, and our society, are so thoroughly transformed that we hardly remember what it was like before this —  a decade, or two, ago. These days we focus on what’s coming next — AI, VR, AR, etc. — and how they will fit into our current media landscape. We accept them as inevitable, somewhat fatalistically acknowledging that we’re on the cusp of yet another technological era.

But there is a growing chorus of voices saying that things aren’t working. Social media is not just personally unhealthy, it has become a threat to democracy. The tech companies that give us access to an infinity of information have become all-powerful and morally corrupt. And the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley fosters the development of products that idolize efficiency and greed, points us towards a dystopic future global monoculture. We don’t just hear all this, but we feel it, too. Something is profoundly wrong.

As designers, we are not without some responsibility for this situation. We fought for design to be a strategic partner to business. We developed methods and frameworks that could be incorporated into corporate cultures. And we successfully offered design as a tool that could improve business outcomes. The result was that our work was used by and influenced millions, sometimes even billions, of people. Did we, along the way, stop asking if what we were doing was right? Were we focusing on design purely in the service of business and endless growth? Were we taking responsibility for the cultural implications of our work?

. . .

Have design and technology failed us? Today, at the end of 2017, we’re struggling to understand what went wrong. We’re asking: what is the right way to live in this moment, and how do we go forward? Recently I’ve found inspiration in a couple areas, which have given me a sense of how to respond and make change.

I’ve been drawn to the work of Sherry Turkle — a professor at MIT and author of the book “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.” Sherry is a huge advocate for the power of conversations, and how critical they are for us to be fully human. A conversation may be messy but it is an “antidote to the algorithmic way of looking at life because it teaches you about fluidity, contingency and personality.” Her research shows, through study after study, how technology destroys our ability to have real conversations, reducing our ability to empathetically engage with other people. Yet our apps and interfaces have been intentionally designed to hold our attention, to help us avoid direct human contact. It’s an alarming trend, with profound implications of how we exist in the world.

Fortunately it doesn’t have to be an irreversible trend. Sherry highlights that through awareness of the problems, people can find ways to moderate how they use technology in their day-to-day lives. Our growing cultural discontent with technology is certainly raising awareness. And personally, after a chance meeting and wonderful conversation with her earlier this year, I radically reduced how I bring my smartphone into my life, and it’s made a huge difference.

A second source of inspiration came while attending an event celebrating Muriel Cooper and the publication of a new book on her work. Muriel was a groundbreaking designer who founded the Visible Language Workshop (VLW), a “new media” research group at the MIT Media Lab. At the event one of the speakers quoted Muriel as saying “Communication is not just transferring information but creating encounters.”

When I heard this, I immediately connected Muriel’s idea of encounters to Sherry’s framing of conversations. Communication, like conversation, isn’t something that we should be optimizing. Communication, whether it’s from a newspaper, a social media platform, or a search engine, is information that we should be able to explore, interrogate, and spend time with. Something that’s sadly missing today.

Muriel spent her entire career exploring how we could have better encounters with information. Her seminal work, “Information Landscapes,” a collection of VLW projects, presented radical new ways to engage with content. Its philosophy was summarized in its narration:

“Electronic information lies in a strange and complex new world without boundaries. To make it accessible, not simply for the acquisition of data, but also to help people think better, we must invent new metaphors and models. Something less linear than the information highway. We must reexamine the current stultifying interface standards and metaphors. We must define a rich new vocabulary of tools and design strategies that are applicable to any information domain.”

Tragically, Muriel passed away shortly after this work was unveiled in 1994. The super-high-end Silicon Graphics workstations required to run it were soon out of date, and for the past 20+ years it existed solely as a grainy video tape — a mere ghost of its original high-resolution and interactive self.

For the event last month, David Small (one of the project’s authors) unearthed the original source code in the Media Lab’s archives and miraculously got it running again. No longer requiring an exclusive high-end research computer, it was now running on an iPhone and, even more incredibly, an AppleWatch!

Information Landscapes, running on an iPhone.

Seeing Information Landscapes live, as a functioning interface, not a faded video, was like a bolt of lightning. What we assumed had been lost to history was back and looking fresher than ever — tilting and zooming with each touch to the iPhone. Suddenly the research ideas that drove the project’s creation seemed relevant again. Our phones and watches have the connectivity and computational power that far surpasses those early workstations. So why are we still using windows, desktop, and page-based metaphors? And, more importantly, why are our interactions with content so conversationally poor?

Information Landscapes was ahead of its time. It wasn’t technically feasible to scale its ideas to a mass audience. And its specific design details might not be adaptable to our modern media landscape. However its core research concern, to “reexamine the current stultifying interface standards and metaphors,” is as relevant today as it was then.

. . .

Most of today’s interfaces wouldn’t be surprising to a time traveler from 20 years ago. Our technology has improved, and we have access to almost unlimited content, but the way we interact with that content hasn’t changed very much. Our textual information is still primarily page-based and our movies and videos remain as linear narratives. We are still living in the equivalent of a 2-dimensional information flatland.

What has changed is how our new technologies have exaggerated, often to the extreme, some of the negative qualities of our society. Our civil discourse has degraded to tribalism and shouting matches. And our consumer and business cultures have been twisted into a winner take all mindset. We know that the design of today’s media are partially responsible for this. Byt why are we have so much trouble repairing the damage or making something better?

One problem is that today’s designers have little opportunity to deviate from the status-quo. One of the baselines of how we interact with content, phone operating systems (i.e. iOS, Android), include user interface toolkits that give very specific guidelines for how apps are designed. Our biggest online platforms (i.e. Facebook,  Google — members of what tech columnist Farhad Manjoo calls the “Frightful Five”) are such huge businesses that they are incredibly reluctant to make any changes to how users interact with their content. And media companies (newspapers, magazines, blogs, etc) are trapped in business models that rely on designs that have been optimized for “clicks” and “ad impressions.”

But what it means to be a designer has also changed. We are no longer a scrappy group of people making up things as we go. Over the past couple decades years we’ve splintered and specialized as we have developed increasingly narrow design disciplines. Some of these disciplines place a priority on qualities such as efficiency or ease of use, while others value exploration, discovery and creativity. Each has developed its own methods and languages to optimize its particular “type” of design. The result is that the different disciplines are attracted to — and, simultaneously, foster the origination of — very different types of projects and assignments. The disciplines rarely work together — or do so in prescribed (and fragile) ways — because their tasks are more narrowly defined.

If we accept that the poor way in which we interact with today’s media & content is a cause for the cultural challenges we are facing today, then we must invent something new. But what if our current design disciplines, and how they engage with all other parts of the media and business landscape, are limiting our ability to make meaningful changes?

Sherry Turkle reminds us of the value in putting down our phones to have open-ended, unoptimized, conversations. As designers we should take that advice. We need to put aside the efficiencies of our individual disciplines and bring together diverse teams so that we can have the messy explorations that get us to solutions that we never imagined possible.

The fields of human-centered, cross-disciplinary, transdisciplinary and antidisciplinary design are well suited to this challenge. They seek new ways for people with significantly different approaches and needs, to inform, collaborate, and develop solutions that are more than just compromise or consensus. They increase diversity and help stop us from simply asking “how” to solve each problem, but instead help us ask if the problem is the right one to be solved.

Diversity lets us break today’s monocultures, and allows for radically new ways of thinking about what we want to create. The question is whether the organizations that currently dominate our media and technology landscape are willing to use these approaches. We may assume that they are too focused on earnings and market share to experiment with new methods or design concepts. But change is not always driven from the top of organizations. Grass-roots efforts, both within corporate environments as well as from the outside, have the potential for greater, and longer lasting, impact.

We need to become advocates for the new. The hardest part is to not fall back into our disciplines as solutions begin to emerge. While we must recognize the expertise of every participant, each must also be humble and accept that how they did things in the past might not be the best way to do things in the future.

In particular, as “new media” designers, we must do more than contribute a variation of what we’ve done before — such as a new app, or a tweak to a UI pattern. We need to bring together a diverse range of digital disciplines in order to contribute more thoroughly — and more radically. We should allow ourselves to get excited — each problem has the possibility to invent new, and better, forms of communication, conversation, and engagement.

We are at the cusp of a new “new media.” The emerging technologies of A.I., voice, AR/VR, and even autonomous vehicles, will once again transform how we interact with technology, media and each other. Will they simply be the latest tools for optimization and efficiency? Or can we use them to have better conversations with information and each other?

. . .

The last thing the world needs are more design principles. But here are a couple that I’d like to embrace.

  • Fix what’s broken. Every project is a chance to repair something that’s not working. Whether it’s part of the current media landscape, or a processes we use every day.
  • Invent the new: Emerging technologies can be a fresh ground. Don’t fall back on existing metaphors or disciplines. Strive to invent something new, even if it may initially seem strange or uncomfortable.
  • Require Diversity. Work with as many different voices as possible and find new ways to collaborate. This isn’t just accepting whatever diversity may present itself; it’s seeking out and demanding multiple — possibly uncomfortable, definitely unfamiliar — views.
  • Be messy. Don’t get stuck in the clean and familiar. Let things get sloppy. And recognize that you won’t know in advance what the outcome will be.
  • Embrace craft. The devil is in the details. At some point embrace your skills and your discipline. Push them further.
  • Encourage conversations. Allow everyone to have conversations and encounters with information. Make the sources of content, and the algorithms that deliver them, be transparent and understandable. Let people go as deep as they want. This applies both to the design process and the final product.
  • Remember history. Learn from previous mistakes. But also look to history for forgotten ideas that might be worth reexamining.

And three “bonus” principles:

  • Coding not required. Technical proficiency is not necessary to participate in our future. Don’t be intimidated by what you don’t know. Find new ways to have conversations and to prototype ideas.
  • Leave your ego at the door. We’re doing this to make the world better for everyone. This is not for for your individual benefit.
  • Question the question. Is this the right problem to solve? Is growth necessary? Is scale valuable? Is constant change good? Are things really inevitable?

. . .

As I re-read what I’ve written above, I realize that I’ve left out a million other things that I’ve also been thinking about. If anything, this is a draft of some bigger themes I’d like to explore. So, stay tuned. I’ll try and write more in 2018. And please get in touch if you have thoughts on any of this. For now, happy holidays. And let’s work to make 2018 a better year! 

🥂

This post is also on Medium.com here: https://medium.com/inventing-interactive/did-we-do-something-wrong-9631694429ca

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