Technology and reconnecting with the human

Along with our recent addition Sieun Cha, our new Creative Director in London, we are also proud to welcome Andy Dobson, our new Technical Director, who will spearhead Wolff Olins’ technical division; a team spread throughout the London, New York and San Francisco offices.

A self-declared ‘digital autodidact,’ Andy brings eighteen plus years of digital technology experience and roots in the boom to Wolff Olins. To kick things off, he shares his thoughts on why we should aim to create better digital worlds.  

Like many of my ZX Spectrum-owning, sci-fi obsessed generation, I came to digital as a new frontier; an emerging technology paradigm focused not on enterprise IT or computer science, but was instead asking a more fundamental and human question: how will we live? This viewpoint wasn’t only prompted by the work of Negroponte et al, or by the democratisation of information access that the web promised. It was also an entirely new way to approach the discipline of technology.

Twenty years on, the transformative impact of “being digital” is demonstrated daily, and in ways that have been entirely unpredictable. It has upended almost every aspect for our lives, moving so quickly that we barely have time to quantify it before it shifts again. It has toppled business models, repositioned social intercourse and disrupted entire sectors; and I can’t shake the feeling that this is still only the beginning.

But which predicted future are we in – the technocratic utopia of Childhood’s End or the society in decline of Neuromancer? It’s hard to argue for the former.  If I’d written a blog post pre-Snowden about massive scale structural surveillance of all digital activity I’d have been regarded as a conspiracy nut. The fiction of Orwell and Gibson, it appears, is no longer speculative. And without doubt, there are complex issues at play within the political and infrastructural conversations around digital technology.

However what I’m currently more curious about; is the relationship of technologists to the world we’ve created. Why do we generally seem to be more interested, even obsessed by, the latest Javascript library than whether or not our creations are serving the needs of the world? If we are living in a digital age, then the coders are its gatekeepers, and we have a responsibility to people (let’s not objectify them into ‘users’) to create things that don’t simply satisfy our technical desire for clever, neat solutions, but which are also delightful, effortless and respectful of their rights.

This was made very apparent to me recently when I encountered Aral Balkan’s superb Ethical Design Manifesto. This is a depoliticised, human need-centric model for how we do our work. It has the opportunity to profoundly change how we build and design digital experiences. Excitedly, I was keen to discuss this with the technology community. However, what I have overwhelmingly found is that the passion for these ideas seems to be circulating in the veins of the disciplines of UX and Design only.

I have searched in vain for blog posts or conference talks where developers are not talking code. Clearly, the merits of functional programming over classical inheritance are more present in our minds.  Don’t get me wrong; I think we certainly consider our users in the decisions we make.  ‘User stories’ are, after all, at the heart of much agile planning.  But such is the solipsistic nature of working with code, that it sometimes feels like these users are “demographically organised consumption endpoints”, rather than actual people.

This is partially to be expected.  For one thing, the complexity of digital technology, not to mention its breathtaking rate of evolution, means that it’s a full time job just keeping your skill set relevant.  For another, technical design is, necessarily, abstracted from the real world, from real language and from real empathy.

That said, I would encourage technologists to put code aside from time to time and explore the needs of the digitally transformed world along with our strategic, UX and designer colleagues.  The vast majority of digital work is ultimately manifested within a technical delivery. Technologists are therefore in a position of great responsibility. We literally have the keys to how the world is changing in our hands, and for there to be so little debate in technical circles about the ramifications of our work (in comparison to, say, build tooling or design patterns) is, at best, a missed opportunity.

For twenty years we have been creating the new, digital world.  Let’s talk about how we can make it a better one.

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