The hefty price of uncritical acceptance

I’m not the first to ask whether tech is a double-edged sword. It’s given us unparalleled access to information, enabled instant connectivity and brought us new forms of visual communication 🙂

By the same token, it’s obviously had a huge impact on the pace of life. An attention economy has emerged and we’ve become hypersensitive to external stimulus.

We click, swipe, scroll. Scroll, swipe, click.

We’re approaching media saturation, a ‘hyper-reality’ where physical and virtual realities merge. This dystopian film by Keiichi Matsuda is kind of alarming.

It seems like our emotions are hijacked, given less chance to settle, and we’re left with little patience as a result. We’re aggravated by short waits, by minor inconvenience, and embark on digital detoxes that promise separation from notification-induced dopamine.

In my recent talk at the Wolff Olins Tech Week event, I argued for the need to reassess our relationship with our tech. We need to create space in which we’re conscious of how it affects us, as well as how we can affect it.

Harvard psychology professor Ellen Langer – pioneer of ‘non-meditative mindfulness’ – identifies with this. She talks about ‘awareness of the interactions between your self and a designed object’, and how that ‘encourages positive behaviour and wellbeing’.

I’d like to join the call for us to actively engage in our technology, rather than hiding from discussion of its impact. If we embrace it fully, and become more mindful of our intention, we can alter our state of mind.

I suggested to our audience that, as fully invested tech community members, we must design around the needs of people, not users, embracing the irrationality and unpredictability of human emotion. I’d like us to go beyond speed and ease, to create moments for contemplation and exploration, awe and wonder even. This chimes with a lot of our recent thinking. Member of our leadership team have spoken in the last few months about fighting the tyranny of optimization and being mindful about our role in the development of AI.

To understand the deeper impact of products and services, we should observe the longer cycles of human behaviour and explore how we might better serve basic physical needs. For example, could website owners put their websites ‘to sleep’ at specific hours, as envisioned by the founders of this project? What other interventions should exist?

Designers must work to reveal instead of obscure; build friction instead of hide it; allow control over limitation; invite participation rather than demand interaction. We could all take inspiration from cyberneticist architect Cedric Price and his fun palace concept.

A more conscious relationship with technology – one that questions and engages deeply rather than simply accepts reductive interfaces – will not only help us to improve our own wellbeing, it will help the us shape its impact on larger socio-economic systems.

“The hefty price for accepting information uncritically is that we go through life unaware that what we’ve accepted as impossible may in fact be quite possible.”
– Ellen Langer

Illustration by Kate Rinker

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