How Technology Reduces Us, and What We As Designers Can Do About It
Examinations of the impact of technology on society often start by focusing first on the technology, and then on society. But by looking first at the characteristics and drivers of human behavior, and then at the impact of technology on that behavior, we can understand the role of technology in the context of changing human experience from a more grounded perspective. From this perspective, specific technologies aren’t necessarily the problem or solution – a reducer or an enhancer – but a modifier of the experience of being human, which is constantly changing.
Looking at the whole sweep of technologies, it is hard to make the case that anything has had as profound or immediate impact on what it is to be a social being than the combination of the mobile phone and its killer application: social media.
In little more than 10 years, over a third the world’s population have become smartphone users1, giving billions of people immediate (sometimes for the first time) access to a world of information, finance, and advertising. The smartphone is in many cases providing the platform for global equality and access that aid organizations have always dreamed of, and that pioneers of the Internet hoped for.
At the same time, social platforms have proven to be one of the most compelling and addictive uses of the mobile platform. Facebook has 1.4bn daily active users,2 2.5bn monthly users,3 Instagram close to a billion.4
The strength of the relationship between social media and smartphones cannot be overstated. People have smartphones so they can stay connected to their social network, and they are able to stay connected with social media in real-time through the phones they carry with them. Of Facebook’s 2.5bn users, half access it exclusively via mobile.5 The average American will spend 5 hours a day on a smartphone, over half on social apps,6 meanwhile smartphone upgrade cycles are fueled by the promise of better hardware to help users create shareable content.7
It is widely accepted that at some point in the near future, everyone will have a smartphone, and everyone will be represented on social media. This is a fundamental change in how people experience the world, think about their place in it, and, I would argue, construct their identities in relation to it.
“If you AB test any product enough, it ends up being gambling or pornography” is an old joke (which has aged well) in web development circles. The mobile equivalent might be that if you AB test anything enough, it ends up being social. Social networks and social media are incredibly compelling because people naturally value and enjoy interacting with (and thinking about) other people. Harnessing this interest drives huge volumes of traffic, so we implement social features in products wherever we can — social gaming, social messaging, social photography.
It is a truism that people are most interested in other people. We are naturally social beings with a set of innate tendencies, such as the capacity for language, and learned behaviors that help us navigate and exist within social systems.
Of these social behaviors, one stands out as particularly interesting when considering the relationship between modern media and self. Jung observed, long before digital representations on social networks, that people create masks of self both to coexist with others in society and to make sense of the world to themselves. People create representations or fictions of self; these social masks are informed both by an individual’s aspirations and character and by society's expectations. These personas, inevitably reductions of the rich complexity of individual lives, serve a useful function of mediating relationships with others and segmenting time: a person might have a stern, professional persona for his work as a doctor, and also a warm, caring persona at home as a father.
Jung observed that conforming to the expected stereotype was important for acceptance in society, and that it was always a negotiation between who someone truly was and who they were expected to be. Jung concluded that this performance of a persona was beneficial — almost required to exist in a society — but it was essential for a person to be cognizant that they were not the persona. As Jung saw it, this issue was that if one was unconscious of this fact, there would be inevitable distress caused by the difference between public and private performances or personas:
You don’t know which is the real man. Is he the one in public or private – a question of Jekyll or Hyde.8
When considering the relevance of Jungian philosophy to the phenomenon of social and mobile, two areas stand out: looking to society for cues on behavior, and not knowing the real man.
Looking to Society for Cues on Behavior
When considering online personas, it is impossible to ignore the high degree of conformity. There are well accepted (if uncodified) guidelines of how to behave in a network: the right type of content to share, expressed with the right sentiment. This creates a self-reinforcing cycle where new users see the culture of the online society and mimic it in their personas represented online.
For many, the gap between what they see online, how they represent themselves, and how they experience their offline world is the cause of distress. This may take the form of an individual conforming to a group with a negative rhetoric or prejudice (e.g. racism, misogyny or homophobia) and incurring opprobrium or experiencing self-disgust; or at the other end of the spectrum, an overly aspirational and successful representation causing insecurity and depression.
Humans have evolved to pick up on social cues and exist within social structures – but they learn the particulars of a culture through observation and feedback. Online social networks have simplistic feedback systems – but this does nothing to diminish the psychological impact of that feedback. The assessment of value and position in an online social world is through Likes and Connections. As people are given these oversimplified metrics, they are what they use – contorting themselves, sometimes subconsciously but often deliberately, to maximize these values.
This is particularly problematic when considering social media through the lens of social constructivism (explored by Senft and Baym9). Users are not only making their online personas with the reference points of a far reduced set of criteria, they are also creating their identities in this environment. People "make their social and cultural worlds at the same time these worlds make them,”10 with serious implications as they devote more time in virtual worlds with thin personas.
Not Knowing the Real Man
Many say, this doesn’t matter. Users know digital worlds are not real, or they know it’s not the whole story. This is true in some cases, but increasingly users in an online social world only know others’ online personas, contextualized with the metrics they are given to asses a user’s position in a group.
On a platform like Instagram (unlike meeting in person), it is not possible to peek behind the curtain, to see that the persona is just one side of the person. It is impossible to know if you are seeing the person or a carefully crafted persona, or to what extent the two differ. It is a thin but compelling world. This is seen pointedly in cases of online bullying, where the online nature of the social world does nothing to dampen the negative effects of abuse.
Similarly, when people share content on social platforms, they aren’t sharing who they are, so much as constructing an identity for the behaviors and expectations of the platform’s audience – users shape their value system in the context of other’s expectations and reactions. We see the impact of this in work showing that people who spend more time in online social worlds find in-person interactions less meaningful11 — they are habituated to the online experience.
In many ways this is the basis of the huge popularity of online influencers. Users buy into the authenticity of the influencer’s persona and include them in their world, consciously and unconsciously mimicking what they see. The basis of influencer marketing is that audiences aspirationally buy into an influencer’s persona, buying the product as a way of reinforcing their connection.
Timing and Duration
Looking to social networks for references of behavioral cues or cultural normalization might not be so much of an issue – nor so different from dipping into the society pages of a Victorian newspaper – if the time and place were constrained. Current mobile habits mean that there are now no limits on when one can dip into the online social world (or be pulled in through notifications). This expansion of influence is problematic as people struggle to understand their true selves as different from their personas. In Jung’s world this leads to an unreflective state of mind, where individuals give up the struggle and cease to see the difference between what society expects of them and who they are.
In the modern world it is possible to hop between personas with the touch of a button: from the work self (email), to aspirational branded self (Instagram), to professional self (LinkedIn) to the relaxed self (Candy Crush). This ability, encouraged by mobile notifications and UI layouts, to jump between different apps and their associated personas, leads to a far increased potential for feeling out of place, thereby reducing presence in the moment and leading to a sense of disorientation.
This sense of disorientation, and a lack of structure in time and space, is part of a broader theme of fragmentation of previously solid blocks of time. The ongoing disintegration of the classical structures which in previous generations gave a framework to a life is commonly termed liquid modernity – a concept popularized in part by Bauman. He argued that people living in the liquid modern experience a intensively fragmented life – one where forming an identity is challenging given the constant interruptions, competing value systems, and social norms.12
Bauman suggested that a consequence of living in the liquid modern (vs. the modern) is that people become tourists in their own lives, struggling to make sense of their place in the world because they have few structures to latch onto for stability: Life becomes more fluid and the boundaries between different aspects of it less defined. A consequence of this is that people feel unsure of their place in the world and experience a sense of un-rootedness as they move through the world without structures, boundaries, or mastery.13
Bauman wasn’t thinking of the smartphone when he observed this erosion of the boundaries between different parts of life, but it is the perfect embodiment of a device to drive fragmentation of attention and purpose. A smartphone represents many worlds and aspirations; it is a symbol of our willingness and availability to be pulled into a different world or state from the one we are in. On one home screen (even in one app), the user is exposed to different value systems, futures, institutions, and beliefs – it is easy to skim them all, it feels frictionless and light.
This reduction in intentionality – or increasing lightness – the ability to skim the surface of different worlds without feeling embedded in any, was, by Bauman’s analysis, a driver of fragmentation and un-rootedness, leading to a loosely defined sense of self.
A common but powerful example is the phone at the restaurant table. It is a symbol of availability to be pulled into another world, but more – it is a reminder that there are other worlds easily within reach if the current one loses appeal for just a second. It is also an indicator to others, as much as ourselves, that while physical presence at the table is guaranteed, attention is always at risk of fragmentation and reduction.
Deeper maybe even than the implication of social constructivism in a world of online masks, or of the risks of living in a smartphone-charged liquid modern, is the idea that some interactions with technology fundamentally change our perception of, and orientation to, the world and others.
Heidegger made the argument that technology (loosely defined, as something with standing reserve or set latent utility) limits us because we start to see the world as technological, or something with designed utility to be exploited as opposed to created. We not only pick up the rules and norms of a space, but also change our interpretation of its potential.
The digital equivalent is the population of fields in an online social network. Lanier expands on this in his book You are not a gadget,14 making the case that of the many ways modern platforms reduce the experience of being human, the most obvious is the enforced conformity of expression through database population: that if the field or category doesn’t exist, it can’t be expressed. Lanier describes systems like this as reducing individuals into “multiple-choice identities,”15 citing in his book the example of relationship status on Facebook: For a long time there were only 3 options, so if your relationship didn’t fit in these categories you were unable to express it.
A broader example would be the difference between a system like Smalltalk, and Facebook. Smalltalk was one of the original Operating Systems developed by Xerox PARC for the Alto – when the design principles governing the relationship between user and computer were still being defined. Smalltalk used only objects and focused on maximizing user creativity through modification of these objects.16 The Smalltalk OS provided a very loose architecture, customizable by users, and empowered them to implement their intentions on the flexible system in an intuitive way. By contrast, Facebook focused on giving fields in which to put user generated content. A user of a system like Facebook is constrained by the system much more so than a Smalltalk user, and they in turn reduce their aspirations and expectations of expression, and use, appropriately.
More fundamentally, Heidegger posits that technology is made to be used, it is a resource, and that the utilitarian orientation people take to technology transfers inappropriately to other areas – for example, nature and people.17 This form of reduction can be seen most obviously on platforms with simple feedback systems – like the Facebook Like, or the Instagram Heart. In a system where content is shared and public feedback encouraged, people are reduced in the mind of the user to entities to be mined for approval; a utilitarian view of people in online social systems, and one which is often observed.
On a more abstract level, both Jung and Heidegger identified the process of becoming fully present and engaged in the world as the journey each person makes over a lifetime to self-realization. For Heidegger, honest engagement with one's existence in the immediate environment was a cornerstone of what it was to be authentically human, or Dasein (a German word for present), whereas a preoccupation with others was a sign of the inauthentic.18 For Jung, the realized self was the result of a process of individuation into a distinct being from multiple elements of the personality (some previously disowned). While the smartphone and the thin personas created for social media don’t necessarily prevent these processes from taking place altogether, they must be seen as inhibiting them to the extent that they fragment time and attention to the environment in which one is physically present. This compromises the introspection and intentionality of each thought necessary to reach a level of self-knowledge.
The reduction of what it is to be human in an online social system is twofold. Modern social networks,
drive conformity and ubiquity of personas, which have deep implications for identity formation, especially given the immediate and shallow nature of feedback
change how we relate to others and ourselves, causing disorientation as the persona so reinforced in the online world is at odds with others aspects
These issues are magnified by smartphones, which increase exposure, distractibility, and fragmentation.
When interviewed about their mobile habits, the majority of people, especially those in relationships or with young children, express strong reservations. On some level they see that the way they are behaving is in tension with an intuitive sense of what a good way to live a life is. They easily identify the behaviors they feel are unhealthy: “I find myself checking it at the restaurant, It’s the first thing I look at in the morning, I use it when I wake in the night at 2am.” But they are unable to change them.
The concerns expressed by users are less about the phone’s impact on productivity, and more about the phone taking up space which used to be focused on other people. The belief that in-person contact is important for general well-being is baked into most cultures, and is repeatedly backed up by studies showing the most effective lever for improving mental health is having dinners as a family.1920
While the majority of people’s concerns are about time and place of mobile use (not reduction of self), it is useful as we start to think about how we can respond to these challenges to consider why people struggle with self-control.
One reason is that mobile and social are harder to mentally categorize and manage because they don’t have traditional parallels.
Time on Facebook doesn’t feel like leisure time watching TV (which can be managed). That it is mixed media and channel agnostic makes it difficult to assign to “leisure time” or “downtime”.
Similarly, the ease with which it is possible to switch between activities on a phone means people easily blur the boundaries – were they writing an email for 30 and using SnapChat for 5, or the other way round?
Secondly, people struggle because they need to create their own understanding of what a phone is, and what appropriate routines are.
There is nothing like a phone as an object, so people struggle to know how to treat it. It costs close to a thousand dollars, but everyone has one; they all look the same, but the content is very individual; it’s private but few understand how they work. It is no surprise that people are confused as to how to think about it.
There are no inherited ideas or mental models about “good manners” for the phone – unlike, say, shoes in the home, the toilet seat, or cooking garlicky food in shared spaces. People make up their own rules (phones at restaurants is a great example).
Both these issues of rituals and habits, and those of representation on current social networks, are design challenges. Jung was not thinking of social media when he described the danger of conflating persona and self, nor Bauman mobile phones when he described the destructive consequences of fragmentation on one's ability to form stable identities. However, by applying the broad ideas from these thinkers we can start to sketch out what products to resist reduction would look like in abstract.
Principles for Resistance
As designers of products, it is useful to think about the principles which should guide product development, both to resist the inherent reduction in existing systems for the sake of it, and also because people are rapidly becoming aware of the impact of unintentional use of social technologies. How might we move away from existing hardware and software platforms which reduce by narrowing, constricting, fragmenting and simplifying the human experience to those which enhance by revealing, accommodating, humanizing and defending,
Experiences which reveal: allowing user engagement beyond manicured profiles and personas, creating rich social environments.
Experiences which accommodate: allowing non-prescriptive engagement and expression.
Experiences which humanize: focusing on more meaningful forms of interaction and feedback with others.
Experiences which defend: protecting spaces and periods of time from fragmentation, giving space for meaningful in-person relationships to form.
We can start to incorporate these elements into our work, picking contexts and developing user stories where these aspects increase the value of the experience without sacrificing utility. The challenge is to create systems and products which preserve the positives of social and mobile, and deliver them in a way which enhances the experience of being human. There are many contexts where a more critical analysis of the overall effect of a product would be beneficial.
The home is one of these contexts. Traditionally thought of as a place of refuge, protected time and space to forge deep relationships, the home is being fundamentally changed by the social/mobile combination. People experience a sense of disconnection in the home and have a vested interest in correcting it. It is also an environment where the user has a good degree of control and expects to make decisions about the space.
Typically, there are 3 types of mobile related issue in the home:
Vacancy – family members are more distracted, often living in digital worlds despite being physically co-located.
Fragmentation – of context, with content from many contexts entering the home through the phone, requiring switching between personas.
Distraction – having the phone physically on means notifications are consumed as received, and phone use is largely unintentional.
Rituals in the Home
The home is also a space where there are few rituals around smartphone use (unlike for example, the car). Typically, people keep the phone with them on entering the home (although they discard their keys, shoes and coats), and use the phone as they like in common areas with little thought to their partners. At night, the phone is often charged by the bed where it is easy to use to fill any gaps in time, or check on social media.21
The phone in the home adds value – facilitating tasks, entertaining and sharing content (photos taken during the day etc.) —but is also a Trojan horse, bringing with it distraction and fragmentation. For example, under the cover of being available in the case of emergency at night (and charging by the bed) comes the constant visual reminder and temptation to use the phone late at night, first thing in the morning, and to check social media throughout the night. For more on the impact of phone use on relationships in general, Hall, Baym and Miltner have written extensively on the topic.22
At a general level, the issues in the home are twofold. Firstly there are few rituals in the home to accommodate phones or guide acceptable use; and secondly the home has no affordances for mobiles within it. As designers, these are enough constraints to begin building interventions to remove the distraction of the phone in a way which maintains the aspects which foster an environment for people.
A designed intervention based on these general principles and specifics of the home context could be a resting place for the phone in the hallway – some kind of natural home for the phone within the home. This resting place could protect the home environment by filtering incoming notifications and alerts, allowing meaningful content to be pulled through connected devices.
Considering technology in the home is a useful context in which to examine the philosophy of consumer technology companies (manifested through their products) and their orientation towards people more generally. The focus is on making anything and everything available, notifying and facilitating any content or interaction in the home, including alerting individuals to status changes in real time. This is a very strong expression of the design principle that more is better, and that the home should be like a command center. An alternative design philosophy would prioritize protecting spaces in the home from interruption for people, while using technology to enhance in-person human interactions.
A question, then, is to whom does it fall to champion an alternative philosophy of humanistic technology to resist reduction? While many users have a vague sense that mobile/social use is out of control, and can exercise local agency, those best placed to create products which balance the good of the commons and the market need at scale must be the designers who build the products and grow them.
Just as the home context presents opportunities to most effectively defy reduction by defending against fragmentation, other areas offer opportunities to design products which act on different aspects. Modern online dating, for example, is characterized by reducing people to the bare minimum (Tinder uses a photo; The League generates a socioeconomic score). In this area the most effective pathway might be to build products which shift the emphasis back to experiences which reveal and humanize, even if they sacrifice some of the speed and simplicity enabled through reduction. Alternatively, new technologies offer the potential to bridge the tension. AI for example offers the potential to enable more human experiences through products which accommodate the facility for depth and complexity of unstructured human expression while delivering the features and ease we have come to expect of digital systems.
The Issue and the Challenge
The issue is not the addition of technology to the home environment or the social world, more it is that the current generation of products were not designed with sensitivity to their impact on the broader human experience. Facebook was never intended to be a tool to help a population reach self-realization. (That has always been the journey of an individual.) It was meant to connect people and provide a marketing platform. The issue is that these products are now so pervasive, and in their current manifestation have such a powerful effect on the core of what it is to be human, that a more deliberate and humanistic perspective is needed.
One reason Facebook and Instagram are successful is that they traded customization (and breadth of expression) for ease – and in doing so massively expanded their addressable user base. A Facebook page is an extremely limited version of a website, but writing a website was too difficult for most of the population. Many forms of reduction stem from this trade-off of depth for simplicity at the platform level.
Herein lies the challenge with creating technologies which enhance what it is to be human by resisting reduction: They tend to be more complicated. The features which drive growth are those which pander to the more basic needs of attention, status, and excitement, in a simple and accessible way.
In the coming years, as the remainder of the world’s population joins the social/mobile network, the importance of empathetic and intentional experience design will become ever greater. The challenge at the heart of which will be the bridging of the tension between rich but complex, and reduced but accessible product experiences, with far reaching consequences for society and culture. It is only by actively engaging with this question at the design stage that we will create products and systems which do not necessitate reduction to use.