To be meaningful or just useful, that is the question….

mused on 27 Nov 2015


Are we just a vehicle to enable technology to grow more sophisticated and encompassing, agents in an internet of things, or are our new tools enabling us to increase our agency, autonomy and freedom?   What is our proper relationship to our technology? I was in a break room the other day and saw lots of people in groups in a comfortable space looking at thier mobile devices they held in their hands. From time to time they would lean across to each other and share something that particularly tickled their fancy.   It struck me how much attention our devices crave from us. I am not making a point about social convention, or evolving social paradigms. These technologies continually crave our attention; visually, audibly and as a kind of nagging psychological itch. The information gleaned from these interactions is put to use in building more sophisticated models that can be used to develop more immersive interactions; and the cycle continues. But are all of these increasingly immersive interactions increasing our agency, our autonomy, our freedom of action, our ability to move more seamlessly through our physical existence and therefore enriching our lives? Is connection really leading to more fulfilling relationships?

At our company we are trying to build tools that enhance our experience, that enable us to share and converse with our friends and colleagues freely and meaningfully, by making it easier to connect with people, places, events, and information in a more frictionless, seamless and meaningful way. But we think its important to our users how this is accomplished.   We want our tools to increase their agency, enabling them to participate in the important decisions about how outcomes are generated. We have been trying to design around the ‘co’ philosophy, that is in all activities the user and the provider both take active roles (collaborate, co-curate, co-administrate, co-veil¹, co- develop, etc.). The intent is to design into the fabric of the tools a more human, natural, consensual relationship; a degree of control. Using paradigms of human behaviour to govern our design choices should make tools more comprehensible to users. People build new relationships, new bonds and attachments in particular ways, the better we understand those processes and use similar paradigms to enable people to relate to the technology the more human an experience it becomes. For another day perhaps a discussion about how approaches like this might help the digitally excluded become more confidently engaged with the emerging digital world….

We want to build tools that increase our autonomy, that do not create new obligations or asymmetries in which we are being monetized or manipulated invisibly or in an unbalanced way.  There are many that demonstrate a similar ‘respect for the human’ in their design. Designing around the principle that the technology needs to be more than just useful, that it is in the service of creating deeper more meaningful human experiences, that seems right.

Perhaps more to the point, it feels right.

¹ An interesting idea put forward by Kevin Kelly founding executive editor of Wired.