Tech is in the midst of a rare moment of self-reflection. For that, everyone in and out of the industry should be grateful. It’s an opportunity. Not to turn our backs on everything that has been accomplished, but to find a better way to move forward, to course correct before we wander off into the dark.
Much of the current criticism of Tech has focused on social media companies. Social media revolutionized the internet, in part, by harnessing one of the most powerful and dangerous aspects of psychology — addiction. Every imaginable technique has been implemented (and more than a few invented) to keep our eyeballs on the screen and our attention fixed. Every ‘like’ gives us a tiny hit of dopamine, every little red notification pulls us back in for more.
As psychological processes go, addictive and compulsive behavior are simple mechanisms. Compassion, kindness, and gratitude are so much more complex. Appealing to our better angels is the harder goal.
It feels like every other week I see a post on my newsfeed about a friend “giving up Facebook for a while.” One friend told me they were giving up social media for Lent. Somewhere along the way social media overuse graduated to our mental list of vices, alongside smoking and reality TV. One of those things we try to do less but are otherwise okay with.
Social media can be wonderful. Never before in human history has it been so easy to stay in touch with old friends or connect with people we would never have otherwise encountered. But we seem to have collectively decided the ideal is to use social media like we (claim to) drink alcohol. Indulge and enjoy — but don’t overdo it.
Software for Kindness
It’s no coincidence that UX Design has grown in importance hand in hand with the social media revolution. Social media values user engagement above all else (to get advertising dollars), and that’s what UX too often promises to deliver. Better UX Design = more engaged users = more advertising revenue. This model has been key to proving the business value of design and getting designers a proverbial seat at the table (or standing desk).
But now that design has earned its place as one of the pillars of the tech industry, designers owe the world something better. Instead of designing software to tap into our addictive and compulsive tendencies, can we design it to encourage the better angels of our nature? Can our software help us be more compassionate, more thoughtful, and more kind?
There are elements already in place. Facebook and YouTube have proven invaluable for raising money for various charitable causes. Twitter has been used to rally like-minded protesters to work towards a better world. But recently these positives have felt more like excuses. Facebook has been implicated in spreading false propaganda and even ethnic cleansing, YouTube has hosted all manner of questionable content, and Twitter has been used to great effect by autocratic governments (and those that aspire to be).
If the idea of software that encourages kindness sounds absurd to you, consider this: if software can make us addicts, if it can cause anxiety and low self esteem, why can’t it make us kind? If software can produce negative emotional reactions, shouldn’t it be able to produce positive emotions? Why is one so easy and the other seemingly impossible?
Choose to Create Real Value
The question is not whether we possess the means or the ability. It’s clear we do. The question, is whether we possess the will. If the mission is growth by any means necessary, then addiction is good business. Tech was not the first to discover that addicts are excellent sources of reliable revenue. Big Tobacco made billions off a single, 7cm product. Opium once fueled global trade and helped build the British Empire. Casinos are extraordinary profitable businesses despite universal acceptance of the world’s worst branding: “The house always wins.” (What other business could be so widely known for fleecing their customers and still thrive?)
The easiest profit, at least in the short term, will always be getting customers hooked without returning real value. But we owe it to the world, and to ourselves, to create something better. The responsibility lies in making the conscious choice to do so.
Special thanks to Ben Phillips for his invaluable input and edits.