Our communication platforms are polluted with racism, incitement to hate, terrorist propaganda and Twitter-bot armies. This essay argues some of that is due to how our platforms are designed. It explores content moderation and counter speech as possible “solutions”, and concludes both fall short. Alternatively, the essay suggests smart design could help mitigate some of our communication platforms’ more harmful effects. How would our platforms work if they were designed for engagement rather than attention?
Afraid of frictionIn the 1930s industrial designer Egmont Arens introduced the concept of “humaneering”. Humaneering is the idea that you design products in such a way as to minimize friction between the product and the user.
We’ve heard a lot of similar ideas about design since then. In the fifties Henry Dreyfuss argued that design failed if the point of contact between the thing and the person became a point of friction. Talking about ubiquitous computing, Mark Weiser introduced the idea of “calm” technology in the nineties, where the computer is an extension of our unconscious. One of the best-designed services I use, WeTransfer, challenges itself to work without breaking someone’s “flow”.
The products and technologies we use have back-ends that are far more elaborate and more complex than their interfaces allow us to believe. In addition, the way in which we’ve traditionally thought about and designed our interactions with products, you could argue has only further alienated us from those products’ technological, political and social implications.
The way in which we’ve traditionally thought about and designed our interactions with products has only further alienated us from those products’ technological, political and social implications.
Things vs. devicesIn 1984 Albert Borgmann introduced the distinction between a “thing” and a “device”. A thing is something you experience on many different levels, he said, whereas your interaction with a device is extremely limited, purposefully reduced. The most well-known example Borgmann gives of this is the wood burning stove on the one hand, and central heating on the other.
A wood burner’s main function is to warm the house. But it also requires skills like chopping wood and keeping the fire burning, skills that are usually distributed amongst family members. It\'s the place in the house where the family gathers around, and it changes throughout the day, blazing in the morning, and simmering at night. It also tells you something about the seasons, as its role changes throughout the year.
Central heating performs the main function, the warming of the house, a lot more efficiently, but it has none of the other functions. There is no real engagement between the person and the device. Borgmann really regrets this because he says this engagement is necessary in order to understand the world and respond to it in a meaningful way.
Engagement vs. attentionConsidering Borgmann, you could argue that a degree of friction might actually be a good thing, as it allows for real engagement, a conscious participation. A slightly weird example of this, perhaps, is the internet browser pop-up that asks you to sign up for a newsletter. The only reason it’s there is so you can close it. Tests have shown that as soon as you perform any type of action on a webpage, engagement goes up and you’re more prone to take action in the desired way.
Another example: compare the average user’s webspace now with the webspace a user had 25 years ago.