The first step in solving any problem is recognising there is one.
On April 30th — which is my birthday — it will be 25 years since CERN and Tim Berners Lee renounced their intellectual property rights and allowed the World Wide Web to be put into the public domain. The internet is for everyone.
This place that we’re building has the potential to be a home for our greatest achievements. We’ve filled it with cat gifs and hate speech. Algorithms decide for us ‘what’s next’ and sometimes (statistically more often than seems random) lead us to conspiracy theories and extremism. Chatbots turn racist within 16 hours of exploring our internet.
A 2016 study estimates that we tap, swipe and click on our devices 2,617 times each day. But designs tend to exploit rather than reward our attention. Too much of the internet is designed to overcome our better angels. Too many designers spend time thinking of ways to switch off our brains, and just click. Too often we fetishise seamlessness, ease of use and ‘intuitiveness’ without questioning what these choices are in service of.
We count eyeballs. We count clicks. We count time spent. When will people count? People need time to rest. We need time to reflect, we need time to relax, we need time to connect meaningfully with other people. 26% of adults have sent text or instant messages to their friends or their family while in the same room. What is this layer that we’re wrapping around our reality?
We too rarely build places for intention, reflection and connection — we too often build places for exploitation, oppression and dislocation.
We know that active people who can exercise autonomy and intention are happier. So why not optimise for that?
We know that well-informed people make better decisions. So why not support critical thinking and reflection?
We know that information can empower people. So why not build information environments that inform and educate, as well as entertain?
That might mean challenging audiences. It will mean challenging ourselves.
Imagine deploying the resources spent on getting people to click and keep on clicking, towards transforming the Internet into a tool for human beings to get the most out of life.
What do we care about? What are the values we’re passing on to the digital agents we’re increasingly delegating our responsibility to? What are the questions we ask when we try to decide what is good?
The first step in solving any problem is recognising there is one. The second step is doing things differently.
Standards define what we’re willing to accept. They establish a norm. What would a standard look like that establishes the ‘goodness’ we’re willing to accept as a bare minimum. What is minimum viable goodness?
What kind of internet do you want? Are you building it?
Hat tip to Aaron Sorkin for the first line and @elissaolinsky for the @danramsden quote image.