The Failures of Technology(?)

After I posted A Question of Value the other day, where I talked about some important questions to ask when evaluating the plausibility of a smart watch as a viable future device category, Linus Edwards sent me a link to a very interesting and thought-provoking piece of his from July of 2013 titled Where Did The Time Go? The Failures Of Technology. Part of the reason I found it so noteworthy, though, is because I disagree with it so strongly: I disagree with his statement that “In terms of design, most computing devices, programs, operating systems, and websites are not designed to simplify people’s lives, but rather make people more and more reliant on those computing devices, programs, operating systems, and websites.” He lumped all these very different mediums together and categorically condemned all of them for the more pronounced shortcoming of one or two, a process that I feel he used to form the erroneous conclusion that he then wrote his article in service of.

For clarity’s sake, let us oversimplify the app market and divide it into two distinct categories: games, and everything else. While the latter’s modus operandi varies from app to app, members of the former almost invariably do everything but streamline their users’ lives. With regards to this subset, then, Linus has very accurately captured the fundamental problem with this class of app, because games often do everything in their power to engage their audience to the greatest degree possible, and for as long as possible, in order to remove as many of your innate inhibitions when they ultimately send the in-app purchase dialog box in.

Similarly, most websites these days achieve profitability through ad revenue. Thus, keeping their users active, engaged, and returning has become of paramount important. Here, too, though, we may draw a dividing line between such websites and those belonging to independent writers, or those who recognize the unsustainability of this model and look to realize an alternative one. Consider Tech.pinions, for example, or The Information: wholly supported by their readers, both have but two ways to achieve greater popularity and, thus, profitability: continue creating great content, and attract fantastic writers. Through these ways only will Tech.pinions and The Information grow, for they have no incentive whatsoever to keep their readers on their respective domains for any longer than necessary to read the latest article.

On a smaller scale, independent writers like Shawn Blanc and Jim Dalrymple, with virtually no ads on their sites, instead attain the majority of their revenue through tasteful forms of sponsorships and site memberships. Thus, as is the case with both The Information and Tech.pinions, neither Jim nor Shawn need to lock there readers in anywhere near as much as they need to continue creating exceptional content in order to sustain and continue building a strong readership. Although the net effect of this desire to encourage returning users remains the same across each category of app and website, the key difference lies in the reason those users choose to spend their time with a particular writer or app, and what motivations prompted that decision: whereas the pursuit of greater revenue and mindshare motivates those less in touch with their morality to use various psychological tactics in achieving those ends, the latter — those independent writers — draw motivation from the desire to continue providing value to their readers’ lives, and in doing so create exceptional content. The former attains your money through underhanded tactics; the latter, you happily hand over a few dollars every month, or, not any at all — either way, they stick around, because they love the writer’s craft and sharing their thoughts with others. If you have any doubt as to the reality of what sounds like an impossibly noble set of motivating factors, just listen to one of these creators speak: it comes through in everything they say.

With regards to computers, Apple has no incentive to make any one of their offerings — hardware or software — take more of your time than absolutely necessary. Whether the iPhone or a Mac Pro, iOS or Mac OS, introducing unnecessary entropy for the sake of keeping users engaged, for any amount of time, would only take away from the platform as a whole. In the end, then, this strategy would not increase engagement, but instead decrease it dramatically as once-loyal users fled to platforms more respectful of their time and attention. A computer or operating system that does not streamline one’s life will inevitably find itself tossed to the wayside for one that does, and the same goes for individual programs running atop that combination. DELL machines running Linux went nowhere for a reason, after all.

Computers do take up more of our time today than they used to, but they do so because we have become vastly more empowered by them. Granted, some apps, programs, and websites take slightly-less-than-morally-sound approaches to engaging with their users and thus artificially boost time spent in their environment past what it deserves by virtue of its merits, but this is not an inherent problem of technology at large; do not condemn the many for the faults of a few. More so than the time these devices demand of us increasing, it is instead our demands of those devices that has increased over the years. Therein lies the explanation for where our time really went: it went to computers, mobile phones, and the internet. More important than that somewhat obvious realization, though, is realizing why that shift occurred, and that it was wholly our choice.