The Last Thing We Need

Picture me at home, in the office. It’s 9:41 PM, Eastern Standard Time. The sun has set on Durham. The chickens are roosting. The lights have been dimmed. And here I am, perched on my little digital soapbox. Look, who isn’t. But what I’ve got for you this week is a little soapboxy, I know that. But I’m OK with that so long as you know that I know it is. Don’t hate me. Come back next week; I’ll have calmed down by then.

CB, July 24, 2015

“The last thing we need are smartphones!”

I had long since tuned out the radio and was gazing ahead, waiting for the break lights ahead of me to disappear, waiting to lurch forward to the next traffic light on my daily stop-and-go, waiting to get home. Where, of course, I’d get no further than the driveway before pulling out my phone and thumbing through every alert which had kept it in a permanent state of vibration since I’d left the office. I had no idea what the speaker meant; what it was, exactly, that she thought we needed more than smartphones. The larger conversation probably had little to do with smartphones specifically. She’d spoken with the weary sarcasm of someone halfheartedly tossing a tiny truth into a sea of absurdity. And that, of course, is a mood familiar to me.

I turned the radio off and let her words echo in my mind. The last thing we need are smartphones.

Damn right.

What are we doing? I mean, really?

When did we start believing that the greatest problem humanity had left to solve was filling every gap in attention that remains in waking life? The space between now and our next opportunity to consume information is, of course, already gone. If it wasn’t, no one would ever feel behind. Everyone would be at Inbox Zero. There’d be no such thing as “information overload,” no need to declare email bankruptcy, no guilt over the accumulating to-reads, no FOMO. But there’s all of that, in abundance. Which means we’ve solved the attention problem, haven’t we? And yet, we’re still going after every slice of unattended mental space. Having conquered boredom and the reluctantly idle moment, we have nothing left but to steal the chosen bits of quiet. The intentional ones. Forget the moments at bus stops, standing in line, and sitting in waiting rooms. That is officially screen time now. The mission has turned toward changing the minds and hearts of those who are looking for less, not more; those who silence alerts, uninstall apps, set their devices aside for walks in the woods, and shut them down and stow them in drawers in the evening to get a good night’s sleep. The right app, after all, could get all that attention back. Should get it back. Investors are waiting for you to bring those digital prodigals home.

But surely there is another way, designers. Another way to spend our time. Another way to apply our ingenuity. Another way, even, to generate wealth. Because this way — this market of attention derivatives, this Ponzi scheme — is nothing more than an addiction. We steal moments from one another only to repackage and resell them because we are addicted to the thrill of the new. Because, like every addict, we prefer instant gratification over anything that takes patience, and so the fast and the cheap is what we trade. But there is a dealer, you know, and a smart dealer doesn’t mess with the merchandise. We need to stop being used in this way. Those investors, those hungry boards of governance pushing us for profit leaps year after year, they don’t care what we’re addicted to so long as we’re addicted. This is an intervention.

What, after all, are we really working for? Progress? Well, that sounds nice. But what does it mean? What are we trying to do here in our time on this spinning rock, this spaceship Earth? Are we trying to leave a mark? Trying to be heard? How do we expect anyone to see what we do or hear what we say when the noise we create so easily drowns it all out? Making space for that, at the very least, is one way to value silence, I suppose. But surely silence has more value than just in making space to fill. It has inherent value. Absence and nothing are just as worthy pursuits as presence and something. Just as necessary to life, and yes, to progress. So we need silence. We need emptiness. And we need patience to be able to stand it.

And in this churning cycle of cause and effect, every captured moment of attention rips the guts out of patience. When the interval between events — of any kind — shrinks down to nothing, then even the briefest moment of waiting for something to happen seems intolerable. Agony. This, as you’ve no doubt already heard, makes for quite the punchline, like when Louis C.K. mocks our impatience with a slowly loading screen by shouting, “GIVE IT A SECOND! IT’S GOING TO SPACE! CAN YOU GIVE IT A SECOND???” But who hasn’t been that “spoiled idiot” that can’t give it a second? It stings because it’s true.

How have we come to the place where it’s acceptable to maintain a constant indignance toward even the slightest difficulty in accessing information? When a website isn’t responsive we scoff. Why? Because now I might have to use my fingers to pinch and zoom a webpage (and honestly, is it not impressive we can do that) or (gasp!) wait a few minutes before I can get back to my laptop and look at it there? What an outrage! And really, what if a few minutes is longer than average? Seriously, I’d like to know. I’d like to know what the average space — in time or distance — between devices is for the average American. I’d bet it’s almost nothing. Which is kind of terrifying, if you ask me. Meanwhile, we completely take this for granted — how portable information really is, and how seamless our experience of it can be. That we can be pretty much anywhere and still look at a webpage, or read a book, or listen to music, or tune in the radio, or watch television or a movie, all on a screen we hold in our hands. That we hardly have to wait for anything. That we can do any of these things on a laptop, or a tablet, or a phone. That we can start watching a video on a tablet in our living rooms, switch over to a phone and take it with us to the bathroom, and then throw it back up on the TV a little later. We’re just beaming stuff all over the place, no problem. It’s insane how ubiquitous entertainment can be! But we’re not satisfied. There’s still a holy grail to be had. The killer app. The latest and greatest in hardware. Some new thing that’s going to make everything even more seamless and everything before it seem like rubbing two sticks together. Are we not going to be satisfied until every surface is a window to entertainment? Until everywhere we go looks the same because we’ve projected on to it our own personal digital boob tubes? If that’s what we’re after, we might as well just stay home, don’t you think?

And beneath it all is another holy grail, one we Plebes need not seek out; it’s already claimed by the one-percent. What is it? The vast, untold riches of our monetized attention. Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret. Ain’t no such thing. It’s a house of cards. How many billions of people are on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, or whatever, giving away their words and pictures and time and yet the smartest minds of our generation still haven’t figured out how to turn it all into enough cash to satisfy the investors? Facebook makes money. But is it enough? Apparently not. They have to drop billions of dollars to buy someone else’s list of names simply because there are a whole bunch of people there that they can now claim might be the board’s golden ticket. Geez, I don’t know, folks. I think maybe we can call it. We go to Facebook to be with each other. Facebook says, hey, we’ve got all these people, we’ll sell ’em to advertisers. Advertisers say, great, maybe they’ll buy some stuff. The investors say, great but we’re not going to cash out until we monetize everything; “not just actual attention but the promise of future, fictional, vaporous attention,” as Dan Hon so aptly put it just tonight. Don’t hold your breath.

And they’re not. Because while they have us in a sad cat-GIF-and-listicle holding pattern, they’re making all kinds of junk in their workshops to keep us wired when we finally get sick of sitting on our butts in front of screens. You know, like screens we can strap on to our faces. Ask yourself, what problem does Google Glass solve? Or the Oculus Rift? Or the Apple Watch? No problem that you or I have. The problem these toys solve belongs to the companies making them: How to capture even more attention.

When a company’s product development no longer addresses meaningful needs, it can do one of two things: (1) create new kinds of products that address needs in new markets. (I guess you could see Google’s self-driving car thing as fitting in this category, although you could also legitimately question whether anyone needs a self-driving car), or (2) create luxury products. Where would you honestly put Google Glass, Oculus, or the Apple Watch? Not sure? Well, do you see billions of dollars of investment being put toward building a better diamond? No. Luxury is tied to scarcity, and large-scale investment is better put toward things that can be mass-adopted. If the only meaningful distinctions between the Apple Watch line — which are material, not functional — hasn’t tipped you off, this stuff is all about luxury. And they’re going to do their best to make you believe otherwise. But let’s see what the Market says. The Market is big; full of all kinds of big needs.

We don’t need a new watch. Or a new phone. Or a new tablet. Or a new screen, even if it’s one we can wear. We don’t even need self-driving cars. Not really. What we really need are safer and more efficient forms of transportation. And that’s likely to come in a blended form; one part self-driving car — I mean, come on, I’m not a total grump, I’m mostly pro-self-driving car — one part mass transportation, one part bicycle, and one part good, old-fashioned walking. And to get all that, we need better urban planning. And better resource management. And better working patterns. And more social equality. You know what all that is? It’s the design community’s bucket list. We need to get busy on this stuff, pronto. The big stuff! How scary is it that we’re wasting our time making another way to text each other, instead.

It’s time we turned our attention to the real problems of this world.

What about energy? It’s pretty clear we haven’t figured that one out. There will never be enough wind turbines or solar panels to stop us from burning stuff to keep our screens on, so we might want to give that one a look. What about food? Our country is the richest place on Earth, and it’s a mess in the food category. We we waste most of our calorie production feeding livestock and automobiles. We’ve got so much to eat that we’re getting fat and throwing out the leftovers! And yet, there are people among us who starve. How can this be? It’s absurd! What about water? We waste so much of it trying to sustain suburbs in the desert, and meanwhile our richest citizen goes and builds a machine that will let poverty stricken Africans drink their own sewer water. Good for them, I guess. But don’t you think we could have done better than that if we hadn’t already decided that we needed fountains and swimming pools and long, hot showers in every corner of our country? What about sustainable materials? Or have we not buried enough trash and sent enough plastic to the center of the Pacific yet? Good lord, there are problems to solve. But we’re living in The Cloud. If designers think there’s no role for them in saving the world, we are wrong. A bunch of years ago, some kid came up with an algae that eats plastic bags for his science fair project. What happened to him? I have no idea. But why there isn’t a bag-eating algae pool at every municipal waste center will have to remain one of life’s mysteries, won’t it?

The truly sad thing is that we’re locked in to this. Our economy rewards it. Myopia is a currency. You see, meaningful progress would create poverty in the short term! Self-driving cars, for example, will put all kinds of people out of work. 3D printers, same thing. Modular smartphones? Yeah, it’s a great idea, but if I can uplift my own phone’s battery, camera, storage, or processor, how the heck are they going to sell me a new one in a year? And if I don’t buy a new phone, how will the people selling cords, cases, and speakers put food on the table? What if we decided to make better clothing — stuff that actually lasts and doesn’t rely upon slave labor to be cheap? We’d buy fewer clothes. A good thing! But, the industry would shrink. People would lose jobs. Same thing in virtually every consumer market. Our whole system relies upon throwaways. We’re all about quantity, which doesn’t just drive quality down figuratively. It actually reduces lasting value. If we don’t keep this do-nothing-machine running faster and faster and cheaper and cheaper, there’s no more growth. And we can’t have that, now can we?

Sure, you’ve heard this rant before. It’s the sort of thing we sarcastically shorthand as “First World Problems.” But you know what? There are no “First World Problems.” There is only one world, and there are problems. What are we going to do about it?

What’s one small thing you could do today? I wan’t to hear about it. Maybe it’s as simple as not buying that new thing you’ve had your eye on. Or maybe it’s uninstalling that app that you’ve been wasting time with, which makes you feel bad about yourself. Maybe it’s majoring in Math, not Marketing. Maybe it’s finally starting that compost pile. I don’t know. It doesn’t have to be big. But let it be something, something you can feel good about. Hit reply and let me know what it is. It’ll be just between us.

Heavy Rotation: Four Tet takes over this episode of Benji B’s show on BBC Radio 1 and gives you three hours of good stuff, including Caribou, Floating Points, Joy Orbison, etc. You have about a month left to listen to it.

Heavy Reading: Last Fall, I invited Maciej Ceglowski to speak at the HOW Interactive Conference where he closed out one of the days with a wonderful, characteristically blunt, funny, and perhaps pessimistic assessment of the current state of the web. He called it, “Web Design: The First 100 Years.” Well, he finally wrote it up and published it online. You should read it. All 6,000+ words of it. Get comfortable so Maciej can make you uncomfortable. Then read The Web We Have to Save, by Hossein Derakhshan. Then read Paul Ford centralize the point about why centralization of data is lazy and dangerous.

Also, I just finished The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber. Really enjoyed it. And I especially enjoyed reviewing it on Matt Webb’s new toy, Machine Supply. Here’s what I wrote: “This is a fascinating exploration of how faith and story adapt in another world with its own language and history, and takes its place within the sci-fi and faith subgenre along with The Sparrow, A Canticle for Leibowitz, To Your Scattered Bodies Go, or The Dazzle of Day. One stray thought: That this book accomplishes such a depth of character in a protagonist who is ultimately pretty unlikeable without undermining the sensitivity with which it treats its themes is impressive.”

Recent TabsForty-five years at Herman Miller; twenty years of picnic posters. Everything science knows about reading on screens is not very much. McDonald’s Amazing Menu. Moore’s Law stutters. Or maybe it doesn’t. And maybe it’s going organic. The best kitchen gadget review I may have ever read, and the gadget does, in fact, sound like an abomination. A social theory of the smart city. Speaking of “smart,” watch Uninvited Guests a very short film about an elderly man struggling to live a human life in his smart home. Psychometrics. Just look at this poor woman entranced by that potato chip. The random user is a disembodied finger always clicking a mouse on wheels. Enjoy the spectacle of doom. WOW, These sandcastles! And courtesy of my Uncle, Bee Highways and Squirrel Suspension Bridges: Urban Wildlife Crossings. Make way for beasts! Thought-leadership. Finally, when you know something is deeply wrong with the world, but just can’t put your paw on it.

Written by Christopher Butler on July 24, 2015,   In Essays

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