38 stories
·
0 followers

Move Slowly and Fix Things

1 Share
Synoptic Table of Physiognomic Traits

Ruminations on the heavy weight of software design in the 21st century.

Recently I took a monthlong sabbatical from my job as a designer at Basecamp. (Basecamp is an incredible company that gives us a paid month off every 3 years.)

When you take 30 days away from work, you have a lot of time and headspace that’s normally used up. Inevitably you start to reflect on your life.

And so, I pondered what the hell I’m doing with mine. What does it mean to be a software designer in 2018, compared to when I first began my weird career in the early 2000s?

The answer is weighing on me.

As software continues to invade our lives in surreptitious ways, the social and ethical implications are increasingly significant.

Our work is HEAVY and it’s getting heavier all the time. I think a lot of designers haven’t deeply considered this, and they don’t appreciate the real-life effects of the work they’re doing.

Here’s a little example. About 10 years ago, Twitter looked like so:

Twitter circa 2007

How cute was that? If you weren’t paying attention back then, Twitter was kind of a joke. It was a silly viral app where people wrote about their dog or their ham sandwich.

Today, things are a wee bit different. Twitter is now the megaphone for the leader of the free world, who uses it to broadcast his every whim. It’s also the world’s best source for real-time news, and it’s full of terrible abuse problems.

That’s a massive sea change! And it all happened in only 10 years.

Do you think the creators of that little 2007 status-sharing concept had any clue this is where they’d end up, just a decade later?

Seems like they didn’t:

People can’t decide whether Twitter is the next YouTube, or the digital equivalent of a hula hoop. To those who think it’s frivolous, Evan Williams responds: “Whoever said that things have to be useful?”
Twitter: Is Brevity The Next Big Thing? (Newsweek, April 2007)

Considering these shallow beginnings, is it any surprise that Twitter has continually struggled at running a massive, serious global communications platform, which now affects the world order?

That’s not what they originally built. It grew into a Frankenstein’s monster, and now they’re not quite sure how to handle it.

I’m not picking on Twitter in particular, but its trajectory illustrates a systemic problem.

Designers and programmers are great at inventing software. We obsess over every aspect of that process: the tech we use, our methodology, the way it looks, and how it performs.

Unfortunately we’re not nearly as obsessed with what happens after that, when people integrate our products into the real world. They use our stuff and it takes on a life of its own. Then we move on to making the next thing. We’re builders, not sociologists.

This approach wasn’t a problem when apps were mostly isolated tools people used to manage spreadsheets or send emails. Small products with small impacts.

But now most software is so much more than that. It listens to us. It goes everywhere we go. It tracks everything we do. It has our fingerprints. Our heart rate. Our money. Our location. Our face. It’s the primary way we communicate our thoughts and feelings to our friends and family.

It’s deeply personal and ingrained into every aspect of our lives. It commands our gaze more and more every day.

We’ve rapidly ceded an enormous amount of trust to software, under the hazy guise of forward progress and personal convenience. And since software is constantly evolving—one small point release at a time—each new breach of trust or privacy feels relatively small and easy to justify.

Oh, they’ll just have my location.
Oh, they’ll just have my identity.
Oh, they’ll just have an always-on microphone in the room.

Most software products are owned and operated by corporations, whose business interests often contradict their users’ interests. Even small, harmless-looking apps might be harvesting data about you and selling it.

And that’s not even counting the army of machine learning bots that will soon be unleashed to make decisions for us.

It all sounds like an Orwellian dystopia when you write it out like this, but this is not fiction. It’s the real truth.

A scene from WALL-E, or the actual software industry in 2018?

See what I mean by HEAVY? Is this what we signed up for, when we embarked on a career in tech?

15 years ago, it was a slightly different story. The Internet was a nascent and bizarre wild west, and it had an egalitarian vibe. It was exciting and aspirational — you’d get paid to make cool things in a fast-moving industry, paired with the hippie notion that design can change the world.

Well, that motto was right on the money. There’s just one part we forgot: change can have a dark side too.

If you’re a designer, ask yourself this question…

Is your work helpful or harmful?

You might have optimistically deluded yourself into believing it’s always helpful because you’re a nice person, and design is a noble-seeming endeavor, and you have good intentions.

But let’s be brutally honest for a minute.

If you’re designing sticky features that are meant to maximize the time people spend using your product instead of doing something else in their life, is that helpful?

If you’re trying to desperately inflate the number of people on your platform so you can report corporate growth to your shareholders, is that helpful?

If your business model depends on using dark patterns or deceptive marketing to con users into clicking on advertising, is that helpful?

If you’re trying to replace meaningful human culture with automated tech, is that helpful?

If your business collects and sells personal data about people, is that helpful?

If your company is striving to dominate an industry by any means necessary, is that helpful?

If you do those things…

Are you even a Designer at all?

Or are you a glorified Huckster—a puffed-up propaganda artist with a fancy job title in an open-plan office?

Whether we choose to recognize it or not, designers have both the authority and the responsibility to prevent our products from becoming needlessly invasive, addictive, dishonest, or harmful. We can continue to pretend this is someone else’s job, but it’s not. It’s our job.

We’re the first line of defense to protect people’s privacy, safety, and sanity. In many, many cases we’re failing at that right now.

If the past 20 years of tech represent the Move Fast and Break Things era, now it’s time to slow down and take stock of what’s broken.

At Basecamp, we’re leading the charge by running an unusually supportive company, pushing back on ugly practices in the industry, and giving a shit about our customers. We design our product to improve people’s work, and to stop their work from spilling over into their personal lives. We intentionally leave out features that might keep people hooked on Basecamp all day, in favor of giving them peace and freedom from constant interruptions. And we skip doing promotional things that might grow the business, if they feel gross and violate our values.

We know we have a big responsibility on our hands, and we take it seriously.

You should too. The world needs as much care and conscience as we can muster. Defend your users against anti-patterns and shady business practices. Raise your hand and object to harmful design ideas. Call out bad stuff when you see it. Thoughtfully reflect on what you’re sending out into the world every day.

The stakes are high and they’ll keep getting higher. Grab those sociology and ethics textbooks and get to work.

If you like this post, hit the 👏 below or send me a message about your ham sandwich on Twitter.


Move Slowly and Fix Things was originally published in Signal v. Noise on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Read the whole story
Share this story
Delete

Alle goud van de wereld

1 Share

Een column over goud, Einstein, wetenschappelijke doorbraken en botsende sterren.

De goudsmid aan het werk. NSF/LIGO

Wat gisteren nog een spectaculaire ontdekking was, een wetenschappelijke doorbraak, dat is vandaag een meetinstrument, een hulpmiddel dat gebruikt wordt om de grenzen van de wetenschap weer wat verder op te schuiven (en naar een gezegde onder fysici zal het mórgen nog slechts hinderlijke achtergrondruis zijn).

Gravitatiegolven hebben die overgang in recordtijd gemaakt. Twee jaar geleden waren gravitatiegolven, een soort trillingen van de ruimte, nog een theoretisch vermoeden, voorspeld door Albert Einsteins algemene relativiteitstheorie. In februari vorig jaar maakten wetenschappers bekend dat ze er voor het eerst in geslaagd waren Einsteins golven te detecteren. Een doorbraak, waarvoor drie van de protagonisten in het onderzoek deze maand met de Nobelprijs beloond werden.

Maar al heel snel deden de metingen van gravitatiegolven méér dan ons vertellen dat ze echt bestonden en dat Einstein het bij het rechte eind had. Ze begonnen ons dingen bij te leren over sterrenkunde, over de extreme kosmische gebeurtenissen waarbij dergelijke golven worden opgewekt. Bij de eerste detecties waren dat botsingen van zwarte gaten, mysterieuze objecten die heel moeilijk op andere manieren te bestuderen zijn.

De overgang culmineerde (voorlopig) deze week. Gravitatiegolf-onderzoekers en meerdere teams astronomen maakten bekend dat ze er voor het eerst in geslaagd waren een bron van gravitatiegolven tegelijk ook waar te nemen met gewone telescopen op de grond en in satellieten. Het onderzoek, gepubliceerd in een hele reeks artikels in vakbladen, leverde een schat aan informatie over het heelal op.

Het waren deze keer geen zwarte gaten die botsten en de ruimte deden trillen, maar zogeheten ‘neutronensterren’, dat zijn de extreem ineengeschrompelde kernen van vergane sterren. Op 130 miljoen lichtjaar van ons hadden de twee neutronensterren miljarden jaren lang rond elkaar gedraaid, in een steeds nauwer en sneller wordende rondedans, tot ze tenslotte botsten en met elkaar versmolten.

Eén van de ontdekkingen is dat er in het geweld van de botsing op reusachtige schaal zware elementen werden gevormd: lood, goud, platina, uranium en een boel andere atomen uit de onderste helft van de tabel van Mendeljev. Alleen al van goud, is er méér gevormd dan de hele massa van de planeet aarde.

Daarmee wordt wellicht een al lang lopende discussie beslecht over de oorsprong van die metalen. Botsende neutronensterren waren één mogelijkheid, een andere waren supernova’s (ontploffende sterren). De neutronensterren lijken het pleit nu te winnen; waarschijnlijk is het meeste goud in het heelal afkomstig van hun botsingen.

Ook het goud op aarde, in onze armbanden, ringen, horloges of bankkluizen. Bedenk welke geschiedenis een atoom goud uit een juweel al achter de rug heeft: miljarden jaren geleden, lang vóór het ontstaan van de aarde, is het gevormd in het vuur van een infernale botsing tussen twee neutronensterren. Het werd de ruimte in geworpen, waar het na een lange zwerftocht terechtkwam in een jong, zich vormend nieuw planetenstelsel. De ring van Sauron, gesmeed in het vuur van de Doemberg, is er niets bij.

Deze column is op 21 oktober 2017 in een licht gewijzigde versie verschenen in De Tijd.

Read the whole story
Share this story
Delete

Meet Russian Twitter troll Jenna Abrams and her 2,752 friends

1 Share
The alt-right blogger had almost 70,000 followers, was an utter fiction, and wasn't alone.

Read the whole story
Share this story
Delete

Digital Resource Lifespan

5 Comments and 31 Shares
I spent a long time thinking about how to design a system for long-term organization and storage of subject-specific informational resources without needing ongoing work from the experts who created them, only to realized I'd just reinvented libraries.
Read the whole story
Share this story
Delete
5 public comments
daanzu_alt_text_bot
9 days ago
reply
I spent a long time thinking about how to design a system for long-term organization and storage of subject-specific informational resources without needing ongoing work from the experts who created them, only to realized I'd just reinvented libraries.
emdot
15 days ago
reply
I wanna lib forever!
San Luis Obispo, CA
MaryEllenCG
24 days ago
reply
Be nice to librarians.
Greater Bostonia
JayM
24 days ago
reply
*sigh* so very true.
Atlanta, GA
jth
24 days ago
reply
+1 for libraries
Saint Paul, MN, USA

Security Training & Awareness: 3 Big Myths

1 Share
The once-overwhelming consensus that security awareness programs are invaluable is increasingly up for debate.

Read the whole story
Share this story
Delete

“Me Too”: on Sexual Assault

1 Share

I want to preface this by emphasizing that I in no way want to trivialize experiences people have had as victims of sexual assault. All feelings are valid, and it’s ok to feel hurt even at something that might seem trivial to others.

 

People on my Facebook and Twitter are posting “me too,” which is meant to indicate that they’ve been victims of sexual assault. The comments talk about how rampant abuse is, and I’ve read many anecdotes over the last few days of experiences that have left people living in a state of fear. “The world is not safe for us,” seems to be the message.

 

I felt weird and confused, because I have never felt this, despite having been a sex worker and living in a lot of different cities. I’ve generally felt quite safe my entire life, and never really witnessed this systemic harassment that I see people talk about. I don’t know what’s going on – how is it that everyone’s getting abused around me and I’m left untouched and ignorant to this? I started to write a post about this.

 

But then I remembered – I actually was a victim of sexual assault. There were many instances in my life that might qualify – I was molested as a child, stalked and chased in deserted streets, groped at a party, forced into a nonconsensual handjob, kissed without consent, and I still receive mildly concerning messages from a few very dedicated people. Also let’s not forget catcalling whenever I go outside alone wearing anything form-fitting.

 

So, I could also post “me too,” if I wanted! But posting it still didn’t feel right. Remembering these things didn’t make me feel less safe – in fact I had actually completely forgot about a few of the events up until this point. I never really considered them an issue.

 

I think this is because very few of the events made me feel afraid for my life or well being. The forced sexual contact was really annoying and uncomfortable, but I wasn’t afraid they would hurt me, and I think on a gut level I don’t view ‘having my hand shoved onto a dick’ as much different than ‘having my hand shoved onto a forearm.’ It was mostly uncomfortable because of social anxiety – I wasn’t sure how to effectively communicate without ruining my social ties later on.

 

The only thing that left lasting impact was being chased through Istanbul’s deserted streets by a hooded man – to this day I have trouble walking alone at night, even in safe areas. But I never really considered this part of a systemic problem – I don’t know if he wanted to rape or mug me, but both of those things seemed equally physically threatening, and I know several other people who’ve been mugged, most of them men, and I sort of classed it as just an unfortunate thing that happens sometimes. I never once thought of this as having to do with rape (or mugging) culture, and more thought of it as “sometimes psychopaths get born, and sometimes I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time.” I don’t feel like a victim.

 

I have a weirdly high resilience to these experiences, but I don’t want to insinuate that those who don’t are weak. I did not choose to be unaffected, and it’s likely that the reasons for this are random factors in my childhood, or a genetic balance of brain chemicals, or something different and unknowable. I am not stronger, I take absolutely no credit, I just happened to find myself in this position.

 

But with the “Me Too” campaign, I felt a pressure to view the things that had happened to me as part of this ‘systemic abuse’ narrative, as important somehow, as something I should be more upset about. Was there something wrong with me for being so unaffected by sexual assault? Should I get more angry? The idea of offering up my experiences as part of the cause felt sort of appealing, like I was special.

 

And the problem here is that if I did choose to label my experiences as something important and troubling, that I would become unhappier and more fearful. People who view their experiences as important and troubling seem to also have a lot of distress associated with it, and it seems like it would be an improvement if they could reach a mental state where they no longer saw them as important and troubling.

 

I’m not at all saying they are failing by “Me Too”ing their experience, only that the state of “Me Too”ing is more unpleasant than a state without labels – and more importantly, that the “Me Too” program might actually increase the amount people feel their experience has been traumatic for them. I’m reminded of my experience leaving home. I was raised a homeschooler in an incredibly sheltered environment by an abusive father. The experience itself really sucked, and was very uncomfortable, but I did not assign it a special label. I didn’t know that my experience was special or important – until I left home and started talking to people from the outside world.

 

People reacted in horror when I mentioned things from my childhood that I thought were normal and common. They said things like, “are you okay? How are you coping?”. As I integrated with my new culture, I took on the horror they felt about my childhood. I started to feel horrified at what I had gone through, and this caused me pain at least as great as the experience had been itself. I felt like I was living with a gaping wound in my chest. I felt injustice and crippling rage and suffered through nightmares for years. I defined myself as a victim, and thus I felt like a victim.

 

I would not have been able to heal without shedding my label and the narrative about what I had gone through. The label and the narrative helped me adjust to my new culture, but it also locked me into suffering. I no longer consider myself a victim, and as a result I no longer suffer like a victim.

 

Now, I’m not necessarily arguing that people shouldn’t have reacted in horror. I think probably rejecting my upbringing as ‘deeply not right’ was super important for integrating into a healthier perspective, and I think to some extent suffering from an updated narrative was inevitable – but I do wish deeply, at some point, that someone would have told me to not make it special. I wish someone would have told me that I should feel and process whatever pain I need to feel, but to refuse to give it an identity, to refuse to make it part of me. I wish at least one person would not have reacted with horror. I wish someone had told me this didn’t need to be a story about the poor abused Christian girl who must feel the way a poor abused Christian girl should feel.

 

And in the same way, I sort of want to reach out to the people saying Me Too and I want to tell them that it’s okay to hurt, but this doesn’t have to be anything special. It can just be pain, and then healing. I’m afraid that the cultural attitude that sparks Me Too will lock people into the pain.

 

Please realize I’m not necessarily making an argument against the “Me Too” campaign. It’s very possible that the benefits are greater than this cost, especially in a world where sexual assault is a hidden harm – but I wanted to introduce the concept that going about it this way might also have a cost. I don’t know if Me Too is a net benefit or not, but I see nobody discussing the potential downsides, and I feel a cultural pressure not to. There’s a reason I’m posting this here on my blog and not on my social media.

 

It’s just, despite having a list of ways in which people have sexually abused or harassed me, I am happy. I don’t feel any urge to label those experiences. I don’t feel afraid, and I feel completely free. I want others to know that this is possible, and that maybe one path is by rejecting the urge to put those experiences into a storyline that designates them as special.

Read the whole story
Share this story
Delete
Next Page of Stories