Design guru Don Norman’s shortlist of everything wrong with the internet

When usability pioneers have All the Feels about the nature of our creeping technological dystopia, how we got here, and what we might need to do to right the ship, it’s wise to pay attention. Don Norman’s preaching resonated with my choir, and they’ve asked me to sing a summary song of our people in bulleted list format:

  • What seemed like a virtuous thing at the time — building the internet with an ethos of trust and openness — has led to a travesty via lack of security, because no one took bad actors into account.
  • Google, Facebook, et al didn’t have the advertising business model in mind a priori, but sort of stumbled into it and got carried away giving advertisers what they wanted — more information about users — without really taking into consideration the boundary violations of appropriating people’s information. (see Shoshana Zuboff’s definitive new book on Surveillance Capitalism for a lot more on this topic)
  • Tech companies have mined the psychological sciences for techniques that — especially at scale — border on mass manipulation of fundamental human drives to be informed and to belong. Beyond the creepy Orwellian slant of information appropriation and emotional manipulation, the loss of productivity and mental focus from years of constant interruptions takes a toll on society at large.
  • We sign an interminable series of EULAs, ToS’s and other lengthy legalese-ridden agreements just to access the now basic utilities that enable our lives. Experts refer to these as “contracts of adhesion” or “click-wrap,” as a way of connoting the “obvious lack of meaningful consent.” (Zuboff)
  • The “bubble effect” — the internet allows one to surround oneself completely with like-minded opinions and avoid ever being exposed to alternative points of view. This has existential implications for being able to inhabit a shared reality, as well as a deleterious effect on public discourse, civility, and the democratic process itself.
  • The extreme commercialization of almost all of our information sources is problematic, especially in the age of the “Milton Friedman-ification” of the economic world and the skewing of values away from communities and individuals, towards a myopic view of shareholder value and all the attendant perverse incentives that accompany this philosophical business shift over the past 50 years. He notes that the original public-spiritedness of new communication technologies has historically been co-opted by corporate lobbyists via regulatory capture — a subject Tim Wu explores in-depth in his excellent 2011 book, “The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires.

Is it all bleak, Don?! His answer is clear: “yes, maybe, no.” He demurs on positing a definitive answer to all of these issues, but he doesn’t really mince words about a “hunch” that it may in fact involve burning it all down and starting over again.

Pointing to evolution, Norman notes that we cannot eke radical innovation out of incremental changes — and that when radical change does happen it is often imposed unexpectedly from the outside in the form of catastrophic events. Perhaps if we can’t manage to Marie Kondo our way to a more joyful internet, we’ll have to pray for Armageddon soon…?! 😱

The New Deal –> Raw Deal

In the 1930s and 40s we had the New Deal. In 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, setting legal limits on the maximum number of hours worked and the minimum wages allowed.

Republicans fought it then, claiming it would be essentially socialist, and an economic enemy to business and growth. However, it was the very opposite of that — the war and post-ware years were ones of productivity and prosperity, widely and broadly. A strong middle class was formed, changing the life and culture of America forever.

In the mid-1970s this growth engine finally began to falter, and since the 80s, we’ve instead had the Raw Deal. An ever-escalating version of a Libertarian’s wet dream: deregulation of numerous industries including finance (leading to the housing crash of 2007-8) and energy (leading to Enron), a steadily less progressive tax system (down from a whopping 94% in 1944 down to 28% under Reagan), and endless waves of cuts to social programs designed to level the opportunity playing field.

The thing is, when people feel hopeful, they work harder.

When there is hopelessness, there is less urgency to work hard to maintain the conditions and systems that make one feel so hopeless. If you know the game is rigged, how futile does it seem to keep playing?

Libertarians lament about the size of the pie, which is as good a modern version of “let them eat cake” while the plebes swill McD’s and pay through the nose for health care as any.

Palmer Luckey and Peter Thiel: Welfare queens

Luckey and Thiel are a particularly toxic breed of billionaire welfare queen, who outwardly revile government with every chance they get while having both sucked at its teat to make their fortunes, and currently making a luxe living on taxpayer largesse.

Thiel’s Paypal and Facebook-induced riches rode the coattails of the DARPA-created internet, while Luckey had his an exit to internet giant Facebook. Now Thiel helms creepy-AF data mining company Palantir, whose tentacles are wrapped all the way around the intelligence community’s various agencies, while Luckey’s Thiel-funded new startup Anduril is bidding for lucrative defense contracts to build Trump’s border wall.

If we’re lucky, Luckey will create some sort of VR seasteading community that sucks them both right in and traps them in a sort of Libertarian Matrix forever.