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…?! 😱

Anger is the defining emotion of the internet

The internet is a rage machine.

It’s designed to whip you up into a frenzy in order to foment cheap pageviews. Its interest is in you becoming a histrionic attention whore, such that you suck in as much clandestinely stolen user data to your platform of choice as possible.

Anger is also notably the “loophole” emotion — it’s the invisible one men get to have, while claiming for generations upon generations that “women are too emotional to be entrusted” with leadership or anything meaningful, really. Meanwhile male anger and aggression have killed hundreds of millions and wreaked destruction upon the earth many times over, as fragile masculinity is repeatably and predictably triggered over any little old thing.

A neat trick.

A story.

A lie.

We crave the sacred

… some pure, holy, unchanging thing. A perfect, Platonic form.

But there is nothing unchanging. And religion is overall fading — except at the edges; the extremes.

We want desperately to believe in something. This can make us vulnerable to hucksters, tricksters, deceivers, and all kinds of charms and fakery. The modern life condition exacerbates this, with its fractious social isolationism, vapid consumerism, and erosion of community.

May I suggest that we could find solace by cultivating belief in ourselves, and in each other? Be critical when warranted, but beat back this terrible cynicism that engulfs public discourse, filling it with day to day ennui. We don’t have to be at each other’s throats.

Emotional Worldview: Are you an Internalizer or an Externalizer?

Considering your thought patterns and style of interacting with the world, which set of personality traits seems to characterize you more:

InternalizerExternalizer
Believe it’s up to you to change things Expect others to do it for you
Mentally active; love to learn things Impulsive and reactive; take action before thinking about things, to blow off anxiety quickly
Self-reflective; learn from mistakes Avoid self-reflection; rarely use mistakes to learn how to do better next time
Solve problems from the inside out Assign blame to others; believe if others would only give you what you want, your problems would be solved
Sensitive; try to understand cause and effect Insensitive; prefer to forget and move on
See life as opportunity for self-development Firmly attached to the idea that things in the outside world need to change
Work hard to cope with reality Struggle against reality, often by attempting to avoid it
Instinctively take responsibility for solving problems on your own Feel that competent people owe you help; depend on external soothing
Feel guilty when displeasing others Fear being cut off from external sources of security
Can suffer from imposter syndrome Can have low self-confidence and/or a sense of inflated superiority
Can be overly self-sacrificing Overly dependent on others for support and stability

While striking a healthier balance is important for both personality styles, extreme externalizers have it worse than extreme internalizers. The Internalizers’ use of self-reflection promotes psychological growth, while the Externalizers’ staunch refusal to self-examine creates a vicious cycle of self-defeating behaviors and thought patterns.

An extremely Externalizing worldview has the power to stunt psychological and emotional growth, and is often a hallmark of emotionally immature individuals.

Let’s look around us and see if we can spot any examples of emotional immaturity in American culture: in our leaders, in celebrities, in the rich, powerful, and theoretically Most Successful individuals in our society. Seen through the lens of Externalization, do some of their behaviors and statements seem to make more coherent sense?

Emotional immaturity is the core problem we face in American culture

We spend a lot of time spitballing about whether the Misbehaving Elites deserve clinical diagnoses as a way of explaining the frequently callous, antisocial nature of their words and actions (there are even professional advocates in favor of lifting the Goldwater Rule inhibiting diagnoses “from afar”), but the fact is — as with intimate romantic relationships — it’s dangerous to sit around and wait for a professional diagnosis that is unlikely to be forthcoming. We don’t need an expert opinion to inform us about how their actions make us feel. We don’t need to defer to any central authority to determine if the outcome of their actions is damaging, or morally inappropriate.

We have the tools of evaluation already in our possession, each and every one of us. Whether behavior can be construed as pathological or within the ever-shifting spectrum of cultural normality (a sort of social psychological version of the Overton window), we can evaluate its effects on our psyche, our moral compass, and — as best we can — its objectively measured effects on the world.

Emotionally immature acts are net destructive (although they may greatly benefit the actor, particularly in the short term). They are the hallmark of the “easy way out,” the lazy “I shouldn’t have to lift a finger” worldview, the “effort is for other people” belief system, the EZ button mentality.

In a culture no longer wholly preoccupied with meeting basic material needs, we remain curiously obsessed with materialism, external validations of success, and hoarding wealth. Meanwhile, we completely devalue our emotional and psychological lives, inner states, self-reflection, and all the “icky, squishy” stuff of human nature — interactions that are not transactions, that cannot be measured, traded, or indexed, that are not profitable to someone, are predominantly seen as worthless. We are told that we need to become “more efficient,” which is techno-utopian speak for “able to generate more profit for America’s economic winners” who already have far more than any person legitimately needs, yet still feel curiously empty and unfilfilled (i.e. the Utility Monsters).

If we do not check this tendency; if we do not put a stop to the relentless devaluation and eradication of our inner lives; if we continue to look the other way while EZ buttons are continuously offered and implemented in lieu of deep effort — then it is probable that the inexorable march of capital’s power will continue to squeeze out anything truly sacred, altruistic, whimsical, unprofitable, and non-transactional in the world. Certainly most of our dystopias have imagined this possibility.

Reclaiming emotional maturity as a value

Emotionally immature Externalizers impulsively act out to distract themselves from their immediate problems, instead of working to solve them. Does this feel at all familiar? Does the grand political game of Kick The Can feel perilously like the kind of group denial that snowballs into much larger problems down the line?

Yes, it does. And we Internalizers should stop feeling guilty and uncertain about calling out examples of emotional immaturity when we see them — for fear of lacking a diagnosis, power, authority, social support, or other inhibition thanks to our perhaps overly-developed good nature.

We should call it like it is: there are a frightening number of Adult-Shaped Children in positions of power. And when the de facto leader of the free world has a finger on the most powerful nuclear EZ button of all, emotional immaturity has swiftly become the greatest, most urgent threat to humanity in our time.

Inspired by…

I’m surprised the internalizer / externalizer framework does not seem to be more widely known, as it feels very descriptive of much of what ails us here in modern society. I got it from this most excellent book, that’s a great one to read in general if you think you might have grown up in — or are growing up in — an emotional immature household and want to know more about what “side effects” that may have produced:

British filmmaker Adam Curtis explains what’s going on

The creator of the also excellent Century of the Self film series released his latest film in October, 2016. Dubbed HyperNormalisation, it offers both a history lesson of the complicated relationship between the West, the Middle East, and Russia, as well as an unflinching look at the roles played by technology, surveillance, and the media on our modern condition of general confusion, destabilization, and surrealism.