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…?! 😱