While we feel things changing fast in our digital world, and there appears to be many new and easier ways to do things, we shouldn’t overlook those digital initiatives which were less successful – or meaningful – than their creators intended. Let me share a few examples of these:
A few years ago, our teenage daughter brought her best friend on holiday. Most evenings, the two of them sat at the same dinner table as us and spent happy hours taking photos of each other sticking their tongues out and sending them to each other via Snapchat.
Recently, a friend described how his teenage daughter had spent most of their family holiday together taking photos and posting them on Facebook. But she became distressed when she didn’t receive enough likes from her peer group. She could see they were online but didn’t find her photos worthy enough of a “like”.
I may be of Generation X but I’ve watched, in amazement, groups of digital natives sitting together, playing the same multiplayer game on their phones, but not actually talking to each other.
However, the world is changing. Millennials are now starting to explore “legacy” pursuits, and finding more enjoyment in playing cards or board-games offline (real-life) rather than online. There is an accompanying rise in vinyl record sales to that same demographic. Analogue is striking back! Is this because some digital platforms are too shallow compared to the richness of human interaction?
Some would argue that this change is driven by nostalgia for simpler times – and there is probably a significant truth in this. One of the most successful TV adverts in the UK was for sliced bread and shows a boy riding his bike along a cobbled street in Dorset to the local baker, sometime in the early 20th Century. Now, few people alive today actually experienced making that journey, but its appeal is a form of cultural nostalgia: an aspiration to revert to a way of life that is slower-paced and less frenetic than the world we live in today.
You may know that Google recently revamped its News product. It moved from a content rich page to one based around cards with far less content and oceans of white space – even for desktop and notebook browsers. This resulted in vehement objections from the online community. Why has Google done this, and not provided any way to switch back to the old format? A cynic might wonder if an advertising company could make use of all that whitespace at a later date. But perhaps another explanation is that the new site has been “over-engineered” from a UX perspective. In the same way that couture designers are under pressure to come up with something different for the Paris catwalk next season, are we starting to see change being made just for change’s sake?
We are at a juncture where technology is starting to fulfil (or even complete) its original intent to make our lives easier. There are countless examples of this, many delivered through mobile platforms. The next phase demands that technology is applied to make everything “smarter”, from smart homes, smart cars and smart cities to smart living. No doubt, some of these yet-to-be-realised smart initiatives are going to significantly change the way that humans exist. The promise is to make our lives easier, free up leisure time, and open up experiences to many that used to be the preserve of the few.
But this movement is also dictating the skills and vision that will be required by us, as engineers of that future state.
How can we ensure that proposed new initiatives and ways of living are positive and beneficial to us individually, as a society, and as a species? It can be argued that experimentation has always been part of natural evolution and progress, but some experimentation can have negative side effects. Is the current digital splurge really beneficial? Can our brains cope with handling the ever-increasing onslaught of new stimulation and online initiatives? How do we find out what is best? In the past, brand marketing heavily influenced our choices. But today much of what influences us is what our friends and peers are sharing directly and immediately. Is any of it any good or of any use?
The biggest challenge we all face is that of finding out quickly what to adopt and what not to adopt. How can someone know if a new initiative launched in one part of the world is of benefit to people in another part? Does WeChat offer more value and benefit than Facebook? With so many options, how much of our time are we going to squander on pursuits that are neither productive nor satisfying? With more choice comes the need to do more choosing. Choosing can consume too much time, cause stress and be downright exhausting.
One solution to all of this is to find a way to mandate building in automated feedback loops into all these technologies. Imagine a world where a global system automatically and continually ranks and rates smart digital platforms based on actual usage statistics (not surveyed opinion), and the utility, value and experience delivered. Unlike today’s systems that rely on a very small number (as a percentage of total users) of reviews – which can be manipulated – digital platforms could automatically capture how a user experiences them and how they feel about them, and share this transparently. A global system could inform and guide people on which digital platforms to use to suit their needs. This would create a fundamental change in the way the world works, with those companies who create the digital platforms the world runs on being compelled to constantly evolve them, something which Facebook, Google and Amazon are already having to do. A necessary by-product of such a system would be user support for switching from an old system to a new system, where the old system couldn’t evolve fast enough to keep up with the new one. We’re already seeing some of this being implemented in discrete areas, from well-known product and service review platforms, to regulatory initiatives to help people switch from one product or service to another (like changing energy/utility providers, or switching your bank account).
An obvious challenge we will face with the relentless pace of change of digital technology is our ability to master it and ensure that it is continually delivering the best outcomes for us. Technology that no longer serves a valid purpose will be killed off with increasing regularity and speed. Plus, some people continue to be resistant to change. The thought of an ever-evolving digital world is seen negatively by those who like to stick to what they know. Those people can be hard to convert if they don’t want to listen – even when change is going to deliver more benefit to them and “make their lives easier”.