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Technologies to help us find the meaning of life

Designer Sebastian Deterding (@dingstweets), a specialist in gamification, was recently invited by the MIT Media Lab’s Advancing well-being working group (video). It gave a very interesting reformulation of a presentation made a year ago on the well-being at the time of the new technologies, allowing to put a little perspective on the stakes of socio-technical systems which are ours - we will take this opportunity to remember his remarkable presentation at Lift 2012.

Why are we designing technologies to overwhelm us?

While technologies were supposed to free us, we feel more and more overwhelmed, overworked, the designer recalls. We are addicted to the distraction that technologies produce. We check on average 150 times a day our smartphone. We got into what the game designer and media theorist Ian Bogost called hyperwork: we spend our time managing the notifications of our technical systems, surfing the constant flow of solicitations that overwhelm us. We are surrounded by our dependencies and our only recourse is to be summoned to disconnect, to retreat, to better face them.

But, says Deterding, who builds these socio-technical systems in which we are struggling? The very ones who suffer from it. “The fundamental ethical contradiction that lies at the heart of the digital industry is that the people who suffer the most and organize against this digital acceleration are the same as those who benefit from it.” We are our own “time thieves” and are the first designers of these user experiences. We create addictive forms, these interfaces that reinforce our dependencies, as explained by Natasha Schüll.

Designers create what we do not want to do. And what people want to do has nothing to do with what these technical objects offer us, as the book by palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware put it very well on the main regrets people express before they die. We produce systems to waste our time or optimize it, but not systems to live on our own rather than live as others expect us to work less hard rather than to maximize our productivity, to have the courage to express our feelings, to keep in touch with our friends, to allow ourselves to be happier …

The technologies of autonomy instrumentalize us rather than help us find the “meaning of life”

For Deterding these findings should invite us to design technologies to behave better than for well-being. But again, the applications of self-measurement all seek to promote virtuous, responsible, autonomous behaviors … But these technologies that invite us to behave ourselves encourage us exclusively to be more in control of ourselves, to be ultimately more motivated, more productive in a game of life that is defined by others. For Deterding, they instrumentalise our well-being. As Michel Foucault has already pointed out, self-technologies are nothing more than technologies of domination and social control.

To escape this instrumentation, we must rest the question of the meaning of life, says Deterding referring to the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle, which consists of seeking a deep happiness, eudemonism, bliss, good -be or rather the “good life” to refer to the buen vivir. This requires virtues: develop skills, practices, ability to act deliberately, consciously, for one’s own good and for the common good …

Technology by inviting us to avoid friction, to respond immediately to the least of our impulses, does not invite us to wisdom. To achieve this, we need to design technologies differently. Designing technologies that invite us to act deliberately and not just because they encourage us, as a playful system can do, “he explains, referring to the experience of journalist Matthew Shear, who for a week had gamified his existence to be a better companion, earning points when he did the dishes or complimenting his girlfriend. “Doing things because we are encouraged or because we hear it is very different,” insists the game systems designer with insight. When we act without thinking, without intentions, just driven by incentives and punishments, by pleasure or pain, we can not transcend ourselves. Reflexive approval consists of understanding how we escape instrumentalization.

When you reinforce discipline, the revolution can only happen! hum!

Most good behavior technologies only help to replicate social systems that reproduce the problems they are trying to solve: obesity, sedentary life or global warming, for example. “Their big overall story is to say that everything is the fault of the individual.” If we only ate a little better, if we drove in a more responsible way, everything would be better! These technologies give us all the same storytelling: when we reinforce the discipline, the revolution can only happen. This is not a new story, says Deterding with mischief. It was that of Maoist propaganda. When the plan is flawless, the system is flawless. “If the” Big Leap Forward “failed and killed millions of people, it’s because the plan was flawed because people did not make enough effort.”

“The problem is that each time we highlight something, we hide another. When we base the problem on individuals (through applications that drive them to behave), we divert attention and energy from systemic solutions. “So, for environmental psychologist John Thogersen, motivate small green gestures is a lullaby that makes us feel good while distracting ourselves from the collective political action needed to respond to global warming. However, sorting our waste for example only amounts to acting on a tiny part of total waste production (in the United States, household waste represents only 3% of waste).

To care about intention rather than behavior, more attention than habit

For Deterding, we need to rediscover the true technologies of well-being. In the image of fasting, which urges us to be more independent of the immediate contingencies of our body to better appreciate what eating brings. In the image of retirement, which allows us to take a step back on our way of living in everyday life. In the image of meditation, prayer, reading or spiritual dialogue that invite us to reflect on our role in life. In the image of the Vanities, these Memento mori, these images that remind us of our own finitude. Like Shabbat, holidays or commemorations to put work and daily productivity in perspective for the benefit of the community and another relationship to others … This does not mean that we must return to religious the researcher says, but religion in our cultures has been where wellness technologies have been developed and refined over the centuries.

These re-minders, these reminder technologies, are fundamental. They slow us down. They create breaks rather than “seamless”. They interrupt us and create friction. They offer scarcity and constraints rather than abundance. They care about intention rather than behavior, attention rather than habit. “Instead of improving our means of execution, they create a space where we can ask ourselves why we do what we do?”

For Deterding, that’s what we should be trying to translate into design, into design: doing a “positive design” job. Some designers are already interested of course, he recalls. In 2011, the artist Marc Hassenzahl already explained that with an aesthetic of convenience, we can not inspire change. For that, you need an aesthetic of friction, like the chocolate machine: a device that delivers each hour a small chocolate ball on your desk that you can nibble or put back in the machine that counts the number of times where you resisted temptation. The chocolate machine engages you in a dialogue with yourself, with what you consider important and which is supposed to help you develop your will. It also refers to SeeYourFolks, a site that estimates by age of your parents, country of residence, average life expectancy and the number of times you see them each year, the number of times go see them before they die. It still evokes the small tasks of the designer Hans Ruitenberg who invites you to formulate and print a goal and to fix it to a keychain for example, so that your daily actions remind you until you realized it. As a reminder for the things that are important to you, allowing you to open a small space for reflection and reminder. Deterding evokes many other small tools of this style, such as Fred Stutzman’s Freedom software that allows you to cut off your Internet connection over predefined time periods to regain control of what distracts us. Blokket, the little pouch imagined by the design agency The Way we see the world, which allows you to block your phone to restore attention to what is important, through a voluntary ritual. It also evokes the game designer Chris Crawford who has equipped him with glass balls and jars. Each morning, he takes a glass bead (each represents a day) and places it in a container (which contains 365). A device that invites him not to live more efficiently, but to live consciously of the time that passes so that his choices are as judicious as possible over time.

If design materializes morality, then how to make it more ethical?

These examples are interesting, of course. But these forms of disconnection or cognitive hack may not be sufficient or lasting answers. “Designers can not spend their time designing devices that disconnect us! So how to integrate ethics into the design of user experiences? “

Deterding has no answer. We live in a plural society, he recalls. The values ​​of some are not those of others. For Deterding, just as we invite maieutics, we must first ask questions that will clarify for each one what is the ethics of the design of the user experience. And the designer to scratch some of them. “What are your design intentions? For Adam Greenfield, the Achilles’ heel of the internet age is based on the over-solicitation of the treatments we are subjected to that constantly demand our attention. Most of the technical tools we use are built to waste our time. Deterding mentions Ultrinsic, a tool that proposed using monetary incentives to encourage students to learn. If the tool seemed harmless, the researcher recalls that research shows rather that rewards are more likely to demotivate us than to empower us. “Growing up in an environment that only works by punishment and reward takes away our ability to act autonomously so we have to worry about incentives and results. In the end, it lowers our psychosocial well-being. ” Whenever we resort to rewards of this type, we grow and nurture tendencies that are not good for us …

For Deterding, we must ask ourselves the short and long-term question of the effects of what we conceive. “What vision do the systems you design offer” good life “? In the age of ubiquitous computing and the internet of things, the role of designers is becoming ubiquitous, but “we focus only on the tip of the iceberg, the demands of our customers rather than those of our customers. users, on the desires and urges of the users rather than on their enduring needs, on the richest and most educated part of the users rather than on all the others “… We seek more often to relieve the symptoms than to treat the causes to theirs. root. As the philosopher Peter-Paul Verbeek explains in his book on moralizing technologies, designers do nothing but materialize morality. So the question is whether the way in which they materialize it corresponds to what they really wanted to conceive? “What do you want to use your time? “

Written on May 23, 2018.