How to shape our digital revolution

Why are we always having a debate about whether technological change is a good or bad thing? Rather than a debate about how to make sure that technological change is change we want?

That’s what I was left thinking after reading a couple of recent interesting posts on the topic of change. Ed Booty’s excellent BBH labs post took a skeptical look at the data behind consumers true adoption of digital technology. He also referenced this great post by Matt Edgar on our perception of the rate of change.

There was much to enjoy and agree with, and in the face of often evangelical enthusiasm for all things digital it is great to hear well reasoned skeptical and enquiring points of view. In particular I found a lot to agree with in Edgar’s view that we are far from unique as a generation to believe our era is experiencing exceptional change compared to the past.

However I can’t help but think this is the just totally the wrong debate to be having. It seems pretty irrelevant to me to argue about whether digital technology is changing our world or how fast. Digital technology already has changed our world and whether the revolution we are experiencing the start of will be fast or slow in coming, it IS coming and quite likely in our lifetime.

Leonardo Da Vinci's designs for an Archimedes screw

So instead I wish there was more debate about how to shape the revolution. How to make sure that we are designing and using technology so that it amplifies the best of human nature. This isn’t just some intellectual exercise either. On a daily basis we have the ability to shape the future of the internet with the products and platforms we recommend building for our clients. Do we build a closed proprietary mobile app with a flawless user experience that reinforces the dominance of a few corporations ecosystems? Or do we try to create something more open and accessible that attempts to fit technology around human behaviour rather than rely on humans changing their behaviour to suit technology? Douglas Rushkoff in his excellent book Program or be Programmed identifies 10 commands for living in the digital age, ways to think about your personal relationship with the world and with digital technology.

So if those are the guiding principles for your personal life, what are the guiding principles for your professional life? How should we build things on the internet? What principles should we live by as we go about our work for clients?

If you stop and think about it for a minute, the dominant position of mobile apps these days is mental. I can’t help but think that if more web publishers had innovated like the Boston Globe or the FT to produce a fantastic user experience on the web, we would feel less compelled to download an app, which requires me to jump through certain hoops (user account, downloading etc) and ultimately narrows my diet of content by keeping me in a walled garden.

So here are some thoughts about the things we could debate, that have been inspired by some recent articles with a variety of interesting points of view.

1. Open

When you write an iPhone app for a brand you are writing for the few and not for the many. On my train line into London you can download an iPhone app – as fine a piece of social exclusion as any I can think of for the thousands who use this public service but don’t have iPhones. In contrast a simple HTML page with the same content would be accessible to pretty much anyone with an internet connection. Of course often it is right to create an app to deliver a specific type of functionality or experience, but the internet’s revolutionary potential is that it can put power in the hands of ordinary people through the open web . And I think it would be a great shame if that potential wasn’t realised because of an obsession with creating slick user experiences and beautiful design.

I thought this point of view on the role of design in keeping the net open and accessible was an interesting one. Are we really designing for users or to satisfy our own egos as creative people? As a final note obviously the subject of net neutrality has some relevance here, it feels a dangerous slippery slope to me to give a policing role to service providers. Today’s well meaning prohibition can easily become tomorrow’s politically and ideologically motivated censorship.

2. Human centric

A key challenge with digital technologies is that they are new and mean a user has to some extent learn some new skills or adopt new behaviours. However I think we could work much harder to understand underlying human nature and create things that play to the strengths of human nature and amplify the behaviours that society values. Creating products that are ergonomic and delightful for the user to fit into their lives because they are based on real fulfilling needs. So we should stop thinking about what our clients need from consumers and rather think what our customers need from our clients and build accordingly.

3. Diverse

The open, human-centric web should allow people to express themselves freely within the framework of society and without fear of persecution. This was brilliantly argued for in this post by 4chan’s Chris Poole about user identity online. I think it is important for people to be able to express different facets of personality.

We out also be cautious that the way we organise our information sources doesn’t trap us in Eli Pariser’s filter bubble http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/jun/12/google-personalisation-internet-data-filtering?CMP=twt_gu where our preferences and browsing history inform the content served to us dooming us to never see anything surprising challenging or different. Services that simply serve up what we already like exacerbate what F.S. Michael’s calls the monoculture http://theschooloflife.typepad.com/the_school_of_life/2011/09/fs-michaels-on-monoculture-and-the-stories-that-shape-us.html which is further compounded by things like frictionless sharing and limits our ability to think creatively and imaginatively.

So how can we create services that are expansive and diverse and allow people to make new discoveries and develop their own understanding of themesleves?

4. Collaborative

We also need to draw the distinction between participating in a community of like minded people and truly collaborating and cooperating with people different from me with different skills and opinions. The latter is what made possible the explosion in innovation at Bell Labs in the second half of the 20th century. The web makes such collaboration possible across geographies and time zones. But all too often we are drawn into communities of interest; like minded people who reinforce our own world view and give us props and retweets and +1 ‘s but don’t challenge us to develop and defend our opinions or see things differently.

We need an emphasis on good community behaviours like how to engage in debate and rational argument without descending into rhetoric, propaganda and abuse. I found this celebration of the central role of the scientific method (Fourth answer down) to progress a pretty good argument for that.

Could we aim to help our clients take a more active principled based approach to community management? Not just focusing on eradicating the usual top down bad behaviour from brands (deleting posts, boring, broadcast style content etc) but also trying to actively manage the community to encourage authentic debate, sharing and cooperation rather than just empty promotionally-motivated “likes”. This is a specialist skill, rarely found in agencies or client orgs.

5. Value based

It’s really important to create value for all stakeholders rather than just look to create wealth for shareholders. The expectations market dominates our economic system and we have the opportunity to reduce our reliance on it if we create things for our clients that are of value to all those who have a stake. Customers, employees, community and shareholders alike.

To know we are creating true value though we need to make sure we don’t simply rely on vanity metrics to give us the feeling that things are working and are ok. We need to make sure we are measuring the impact of our activities on actual perceptions and behaviour.

6. Expressive

I found this point of view particularly inspiring- In a world where consuming, liking, commenting, retweeting and sharing is getting easier and easier you can quickly fill up your days only doing that and never experience the satisfaction of making or be forced to confront your own point of view if you don’t have to express it through creativity. We are uniquely able to be creative with the tools we have at our finger tips. The only barrier is the age-old one of how we choose to spend our time.

For me brand’s role here is to invite, stimulate and reward true expression and creativity over the usual shallow participation usually thinly veneered over most marketing campaigns. Instead of thinking about what content the brand wants to “co create”, brands could think about what content consumers might find interesting, energising and illuminating to create around a topic relevant to the brands strategy. That way everyone wins, the brand, the creator and the rest of the community.

So there we go there are my five guiding principles for building digital technology to avoid both the Skynet and Mad Max dystopias of BBH Labs SxSWi talk.

Open, human centric, collaborative, diverse, value based and expressive.

What do you think? Are these the right kinds of things to be debating and discussing? Do you feel that we have the chance to shape things? I would love to have that conversation.

One thought on “How to shape our digital revolution

  1. Pingback: The top 5 opportunities and threats for creative agencies posed by technological change | williamnicholls.com

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