We call rapid proliferation on the internet “going viral” for a reason: Ideas spread online exponentially, like viruses. Where viruses hijack our biology, viral memes hijack our minds. In both cases, problems arise when we can’t adapt quickly enough. Our systems get overwhelmed by the flood and eventually, we get sick.
As social, mobile, and other technologies go viral, core pillars of our society are crumbling. Big tech platforms have opened the back door to a billion minds with only one true goal: profit. It’s the perfect recipe for unintended consequences. The clearest example of this started in 2003, when a lonely Harvard student tried to engineer his way out of loneliness; just over a decade later, Facebook started accidentally breaking democratic elections. This is getting serious.
From social media to online shopping, from gaming to porn, there is a striking pattern in the emerging technologies we use the most: They simplify reality into comfortable illusions. It doesn’t seem to be a coordinated move by the tech giants. It’s just that technologies and businesses get traction when they simplify our lives, and they get even more traction when they oversimplify our lives.
Once you start to see this, you’ll see why it wreaks havoc on people’s minds: Reality isn’t simple. It’s complex and messy. Life is full of uncertainty so naturally we’re eager to flock to media where everything makes perfect sense in neat, rounded rectangles. It’s the reductionist blender. Take my life, break it into parts, and present it back to me as a comfortable illusion. It’s hard not to buy in, even when a part of me knows it isn’t real.
There is a striking pattern in the emerging technologies we use the most: They simplify reality into comfortable illusions.
Everything’s becoming a popularity contest, but who’s winning? We use social networks to cut the mystery and unpredictability from our relationships. We search for answers using personalized echo chambers that ensure we hear what we want to hear. Modern news media suck the nuance out of today’s issues and present us with a black-or-white perspective on everything.
And it’s all free! Except, it’s not. We buy into these oversimplified illusions of reality because they are more comfortable than the truth. Curated relationships, editable identities, sexual pleasure on demand, and a society where everyone agrees with you. It’s a utopian dream … but what happens when you wake up?
When a reductionist illusion collides with reality, we hurt. We’ve sold each other so hard on this nonsense that we’re struggling to connect with daily life, where we rarely get constant stimulation or perfect control. Instead, we have to do things like wait for the bus. And change diapers. And talk to people without being able to edit our messages after sending.
We’re losing the ability to build fulfilling relationships. We can’t find common ground with people we disagree with. Truth is arguable, and face-to-face conversations feel risky. Mental health issues are growing severe and young people are committing more self-harm than ever. We’re spending all our time with our heads in the cloud and it’s eroding our attention and sapping our ability to stay present.
As we get used to an oversimplified digital life, our capacity to face the real world is disintegrating. When you’re designing a website to book airline tickets, the simpler the better. But when your platform simplifies a basic human need like social connection, or a democratic foundation like news, you need to be careful.
As a species, our superpower is clear: We cooperate and build on each other’s ideas in a way that no other species can. We transform the world for good and bad. And in turn, we transform ourselves. We’ve used this superpower to create near-telepathic communication networks. Satellites guide our walk to the coffee shop. Artists create world-class films, music, and video games from their laptops. We live in the science fiction of generations past.
But there’s a cost. We’ve unleashed dangerous oversimplifications of our humanity, and they’re spreading like viruses. They disrupt so many layers of our being, from our mental health, to our identities, to our relationships and our politics. We need a tribe of designers who are ready to step up and help lead the immune response. We need designers who care.
Those of us who resist the rise of manipulative technologies, invasive advertising, and manufactured outrage call ourselves attention activists. Our tools are ethical design, science, advocacy, education, and mindfulness (look beyond the new-age fad and you’ll see the connection). Our goal isn’t to groan about evil tech villains and their profit-hungry plans to brainwash us. It’s easy to point fingers but this is less about evil and more about unintended consequences.
Capitalist organizations are built to follow the money — so why wouldn’t tech giants exploit our animal instincts for profit? Much of today’s economy is built on capturing attention and there’s no better path than through our biological urges. We can complain about symptoms all day but we need to take responsibility for addressing root causes.
We’ve unleashed dangerous oversimplifications of our humanity, and they’re spreading like viruses.
I work in UX. People in my field are responsible for a lot of the execution on this problem. I consider myself a “human-centered” designer, but this term has been co-opted. Human-centered design should be about treating people well, addressing their deepest values, and prioritizing their goals over those of our organizations. There’s nothing human-centered about empathizing with people so we can hook them. That’s exploitation.
Designers are in demand. But let’s face it, most of that demand is from organizations who are not incentivized to care about people unless they’re using or consuming. I believe our job as designers is to care anyway. Until we redesign the selfish incentives that drive our organizations, it’s up to each of us to reflect on why we’re doing what we’re doing. I’ve been trying to stay off that golden treadmill for a decade now and let me tell you: Integrity comes from bringing clear intention to your work. Only when you’re ready to sacrifice can you lead organizations to do the same. Leadership is authenticity.
Start by understanding yourself. That might mean taking up a reflective practice, or drawing up a mission and vision for your career. Why did you get into this? What change are you hoping to see in the world? What lines won’t you cross, no matter how much they’re paying?
If you’re getting frustrated with incessant ads and constant notifications, read up on the attention economy. If you’re terrified about the implications of AI, dive deep into ethics. Or if you’re concerned about climate change, become your team’s internal advocate for eco-friendly manufacturing and materials. Clarify your values, and don’t hesitate to bring them into everything you do.
Whether you’re working with a team or starting a new one, be bold. Redefine what success means and set an example for the next generation. Stand up for choices that respect the people you serve, even if they don’t tie directly to your KPIs or OKRs or WTVs. Better yet, demand to include at least one truly human-centered objective in your quarterly plan. Research your audience’s deepest motivations and aspirations. Hold design workshops exploring how to better address people as holistic human beings, not merely as “users.” Remember, getting more people to swipe right on your dating app is not the same thing as helping them find fulfilling romance in their lives.
It’s up to each of us to reflect on why we’re doing what we’re doing.
Figure out when you can afford to say no, even when there’s money on the table. Put care into your work. Help usher in the transition from unintended consequences to intentional leadership, no matter where you are in the hierarchy. It’s time to take responsibility for the experiences you create and who you create them for.
The Dalai Lama recently wrote to Greta Thunberg: “If we have the capacity to destroy the earth, so, too, do we have the capacity to protect it.”
Looking at the technology around us, we clearly know how to surpass inconceivable limitations and make magic. Yet we’re stuck on digital fictions because they simplify the world, making us feel temporarily famous, influential, attractive, and successful. Faking it isn’t going to end well. We thirst for more than a screen can provide, for things like meaning, kindness, and love. Why not aim to make the most beautiful aspects of humanity go viral? Let’s design experiences that help people become who they’re truly hoping to be.